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Young, Hip and Well Heeled

The Irony Tower: Soviet Artists in a Time of Glasnost, by Andrew Solomon. New York: Knopf, 1991.

by Harlow Robinson

… Nowhere, perhaps, has the cultural revolution exploded more vividly or forcefully than in the realm of the visual arts. As Andrew Solomon documents in The Irony Tower, a timely, perceptive and highly entertaining combination of art criticism, social analysis and personal revelation, times have not merely changed for long-suffering Soviet painters and sculptors since Mikhail S. Gorbachev came to power in early 1985; they have accelerated beyond all comprehension.

The familiar, and oddly comfortable, world of oppression, isolation and dangerous dissidence that had determined every aspect of the artist’s existence for the last 50 years has been dismantled, shattered into tiny pieces. One of Mr. Solomon’s main achievements is to make us realize that no one really knows just how — or whether — the pieces will be put back together.

Western (especially American) observers have tended to assume that the recent infusion of freedom and capitalism into the Soviet cultural scene is an absolute good for both artists and audiences. To Mr. Solomon’s credit, he realizes that glasnost also presents Soviet artists (and writers, musicians, dancers, theater and film people) with complexities and dangers. They have, of course, gained many things: the right to greater personal choice, artistic self-expression, travel and economic independence. But they have also lost a certain emotional and cultural security. Having suddenly become producers of commodities with fluctuating and temporarily inflated value on the Western market, courted by dealers and flattered by buyers, “unofficial” artists have sacrificed something essential: their traditional role in Russian society as martyrs and holy fools, indifferent to money and conventional success. All this has led to the intense identity crisis that is the subject of The Irony Tower.

“The problem with our art history is that we have been preparing ourselves to be not great artists, but angels,” Nikita Alekseyev, a one-time member of the “Seminar” — a group of artists who met regularly for readings and discussion — who left the Soviet Union in 1987 and now lives in Paris, told Mr. Solomon. “We have been outside the ordinary idiom of art. And unfortunately, things have changed so that everyone has become an artist. … It was religious history, and now it’s art history. And that’s why there is all this confusion.”

The confusion became news at the Sotheby’s sale of contemporary and avant-garde Soviet art held in Moscow in July 1988. Mr. Solomon, a London-based American freelance journalist, covered the auction for a British magazine, and … describes the Sotheby’s sale and its aftermath with wit and psychological insight. Subsequent chapters on the history of the Soviet avant-garde, and accounts of some of the artists’ misadventures abroad — including a hilariously trendy exhibition and concert in Liverpool that exemplified the inability of Western promoters to fathom the artists’ ironic humor — are discerning and well researched. Excerpts from interviews (with, among others, such artists as Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulatov, Andrei Monastyrsky, Ira Nakhova, Sven Gundlakh, Kostya Zvezdochetov, Sergei Anufriyev and Timur Novikov) illuminate major stylistic trends and preoccupations; the influence of early Soviet avant-garde artists like Malevich; attitudes toward the Western art world; and the striking differences between the Leningrad and Moscow scenes. (Mr. Solomon clearly prefers the Moscow artists’ more philosophical world view, and rather too easily dismisses their Leningrad colleagues as lightweight, self-indulgent products of a beautiful, decadent city where “it is very, very important to be cool.”)

… What makes The Irony Tower special is not just its wealth of new and fascinating material, or even the lively intelligence of the analysis. It is Mr. Solomon’s deep compassion for these artists — his passionate involvement in their lives — that grabs and holds the reader. He has not merely observed the events and changes he describes. He has participated in them, eating and sleeping with the artists in Soviet squalor and capitalist splendor, joining in their ironic jokes and endless gossip, sharing their bad brandy and vodka.

While such intimacy can rob a writer of essential distance and objectivity, Mr. Solomon seems to have risen above the intensity of his experience without losing its immediacy or color. Even more, in following the artists’ journey from dissident obscurity to uneasy Western fame, he has made his own parallel odyssey: from the idea of art as salable commodity to an appreciation of its enviable spiritual power in Soviet life. In discovering these “angels” and their disrupted heaven, he has also discovered himself.

(To read the full review, please visit the New York Times.)