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Art: Through the Ironic Curtain

5 minute read
Robert Hughes

In SoHo, two Soviet dissidents jape the awfulness of court artists

Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili (1879-1953) lives again! Pink, incorruptible and smelling only a little of mold, the Maximum Leader and Supreme Baby Kisser of the Soviet Peoples has come back to greet us. Who would ever have supposed that the most immediately memorable show in New York City’s SoHo, at the start of the 1982 art season, would be a gallery full of mock Stalinist socialist realism, done in the correct borsch-and-gravy colors of official Soviet art 30 years ago? But there is nothing that pluralism will not give us; and so it is with the exhibition by Vitaly Komar (a name that, in Russian, means “mosquito”) and Alexander Melamid, which grandly fills the Ronald Feldman Gallery all this month.

Komar, 39, and Melamid, 37, henceforth denoted as K & M, are both “dissident” Russian artists, who started exhibiting their peculiar team form of Pop conceptual art in the U.S.S.R. in 1972; in the fall of 1974, they took part in the still notorious “unofficial” art show on a vacant lot in Belijaevo, a suburb of Moscow, which was flattened by police bulldozers. Soon after that, they were able to arrange their departure for the U.S.A., where all art is ipso facto harmless. Do you long for the days when the old left was new? Then head for K & M, who will fix you up. This is the most paralyzingly funny exhibition to be seen in New York in quite a while, which unfortunately is not saying much, given the low quotient of wit in the American art world.

In essence, K & M’s work is of the same kidney as Alexander Zinoviev’s The Yawning Heights: a prolonged satire that is bureaucratically realistic; a machine that recycles its own absurdity; above all, a meditation on the entropy of rhetoric, the way cliches wear down and finally deflate one another. K & M’s work is obliged to resemble what they poke fun at: anyone can caricature an official Russian political picture, but only Russians can do it effectively. This involves a steady sequence of double takes: Just how serious are these guys, anyway? One can imagine some good apparatchik responding without irony to K&M’s appalling View of the Kremlin in a Romantic Landscape, its gold onion domes and pink ramparts and red star floating on a sea like the isle of Cythera itself, framed by a “classical” Poussinesque clutter of arching trees, fallen columns and pediments and other bric-a-brac. It has the deeply sincere vulgarity of a holy card: an alliance between Alexander Gerasimov, Stalin’s favorite artist, and Walt Disney.

Perhaps other Russian painters, unknown to the West, are busy boring and clicking like so many deathwatch beetles within the facade of idealist kitsch known as Soviet socialist realism. But it is hard to see how they could ruin it more thoroughly. K & M’s paintings are not merely banal, but excruciatingly so, oily and inert, varnished so heavily that three-quarters of the surface is glare; the eye gropes for the cliches that lie embedded in them. The accretion becomes a kind of conceptual art, holding everything in quotation marks.

Sometimes a weird sort of yearning intrudes. As a child, Melamid lived on the Moscow street that Stalin’s staff car reputedly took on its way from the Kremlin to his country dacha: If you look carefully, his elders told him, you might see him in the back of the car. Melamid never did, but a yearning for the ogre is commemorated in I Saw Stalin Once When I Was a Child: the red curtain in the rear window slides back, revealing the fleshy nose, the twinkling eye of the Dreadful Father. “To us,” Melamid points out, “Stalin is a mythical figure. We are not trying to do a political show. This is nostalgia.”

Well, up to a point. To suppose the work is only a satire on an obsolete propagandist style is to miss its deadlier thrust. What K & M are getting at is not just totalitarian art, but official art as such. Stalin and the Muses—showing Clio, muse of history, presenting a volume for revision to the mustachioed god in his transcendent white military greatcoat—is “objectively” a hilarious spoof, done in clumsily tight parody of the 17th century grand manner. But then, if these sleek pictorial tropes are I so absurd when lavished on Stalin, why should they be any less so when used on Louis XIV, Peter the Great or Sany other enlightened despot?

Seldom has a tyrant been so absolute or cruel that he could not find some major artist, a Rubens or a Titian, a Velasquez or a Bernini, to fawn on him for a suitable fee. It is the nature of carnivores to get power, at which point, having disposed of their enemies, they deploy the emollient powers of Great Art to make them look like herbivores. Stalinist socialist realism was merely the end of this process, carried out by hacks. After it, the more intelligent of the Beloved Leaders would want radio and TV, not painting, to be their cosmeticians. We must thank Melamid and Komar for reminding us what towering heights of awfulness the great lost tradition could reach in pre-electronic days. —By Robert Hughes

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