by Tatiana Istomina
December 21st, 2016
The political and cultural lethargy of the late Soviet Union gave rise to the Moscow Conceptualists, whose work today offers unexpected insights for our tempestuous times.
NEW BRUNSWICK, New Jersey—Thinking Picturesat the Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers University presents a broad selection of Moscow Conceptualist artworks from the famous Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of the Soviet Nonconformist Art. The generous, tightly packed show curated by Jane A. Sharp features artworks by more than 40 individual artists and artist collectives; most of these works date from the 1960s through the ‘80s. The long-overdue exhibition is the first major presentation of Moscow Conceptualism in the United States since the influential traveling exhibition Perspectives of Conceptualism which introduced Soviet Nonconformist art to American audiences in 1991. The 25 years separating the two exhibitions have brought about drastic political, social, and technological changes: from the official dissolution of the Soviet Union and the emergence of Putin’s authoritarian rule in post-Soviet Russia, to the rise of the internet and social media, the escalation of international terrorism, and the recent upsurge of populism in Europe and the United States. The political and cultural lethargy of the late Soviet Union, which generated the small underground art movement of Moscow Conceptualism, has little in common with the troubled condition of today’s America. But, surprisingly, many of the works in Thinking Pictures seem to resonate with our present-day reality, and some of them appear to have acquired new meanings, offering unexpected insights for our tempestuous times.
The entrance to the exhibition includes an odd assortment of objects, which, playing into Moscow Conceptualism’s general concern with language, communication, and the construction of meaning, function as a puzzle waiting to be deciphered. Indeed, all the artworks point to the ways in which human perception and beliefs are shaped by social, cultural, and ideological norms. Works by Leonid Sokolov, like a pair of wooden glasses with five-pointed stars cut into their “lenses” (“Project to Construct Glasses for Every Soviet Citizen,” 1976), allude to the powerful influences of the Communist and Modernist ideologies. A small painting by Komar and Melamid
showing a man’s feet illuminated by the rising sun (“Forward to the Sun,” 1972) is a blunt exposition of visual and linguistic formulas of the Soviet ideological discourse, which included expressions such as “the sun of Communism.” A 1975 piece by Alexander Kosolapov
adopts the standard iconography of agitprop signs, which crowded the public spaces of the Soviet Union with ritualistic appeals, orders, and exhortations; he subverts this ideological tool with a seditiously innocuous message: “Sashok! Would you like some tea?” And Yuri Albert’s 1989 painting, covered with Braille code and titled “Visual Culture Number 2: There is nothing to see in my works but my love for art,” is a self-conscious and playful commentary on the accessibility of contemporary art.