Tuesday, March 08, 2016

America's Museum of the Politically Incorrect...

Viktor Pivovarov
(Russian, born 1937)
Plan for the Everyday Objects of a Lonely Man, 1975
Enamel on fiberboard
67¼ x 51¼ in (171 x 130 cm) x 4
Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers
Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union

Across the street from the world headquarters of Johnson and Johnson in New Brunswick, New Jersey sits the Zimmerli Museum of Rutgers University, home to the largest and perhaps best collection of "Forbidden Art" in the world, and certainly in the United States: The Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, assembled by Norton Townshend Dodge, a millionaire (his father was one of Warren Buffet's original investors) Maryland economics professor who spent the 1950s and 1960s buying art in Russia during economic research trips. 

The collection, originally housed on an 800-acre farm in rural Maryland, is comparable only to that of the Savitsky Museum in Nukus, Karakalpakstan, known to the French as 'Le Louvre des steppes,' and to Americans as subject of Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev's documentary film: The Desert of Forbidden Art, (as well as a recent controversy involving its director, Maranika Babanazarova, and the government of Uzbekistan).

Thanks to the Dodge Collection, one does not need to caravan  thousands of leagues to the fabled Khorezm Khanate in the oasis between Kyzyl Kum and Kara Kum deserts, in order to see Art that Stalin denounced, and that the Communist Party banned. 

One need only drive to New Jersey.

There are some 20,000 works by a thousand artists from the former Soviet Union given by the Dodges to the Zimmerli museum in 1991, forming a collection originally curated by Professor Alla Rosenfeld, author of Moscow Conceptualism in Context and From Gulag to Glasnost: Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union.

Dodge's life and work are also subject of a 1994 nonfiction book by novelist John McPhee, The Ransom of Russian Art.   There is even a documentary film about the collection, on YouTube, The Russian Concept: Reflections on Russian Non-Conformist Art.

In 2012, the Zimmerli renovated what was now known as its Dodge Wing, highlighting 126 artworks by Grisha Bruskin, Eric Bulatov, Ilya Kabakov, Vitaly Komar, Alexander Melamid, Irina Nakhova, and Oleg Vassiliev, well-known in the New York and International Art World. Others, such as Victor Pivovarov, Boris Shesnikov, and a currently featured artist Vagrich Bakhchanyan may be better understood by Russian (and former Soviet) art mavens who visited the retrospective entitled "Accidental Absurdity" that closed on March 6th.

Sadly, Bakhchanyan committed suicide in 2009.  Although he had been an eminent illustrator in Russia, drawing for the "12 Chairs" section of Literaturnaya Gazeta, as well as making his own avant-garde works "off the books," his American art career never fully flowered, perhaps because anti-Soviet art was as politically incorrect in New York as in Soviet Moscow. There is a moving documentary about him on YouTube, entitled Vagrich and the Black Square, that speaks to his doubly marginalized fate. 

Bakhchanyan's audience in America therefore tended to be among Russian emigres who understood, in the words of Zimmerli associate curator Julia Tulovsky, "Bakhchanyan was an artist who recontextualized the absurdity of everyday life in the USSR to evoke a larger truth about humanity with profound clarity and wit... This is especially true of the slogans he created by subverting official propaganda." 

For example, he turned "We are here to turn life into a fairytale," into, "We are here to turn life into Kafka."  According to Tulovsky, the joke "remains an established colloquialism in former Soviet communities to reference the past (the words fairytale and Kafka sound very similar in Russian). 

The Kafka-esque nature of the Communist system is nowhere more dramatically portrayed than in Boris Sheshnikov's room-size installation, based upon paintings, drawings and prison notebooks depicting his imprisonment in a Siberian prison camp called Vetlosian from 1946-1954. Although he claimed his art to be apolitical, there can be no doubt that the mere documentation of camp life makes Kafka much more striking than just something to be read in a college literature class.

Which brings us to what Tulovsky told me is the masterwork of the collection, Victor Pivovarov's 1974 "Plan for the everyday objects of a lonely man," seen at the top of this blog post. In it, the artist, a children's book illustrator by profession, depicts the limits of the world in which he has autonomy--his apartment, desk, chair, apple, glass of tea, window, weather, and the time he has to enjoy them. Little things, but important things, which any individual deeply appreciates as escapes from the Kafka-esque environment which otherwise surrounds him.  

The sad beauty of that universe says all that needs to be said about the power and limits of Political Correctness. In providing a home to The Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, the Zimmerli Museum of Rutgers University has done great service to the arts, to freedom, to the Russian soul, and to America.

It's worth a detour to New Brunswick, New Jersey, to see it.