It all started in 1996, when my friend Yuri Neyman and I were sitting on his porch in Studio City, reminiscing about the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow and the cultural shock it produced. One of the long-term consequences of this shock was the fact that we were sitting in Studio City, and not in Komsomol'sk-na-Amure, and that we were drinking Jack Daniels, and not brake fluid.
"We should start thinking how to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the exhibition," said Yuri. "It's only three years away." "And perhaps invite the American designers who put it together," I said, "as well as people like us who managed to get 24 rounds of free Pepsi at the show before the KGB kicked us out."
The seed fell on fertile soil when I mentioned this idea to Dmitri Shalin. Dmitri teaches sociology at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas and is married to an American lawyer who does not (nor has any particular desire to) speak Russian or deal with Russian matters. I am not quite sure why, but Dmitri never misses an opportunity to brush up his Russian, dust off his Moscow phonebook and start yet another crazy Russian project which would cost him many sleepless nights, many thousands of dollars, and invariably bring his whole family to the brink of a nervous breakdown.
Dmitri thought that the idea was good but needed enhancements. The proposals under considerations were:
- combining the exhibition reunion with a retrospective of unofficial Russian art;
- creating a festival of contemporary Russian poetry and music;
- commissioning some artists to create art pieces and installations specifically for the show;
- organizing a conference on the subject of "America in Russian Art. Russia in American Art";
- making a trip to the Grand Canyon;
- bringing together all interesting people who speak Russian or at least don't mind when others do.
Unable to choose one direction from this list, Dmitri made a very post-modern gesture by selecting all of the above...
What is unofficial art? In Russia of the 1970s it took the form of so-called Sots-art. I've run across a few American publications claiming that I invented of the term. I didn't. In a recent TV program Alexander Melamid described what happened at the end of 1972: "Labels are usually invented after the fact. In 1972 we heard something about pop-art, but very vaguely. After we finished a series of works which later would become Sots-art, Vadik Paperny stopped by and said: 'this is pure pop-art, guys, Soviet pop-art.' Then we knew that we had made a discovery. Sots-art was born."
The fact that Komar and Melamid used the neologism Sots-art (from the Russian word for "socialism) instead of Sov-art, which would have been easily understandable in any language, shows that they were quite innocent, naive and pure, not the "marketing demons" some critics claim they are.
Sots-art was born out of the necessity to reconcile the depressing Soviet reality with the stream of information seeping through the cracks in the iron curtain. Semion Faibisovich (not present at the festival) was talking about the "heart-breaking mixture of hatred, pity and elation" that this reality produced in him. He was looking at this reality "the way a rabbit looks at a python", until one day the python dropped dead. His canvasses are photorealistic documents recording this intense gaze. Komar and Melamid came from a different perspective.
"Sots-art had nothing to do with irony or confrontation, " says Melamid. "We just looked out the window and saw the portrait of Lenin. This was our landscape, and we painted it. It was common sense. What we wanted was to recreate the dream, to recreate the great art as we understood it in our childhood."
Are we to believe them?
Soviet reality was universally hated by the creative-intellectual elite, but their were many different ways of dealing with this hatred. Faibisovich's approach was emotional and anti-intellectual. "The critical gurus treated me as a 'wrong' artist, a 'bad' hyperrealist, and an 'awful' Sots-artist," he says, "perhaps because I don't read their books." The Komar-Melamid approach was decidedly anti-emotional. I remember one Sots-art exhibition in the mid-70s, in a private apartment in Moscow where the somewhat puzzled architect Alexander Ermolaev asked Komar and Melamid:
"But art should touch me, affect my emotions, shouldn't it?" Upon which Vitaly Komar coldly advised him to start using drugs. No irony here?
What exactly was seeping through those cracks? Jack Masey, Director of Design of the 1959 American National Exhibit in Moscow, came to the Las Vegas festival with a bunch of color slides to tell us how he, with George Nelson, Charles Eams, Buckminster Fuller, and other designers, were trying to convey to us, Soviet people, the niceties of capitalism. Capitalism was represented, among other things--such as washers, dryers, refrigerators, cars, and TV sets--by Jackson Pollock's abstract paintings. Somehow, between 1950s and 1980s abstract painting became loaded with political and even military significance. As we recently learned from a book by Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (London ,1999), the CIA was spending millions of dollars promoting American Abstract Expressionism as a weapon in the Cold War.
John Bowlt, who currently teaches Russian Art and Culture at USC, told festival participants how in the 1960s he tried to convince Soviet authorities to allow Malevich's Black Square to travel to an art show abroad. They categorically refused, and, according to Bowlt, he screamed at them in his flawless Russian: "You guys are a bunch of fucking assholes!" Why did this bunch put so much emphasis on abstract art? Why did plain-clothes KGB officers ask virtually every student that passed through the Stroganov Art School how he or she felt about abstract painting? And why did the CIA spend money on it?
The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that Russia and America are the only two nations (outside Israel) with a sense of manifest destiny and self-identification as "chosen people." The Russian examples of this worldview could be found in Dostoevsky, the American, in the writings of Cotton Mather. One of the logical consequences of this attitude was perpetual expansion: to the South-East in Russia, and to the West, in America. Both "chosen peoples" had no problem exterminating local populations. According to James Shenton from Columbia University, one of the weapons in the war with native Americans was to send them blankets infected with deadly diseases.
During the Cold War, abstract canvasses became a new kind of poisonous blankets. Instead of smallpox or cholera, they were infected with poisonous ideology. Jackson Pollock, Jack Masey, Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Buckminster Fuller, as well as the young Russian artists trying to jump the fence at the American Exhibition in Moscow, perhaps had no idea of the war that was going on above their heads. But it was. And once again, the poisonous blankets worked brilliantly. The python died not because the rabbit's gaze was unbearable (as Faibisovich would like to think) but because somebody sent the python a poisonous blanket.
The part of the Las Vegas festival that worked best was bringing together people and memories. Mikhail Chernyshov reminded me of how we met at his show in 1963. I reminded Alexander Kosolapov how he and I punched each other in the face at the boxing club of the Stroganov Art School. I also told him how I virtually adopted his 9-years old daughter in the 1970s when he was already in New York. One summer I couldn't get on a plane from Simferopol' to Moscow, and his pretty ex-wife lent me their daughter, who pulled a sad-puppy-face so successfully ( pretending to be my daughter) that they finally put me on an plane.
Vitaly Komar reminded me of the obscene door knob design I had improvised at the lobby of our hated alma mater, the Stroganov Art school. "People usually don't appreciate their best work," he said. "This door knob was your best creation ever."
Katya Dyogot reminded me how she and I once drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and back, analyzing her broken heart on the way there, and mine on the way back. Marietta Chudakova reminded me of how she and her daughter Masha performed a musical number called "A Duo From Odessa" in a forest between two tents on a kayaking trip in 1964. Zinovy Zinik and his wife Nina gave me details of our mutual friend Asarkan's stay in London. Svetlana Boym and I talked about her ex-husband Kostya and his new wife. My ex-wife Katya Kompaneyets wanted to have a photo taken of herself flanked by her ex-husband Iosif Bakshtein, myself, and her ex-boyfriend Alexander Zholkovsky. Iosif and I were ready to do it, but Zholkovsky refused. Perhaps, you need to be legally married for that kind of stuff.
It was a small group of people tied together by a common language, the specific Moscow dialect of the 1960s, and, in some cases, by education, occasionally by profession, kinship, friendship, love, hate, memories, rivalry, cooperation. Some had made it big, some not, but it did not really matter. It turned out that we all kind of liked each other and were strangely happy together for three long days and nights.
I have an immodest suspicion that fifty years from now, art historians will be busy restoring minute details of these three days in Las Vegas, figuring out who sat next to whom, who slept with whom, who said what and why, who wrote the notes, who made the obscene scribbles , in much the same way historians now are figuring out days in life of Vladimir Mayakovsky, Viktor Khlebnikov, Viktor Shklovsky, Lili Brik, David Burlyuk, Osip Brik, and their friends and relatives.
When the festival was over, Dmitri's wife Janet took me aside and said: "Please, Vladimir, if Dmitri ever talks to you about another festival, just say no!"