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In Pursuit of Soviet Art--Quality and Politics

July 17, 1988|WILLIAM WILSON

WASHINGTON — Every few months we witness an art-as-media phenomenon--the Andy Warhol auction or the flap over Andrew Wyeth's Helga paintings--that cause old-timers to wonder what the fuss is all about. Then, as suddenly as they emerge they change to tarnished cliches--like pennies in vinegar--and disappear.

The latest of these crazes is nonetheless fashionable but may prove more lasting and significant. It is the artistic manifestation of a general fad for things Russian. The drift reached apogee 10 days ago when Sotheby's auction house scored a coup in the U.S.S.R.--the first-ever Western-style public sale of Soviet modern and contemporary art. Held in Moscow and unquestionably newsy, it was nonetheless puzzling to find an audience of foreign bidders paying very substantial prices for works by contemporary Soviet artists who are virtually unknown in the West.

Less than a week later the Hirshhorn Museum here opened "Russian and Soviet Painting 1900-1930," an exhibition combining works from the Russian State Museum in Leningrad and the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, the two greatest Russian repositories of native art. These galleries have sent works here before, but this group of 90 pictures by 69 artists is unique in the weight given to innovators like Wassily Kandinsky, Kasimir Malevich and other early radical abstract pioneers.

After the 1917 Bolshevik revolution such art was seen to reflect the spirit of the new order and officially embraced. By 1934 it was suppressed in favor of illustrative Socialist Realism. Avant-garde artists fled the country or fell into the shadows. Their works disappeared into museum basements.

By now a slow re-emergence of this art has turned to something of a flood. A massive survey of examples from the '20s and '30s is scheduled in Leningrad this fall. Planned retrospectives for Malevich and Kandinsky are supposed to travel to Europe. American curators and dealers plow the resistant aesthetic soil of Mother Russia for contemporary art to show and sell here despite the fact that most of what has turned up so far has been either hollowly slick or pathetically impoverished.

What does it all mean?

I think it means that somewhere along the line we became confused, losing track of what art is for and what it means. An observation in a catalogue essay for the Hirshhorn exhibition may reflect that revisionist muddle. It says, "Socialist Realism was perhaps the consolidation--not the rejection--of the experimental movements."

Mighty odd proposition about two styles so long regarded as formal and ideological antithesis but apparently permissible in the present absence of any serious insistence on art's inherent visionary, poetic and cultural values.

Art has become vulnerable to exploitation and transformed into a social commodity. It is treated like everything else. Artists are celebrities whose worth is measured by the prestige of their galleries and their ability to generate flashy publicity. Their products are valued for the elevation of their prices, their ability to confer social status and act as speculative investment. Like the airlines, the industry has been deregulated to exist in an anarchy of marketplace competition.

Thus art today is never free-standing. It is always art-as-something-else; art-as-economics, art-as-glamour. . . .

Russian Chic dramatizes art-as-politics. Purchasing an indifferent work of Soviet contemporary art is not only to acquire a souvenir of a sojourn to a glamorous and exotic event--like bringing home a dance mask from your trip to Bali--it is a gesture of approval for glasnost, a blow struck for free expression and against the bad old days when refusnik artists had their shows plowed under by the KGB.

That has to be a right-minded symbolic gesture even if some arch critic (played by Clifton Webb) sits satanically on the sidelines smirking, asking: "Ah, but what if it was bad art?"

Which is to say both that art people can appear a bit weird in their insistence on quality and that the present reigning confusion of motives can--like any period of chaos--stir up good things that have drifted into the silt of indifference. After all, political overtones also come from the excellent art of Anselm Kiefer currently on view at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art--but with the crucial difference that quality there allows topical questions to burrow deep into the German-and-human-soul.

Confusion, however, is still more likely to muddle matters than to clear them.

The present Soviet exhibition at the Hirshhorn (on view until Sept. 25 when it returns home) must be welcomed as a gesture of rehabilitation, on their part, toward some of the most original artists of the century and received, on ours, as a wonderful chance to see fine works never before shown in the West.

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