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Painting Perestroika : 10 + 10: Contemporary Soviet and American Painters edited by Viktor Mislano, John E. Bowlt et al (Harry N. Abrams/Aurora Publishers, Leningrad, in association with the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth: $39.95; 170 pp., illustrated; 0-810901668-1)

November 05, 1989|Reviewed by Dubravka Ugresic | Ugresic is a prize-winning Yugoslav novelist and scholar in literary theory at the University of Zagreb. She taught last semester at Wesleyan University. and

10 + 10 does not always add up to 20! Here is a case where the sum is much greater. The catalogue "10 + 10: Contemporary Soviet and American Painters" is more than a new publishing project for American and Soviet cultural cooperation, more than back-up material for the exhibition that started its intercultural tour in May this year at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. This is an invaluable book on the most recent trends in American and Soviet painting, displaying only artwork by painters under 40.

Assembling the show and catalogue in both Russian and English, the large, Soviet-American team of exhibition directors, curators, catalogue editors, translators and painters (10 Americans, 10 Soviets) is, regrettably, too numerous to mention by name. The entire intercultural venture is described in penetrating essays by Viktor Mislano, curator of art at Moscow's Pushkin Museum, and John E. Bowlt, a professor of Slavic Studies at USC and one of America's top experts on avant-garde Russian art.

A first glance at this attractive catalogue leaves one wondering whether the reader's attention will be as symmetrical as the American and Soviet paintings. For one obvious reason, the American painters surely are at a disadvantage. While Americans know little about new Soviet painting (indeed, the same could be said, until very recently, of the Soviets!), they will be especially drawn to the Russian paintings for the way they turn our few preconceived notions inside out. These cliches range from ugly Socialist Realism (with its trademark, the gigantic working couple armed with their inevitable props, the hammer and sickle) to the Russian avant-garde, as yet unsurpassed (with its trademark, Malevic's famed black square).

A second glance at the catalogue and the biographies of represented artists enhances first impressions. The Soviet painters are more aggressive, more impassioned in texts they have written to accompany their paintings, while the American writing is more subdued. At first it seems as if the Americans are playing the cordial hosts, doing everything they can to make their guests feel at home and do their best. But in all fairness, the literary expressiveness of the young Soviet painters is as much a reflection of a traditional culture dominated by the Word as it is an expression of the artists' youthful verbosity. Whatever the case, these texts are intriguing and often crucial to an understanding of the paintings.

Yurii Albert, author of the "manifesto" paintings "I Am Not Jasper Johns" and "I Am Not Baselitz," feels that "the place of each work of art is defined by its correspondence to other works." Vladimir Mironenko insists, within the Soviet context, on the uniqueness of recent Soviet art ("A new Soviet civilization has come into being"). Andrei Roiter works with signs ("In trying to express my sense of time I make use of an 'alphabet' of topical signs, structuring a sort of pseudo-universal plastic language").

The word "sign" appears frequently, used as well by Anatolii Zhuravlev ("Everything--or almost everything--is a sign, a symbol, or a system of signs"). Konstantin Zvezdochetov, a true child of the postmodern age, demonstrates a self-deprecating exhibitionism and a talent for mystification ("I, Konstantin Zvezdochetov, am a member of a secret organization, the Black Faculty").

A third glance at the artwork displayed in the catalogue destroys all preconceptions and brings one to the startling conclusion that artistic discoveries and dialogue in the two countries are remarkably similar despite geographical distances and disparities between cultures and political systems. If someone were to switch the signatures under many of these paintings, the reader might find it hard to pinpoint the "Soviet" or "American" qualities of each piece. How could this be so after the isolation that has shrouded Soviet art for so many years? Is Moscow slated to become a new metropolis in the art world?

The paintings of the young Soviet painters come from an alternative, underground culture that has been evolving for several decades in opposition to official culture, gaining cultural legitimacy only two or three years back. Returning to the tradition of the Russian avant-garde, yet rejecting it, imitating Western models while repudiating them, Soviet alternative culture has survived in a state of isolation bereft of markets, shows, museum status--and in the process it has forged an artistic language all its own.

In constant defiance of ruling aesthetic and ideological norms, the collective underground life of painters, writers and artists ultimately produced truly original artistic forms, genres, directions, groups, poetics ("soc-art," "apt-art," "conceptualist actions") and artistic figures such as Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulatov and Komar and Melamid.

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