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Two Soviet Artists Conquer the West : 12 years after emigrating, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid receive critical praise and see their works sell like hotcakes

In 1978 a team of Soviet artists named Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid emigrated to New York with visions of capitalist paradise dancing in their heads. Six years later they had indeed conquered the western art world with a series of paintings that came as close as an artist gets to hitting a home run; the critics loved them and they sold like hot cakes.

Resurrecting the officially sanctioned style of Socialist Realism that dominated Russian art for much of this century, Komar and Melamid’s paintings preyed on the popular preconceptions Americans have about Russians; in short, their work looked poetic and wildly political. Appearing to poke fun at all the major celebrities of Russian oppression--Khrushchev, Lenin, and particularly Stalin--the work seemed ideologically correct and was easy to read. One could get the references and not feel like a dunce.

The paintings afforded another pleasure as well. Having had years of rigorous academic training, Komar and Melamid were masters of the classical style that spells Great Art to all but the most sophisticated eye. Employing a theatrical palette, Baroque lighting and heavy glazing, their work was rife with motifs from such high-calorie Old Masters as Caravaggio, Rembrandt, David and Vermeer--voluptuously rendered drapery, for instance, popped up in most of the paintings.

Glowing with the golden, slightly snooty refinement of an episode of “Masterpiece Theatre,” their mock historical allegories conformed to popular ideas of what pedigreed art looks like, at the same time subverting them. The hip viewer realized it was only satire, but still, it was nice to see that old style dusted off and respectable again, even if it was under the guise of irony. Composite pictures of pictures we already know, their work provided the thrill of recognition.

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It would be a story with a happy ending--wild and crazy Russians wow art world with outrageous political satire--but for the fact that that wasn’t what Komar and Melamid meant by the paintings at all. While their work does address global diplomacy, it concerns itself to a much greater degree with personal politics; Komar and Melamid may comment on world affairs with a cheeky irreverence worthy of Mad Magazine, but ultimately their work is dominated by a kind of holy nostalgia evocative of Edward Hopper.

“Our work isn’t about anybody but ourselves, and when we paint Stalin it’s not a criticism or an apology--it’s an impression of childhood,” says Melamid over coffee in a diner in Bayonne, N.J., where the pair maintain a studio. “People think our work is satire but it’s not about a real person--Stalin is a symbol of the past.”

“We know now that Stalin was bad guy--no question about that--but we loved him once,” adds Komar who, like Melamid, grew up during the period when Stalin’s image was ubiquitous in Russia. “And, when we paint Stalin we’re showing the Stalin that’s inside of us--and Stalin is definitely part of us.”

“That’s the thing people most often overlook in our work,” continues Melamid. “We should realize that fascism is not a German business or something peculiar to Stalin--it belongs to all humanity. Fascism is the impulse to control and be controlled, and we’re all fascists to some degree. Most people think of themselves as free of these impulses, but it’s a false illusion.”

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Komar (the older, heavier one) and Melamid (the younger, wiry one) have been working together for so long they’ve developed the easy rhythm of a pair of vaudevillians. Sharing the same dry sense of humor and an air of philosophical detachment that’s peculiarly Russian, they listen respectfully to one another, but feel free to disagree--which they occasionally do with vigor. Their feelings about recent events in Eastern Europe are a case in point.

“This is a time of revolution which is exciting, but it’s also terrible,” Melamid laments. “Nothing could be worse than the regimes that were recently ousted, but it’s a mistake to think that once all these terrible guys are gone everything will be all right. Those countries are in chaos, and people need structure, not freedom. Freedom is a burden and it’s an illusion that people want it. Speaking for myself, I’d find life in a completely free society unbearable. So, I’ve observed these changes with a feeling of terror.”

“I’m happy about these events,” counters Komar, “and for me they represent a triumph of the Yalta Conference. What’s only existed on paper for decades has become a reality, and now we can finally say World War II is over. Of course, people are frightened because there’s no guarantee that right wing extremists won’t come into power. Things are in turmoil and none of these countries has a long tradition of democracy, so the mechanism of free election isn’t quite clear there yet. Still, it’s a wonderful time for these countries.”

Both born into middle class families in Moscow--Komar in 1943, Melamid in 1945--the pair began to collaborate in 1963 after meeting in a Moscow morgue where an art school anatomy lesson was being conducted. Members of the youth section of the Moscow Union of Artists, they began to experience the censorship that ultimately led to their leaving the Soviet Union. First, their membership in the Artists Union was revoked when they applied for permission to stage a show of their work, then they participated in the infamous incident of 1974 when Soviet officials bulldozed an outdoor exhibition of young Soviet artists--an official faux paux that made headlines around the world.

Both married while in their early 20s (Melamid lives with his wife and two sons in Jersey City; Komar divorced prior to leaving the Soviet Union) and were eking out a living doing graphic design and teaching. Their artwork, meanwhile, looked increasingly to the West and they became determined to make a name for themselves in America. Towards that end they had their cousin, a microbiologist, smuggle their work out of the country with the hopes that he’d be able to drum up some support for it in Manhattan. New York dealer Ronald Feldman agreed to show the work, and their 1976 debut exhibition at Feldman included a series of 200 tiny paintings that were smuggled out of Russia in a candy box.

The following year the pair emigrated to Israel as dissident Soviet Jews and lived there for a year, prior to relocating to New York in 1978. Once settled in Manhattan, they set about finding an audience for the large body of work they’d completed.

And what had they been doing for the past 15 years? They’d created installations designed to evoke the repression of the Soviet regime, and invented two fictional artists complete with bodies of work and complex biographies. They taught a dog to draw, and created a series of nonsensical contraptions that lampooned consumerism. They invented an alphabet called Aruoist, made blueprints for magical objects, and did performances that included an archeological dig on the island of Crete. They mimicked the pomposity of the scientific community with a work called “Color Therapeutics,” and wrote a piano piece composed by coding into musical notation the regulations found on the back of a Soviet passport.

Conceptualist pranks were the safest form of expression for Komar and Melamid while living under Soviet law, and it wasn’t until they were settled in a new world several thousand miles from Moscow that they felt safe to explore their own lives--specifically, the lives they’d left behind.

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In 1980 they began painting in the Socialist Realist style they’d rejected while living in Russia and embarked on the series of 26 paintings exploring memories of their Russian childhood that stand as the high point of their career thus far.

The unifying motif in this series is Josef Stalin, the man who ruled the Soviet Union with an iron fist from 1929 until his death in 1953. Images of Stalin were everywhere during Komar and Melamid’s childhood, but they mysteriously vanished following Khrushchev’s famous “Secret Speech” of 1956; Khrushchev subsequently had Stalin airbrushed out of history.

Whereas political tyrants now use television to launder their image and fabricate benevolent personas, the task of turning ruthless dictators into lovable father figures used to fall to court artists; Komar and Melamid grew up during a period when the highest forms of art were called on to legitimize the lowest forms of behavior. Reprising the “classical” style of Soviet painting that dates from Stalin’s importation of Western masterpieces from Dresden following World War II (he subsequently ordered state artists to dress up Socialist Realism by imitating the old masters), Komar and Melamid create ironic homages to Stalin that are ripe with a hint of the discovery of evil in the seemingly decent.

Recalling ordinary behavior during “the Stalin time” as too large for anything less than historical allegory, they weave their childhood memories into a rich tapestry that includes references to classical painting and mythology, along with real political episodes that occured during Stalin’s reign. There’s an air of secrecy and conspiracy to the work--in “Girl in Front of the Mirror,” for instance, the viewer is invited to spy on a young girl as she examines her changing body--and a strong perfume of eroticism as well. Melamid concedes that he finds something “very sexual about authority. In fact, we once did a piece based on the idea of somebody discovering that Stalin was actually a woman.”

Employing Stalin as the all-powerful symbol of their early lives, the series is essentially about the need to romanticize the past and the healing properties of time. Though veiled in their presentation, the universal themes at the heart of the work attracted a broad audience, and the series was quickly snapped up by collectors (with two works going to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. “I don’t know why, but muscle guys seem to like those paintings,” says a slightly mystified Komar).

Komar and Melamid could have continued to mine this fertile mother lode for years, but in 1983 they announced their Socialist Realism period was over by painting an immaculately rendered portrait of a classical Greek athlete then defacing it with splotches of paint. From there, they moved into what they dubbed their Anarchistic Synthesism Style, a violent, post-modern hodgepodge that alluded to almost every major movement in the history of art. An attempt to satirize the New York style wars, this period of work ran its course by 1986.

Not surprisingly, Komar and Melamid’s Anarchistic Synthesism--directed primarily at art world insiders--wasn’t as popular as their Socialist Realism. Their latest work, however, has garnered rave reviews. In 1988--the same year they became U.S. citizens--they began a series celebrating Bayonne. “We immediately liked Bayonne,” explains Komar, “because it matched up to the idealized view we had of America before we came here. This is an old fashioned American town--and having traveled around this country, I can tell you there aren’t many of those left.” The central motif in the Bayonne work is the Bergen Point Brass Foundry, a 100-year-old factory that once employed 300 workers but is now down to 30. A dying business, the foundry will close with the owner’s death.

“Eventually we plan to cover every aspect of life in Bayonne,” says Komar. “We started with factory and portraits of workers, then we plan to do a church and then a biography of person who lives here. We cover the three main points; church, labor and private life.”

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As part of the series, Komar and Melamid took busloads of Manhattanites on a guided tour of Bayonne. Last fall, during the four-week period when their Bayonne work was on view at the Ronald Feldman Gallery, they conducted the tour once a week.

A visiting journalist was given a private tour which included: a visit to Komar and Melamid’s favorite park, a tour of an industrial district that’s been ravaged by toxic chemicals, lunch at their favorite cafe, a visit to Komar and Melamid’s shockingly modest studio (they create their works in the cold, dark, corner of a carpet warehouse with rolls of carpet encroaching on their work space), and a visit to the Brass Foundry. This last stop is an oddly touching experience. A tarnished throwback to a bygone era when American industry was in its prime, the Brass Foundry is haunted with the ghost of the American dream. The artists love it for exactly that reason.

“You need time and crumbling stones to make something beautiful,” says Melamid as he leads the way through the rusting foundry. “For a recent show in Paris we filled a room with garbage from New Jersey--the ruins of Bayonne! The most beautiful thing in the world! New things are ugly and every ruin is beautiful--I love women after 40,” he adds with a laugh.

As interesting as the story of Komar and Melamid’s work is the story of their Americanization--which has basically been a process of disillusionment.

“Two weeks after we came to the United States we realized we had comedic careers,” says Melamid. “We’re accepted by the art world here because we’re exotic--from Russia, working as a team and so forth--and we quickly understood we’re supposed to be amusing.

“Before we came here we had an illusion of progress, but coming here destroyed that,” he continues. “We learned that things are circular. Some people see life as a river but we see it as a bog--something going down, decaying, bubbling up--that is life. This linear idea of progress so central to American life is simply not true, and there’s certainly no progress in art. Pollock is not better than Rembrandt.

“Which is not to say I don’t like America--I’m touched by this country in many ways,” Melamid adds. “There’s a very special sadness about this country. Nabokov said that America is full of people waiting for something and that quality is unique to this place. In Europe people are living in the cafes, but here people postpone living and wait, always expecting something. I guess they all expect to be millionaires someday.

“I feel estranged by this country, but when I visited Russia last summer I realized that I’m not of that country either,” says Komar. “I discovered I was American when I ordered a cup of coffee in a Russian cafe. I said ‘would you please’ and the waitress looked at me funny because Russians never talk so politely. Because there isn’t a lot of food, Russians are a little unfriendly and speak in a rough way with each other. Americans are the most polite people in the world and we became more polite after living here for 10 years.

“The Russia of today is very different and perestroika has changed it in every way,” he continues. “There’s no censorship at all anymore--in fact, we’re considered folk heroes for coming to America and conquering the art world, and we’re being given a show at the most important gallery in Moscow. The oppression we grew up with is totally gone. It’s difficult to say if these changes are good. Censorship is softer but food is worse.”

“We believed in Russia that a change of country and social system would bring us happiness but social system doesn’t bring happiness,” Melamid says in conclusion. “Life is not a happiness, unfortunately, and in fact I’m less happy here than I was in Russia--not because Russia is better, but because I’m older and I have to be more responsible and that makes me unhappy. Your personality is stronger than the social system you live in. Too bad, isn’t it?”

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