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Alexander Melamid: "We were born to make the fairytale come true!"

Vladimir Belogolovsky talks to New York artist Alexander Melamid who thinks contemporary art is harmful; yet, there is genius in every artist, if we take a good look.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Jun 23, 2023

"I am a better painter than Repin!" said Alexander Melamid in our insightful interview, as we discussed his most recent works on view during the last weekend of April as part of Gallery Weekend Berlin. Organised by curator Marat Guelman, the show was held at the studio of Christian Awe, a local artist. Melamid presented 15 quintessential Russian masterpieces that he repainted as he saw fit. All original paintings the artist reproduced are housed in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, including Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan by Ilya Repin.

Conceptualist Alexander Melamid was born in Moscow in 1945 and was educated at the Stroganov Art Institute. He graduated in 1967, shortly before the end of merely a decade-long Nikita Khruschev’s Thaw. In 1972, together with his fellow student at the institute, Vitaly Komar, he co-founded Sots Art (Sots is short for Socialist), a movement that appropriated communist propaganda slogans and depicted Socialist mass culture in the most ironic, sarcastic, and absurd ways. Both artists emigrated first to Israel in 1977 and to America the following year. Their first exhibition in the West, at a progressive Ronald Feldman Gallery in Manhattan, took place in 1976, a year before they could leave the Soviet Union and two years after the Bulldozer Exhibition, which was written about in the mainstream press all around the world; the news about its destruction by Soviet authorities appeared on the cover page of the New York Times. Feldman, whose gallery’s mission was to support art with a political slant, represented both artists until his death last year. 

In my interview with Alexander Melamid that follows the artist discussed his latest works, the state of contemporary art, his take on Brutalist architecture, inventing Sots Art movement, taking part in the Bulldozer Exhibition, not being a professional artist, the weight of artistic authorship, and the true reason for doing art; he explained, “The point is not to find meaning but to find new ways of doing something.”  

Alexander Melamid, Double Portrait, 1972 |Alexander Melamid | STIRworld
Alexander Melamid, Double Portrait, 1972 Image: Courtesy of Alexander Melamid

Vladimir Belogolovsky: You just had a show in Berlin. What was that like?

Alexander Melamid: I haven't been to the city for many years. I remember it well before the wall came down. I flew to West Berlin and went to the Checkpoint Charlie to see my mother who was allowed by the Soviets to come to East Berlin to meet me. I crossed the border to see her after many years of separation. It was in 1986. She passed away last year; 11 days short of her 105th birthday.

The masterworks I presented in Berlin are very well known to Russians but remain undiscovered beyond Russia. The paintings I presented are lookalikes. I honestly repainted them with all the details but in a somewhat impressionist style that evokes the brush of Van Gogh. I also included one of our own paintings from the time of my collaboration with Vitaly Komar.

VB: What was the message of your works in the show?

AM: (Laughs) I was simply curious to examine these works much closer, now that I am close to the end of my own life. I honestly think that these original paintings were quite badly painted. I simply wanted to improve them. I made an attempt to correct some of the mistakes in them. That was my mission. (Laughs) Some of them I enlarged, others were made smaller, and in other cases, I chose to focus on their fragments. In short, I made them better.

VB: Better in what sense?

AM: I am a better painter than Repin! (Laughs) I wanted to make them more beautiful. Typically, I am against handsomeness in art. But this time, I changed my mind. I also wanted to make them more accessible to foreigners.

Spending time in Berlin, I had a revelation about modern architecture. I found most of the contemporary buildings in Berlin, apart from stand-alone genuine masterpieces, quite ugly. And, in general, I must say, modern architecture, which, in all seriousness started contaminating our cities after World War II, is quite ugly. Just take the original Whitney Museum by Marcel Breuer here in New York. It is designed as a concrete bunker. I realised that Brutalism, as a style, was not an aesthetic choice. It was really a reaction to the tense times during the Cold War. This architecture is conceived as a place to shelter people from a potential nuclear attack. These buildings really tell us about the insecure time during which they were designed. Their mission was to save us from bombings. Perhaps this was not done consciously but these architects definitely felt the danger. Those buildings influenced generations of many consequent buildings. So many contemporary buildings look like barracks. It is quite terrible and in Berlin, contemporary buildings often dominate. When such buildings are built on a massive scale it gets unbearable. 

I recently read a quote by Gerhard Richter whose works I am not a fan of but I agree with him on this one 100 per cent, "Art is a retched cynical, stupid, helpless, confusing, a mirror image of our spiritual impoverishment, our state of sickness and loss. We have lost the great ideas, the utopias. We have lost all faith, everything that creates meaning.” It is some kind of degradation, an absolute fall, a complete failure.

  • Stalin in Front of The Mirror (fragment) from the Nostalgic Socialist Realism series, 1982-83 |Alexander Melamid | STIRworld
    Stalin in Front of The Mirror (fragment) from the Nostalgic Socialist Realism series, 1982-83 Image: Courtesy of Vladimir Belogolovsky
  • Stalin in Front of The Mirror (fragment) from the Nostalgic Socialist Realism series, 1982-83 |Alexander Melamid | STIRworld
    The Origins of Socialist Realism (fragment) from the Nostalgic Socialist Realism series, 1982-83 Image: Courtesy of Vladimir Belogolovsky

VB: Most people don’t connect with contemporary art, that’s true.

AM: Because contemporary art is not just bad, which is, of course, debatable. What is more important, it is harmful. The 20th century was built on three whales—Marxism, Freudianism, and Modernism—three terrible notions that were produced by this horrible century, with all its incredible inventions and undeniable progress. Nevertheless, we have not just surrounded ourselves with ugliness, we have become addicted to all sorts of tranquilizers to get us out of the pit where we all sit. Contemporary art makes us miserable. It brings us to totalitarian ideas and total destruction. I am not saying there are no occasional breakthroughs or even masterpieces. I am trying to identify the situation overall.   

VB: I think art is more about making people question things. And I see a lot of desire on the part of so many people to experience art. Just look at the long lines to museums all over the world. Of course, we do need to be critical in everything we do. 

AM: Museums have replaced churches. Building magnificent cathedrals turned into building magnificent museums. And it seems that people’s beliefs in something sacred also transitioned from churches to museums. People also visit psychologists more frequently. But most people get only more and more frustrated after visiting both. Their hopes often get crushed. People don’t understand what is happening. That’s why the art market has built a hierarchy of values and prices to copy the hierarchy of brands in the commercial world. There is a desire to see something sacred but whether it meets the expectations is debatable.  

VB: When I asked you to sign a copy of your recent book, a catalogue of the still ongoing exhibition Komar and Melamid: A Lesson in History, at the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Jersey, you signed and dated it by the year 1873. You said that everything is fake anyway. Then, against everything you just told me, you wrote, “Art heals!” A positive observation, after all. Wouldn’t you agree? 

AM: Let me see. Do you know what took place in 1873? Let me check with Google. I have no idea, but I am curious. Here is what I just discovered, "Japan adapts the Grigorian calendar.” But why does it matter what year it is?! None of that makes any difference. But if we apply our minds and start pondering, we will find meaning because that’s how we are. We look for meaning even when there is none. That’s why so many works of art have lives of their own, independent of their authors. 

  • Alexander Melamid, Portrait of Snoop Dogg, 2006 |Alexander Melamid | STIRworld
    Alexander Melamid, Portrait of Snoop Dogg, 2006 Image: Courtesy of Alexander Melamid
  • Alexander Melamid, After Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan by Ilya Repin |Alexander Melamid | STIRworld
    Alexander Melamid, After Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan by Ilya Repin Image: Katya Arnold, Courtesy of Alexander Melamid

VB: Tell me, when did you first think of becoming an artist? How did you imagine your future when you applied to the Stroganov Institute? 

AM: When I was 12, I went to Crimea with my parents. There I painted a sea wave. I thought it was absolutely magical. The wave looked like a wave. That’s the day from which I count my origin of becoming an artist. I never preoccupied myself with drawings when I was younger. I was not interested in that. But painting that wave knocked me off my feet. So, before Stroganov I studied at a local art school for children and was prepared by the time of applying to the institute. Many of my professors were architects. So, in addition to regularly reading contemporary art periodicals, we had special access to Domus magazine. Well, there were no doubts in my mind that I was going to be an artist. That I knew for sure. Although both of my parents—my father was a historian and my mother was a publicist and translator—tried to discourage me. They wanted me to receive a humanistic education first. I should’ve listened to them, as I feel gaps in my education. [Laughs.] 

VB: You studied at Stroganov in the 1960s. What was the atmosphere like then? Was there a certain protest against so-called “official art?” 

AM: The protest was in me from the very beginning. I knew that everything had to change. Nothing was right. The school was not ideologised. Nevertheless, I was a rebel. I also sensed it in my parents and many of their friends, and my friends. It was obvious to many people around me that we lived in a shitty state. I have to mention that I grew up in a family, which was part of the intelligentsia and we were surrounded by intelligentsia left and right. These people were familiar with underground art. Now I appreciate it, but, at the time, I did not like it at all. I preferred (Aleksandr) Gerasimov, a leading Socialist Realist, to Oscar Rabin, a prominent underground artist then. Because Gerasimov had a mission to glorify the state. 

In recent years, I was shown the official art and works of the dissidents, side by side, in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. It was terrible to see them next to each other. There was our work with Komar; one of them I repainted for the Berlin show. Then when I entered the hall with works by Gerasimov and saw his famous painting of Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin, it was like a breath of fresh air! It is such an enormous painting. It was such a release from these airless, cellar spaces, where most of the underground art was created. You could see the difference between rebels and the professionals. It was simple and well-crafted on a huge scale. It was beautiful. I really enjoyed it. 

VB: It is fascinating what you are saying. Curiously, when I talked to many radical Western architects, those who consider themselves deconstructivists and are indebted to the Russian constructivists, they told me time and again that the architecture that impressed them most in Moscow was Stalinist. 

AM: It is quite expected. In the institute, we studied many leading Western modernist architects. But the one architect whom we studied the most was Ivan Zholtovsky. I could not understand that at the time. But our professors told us, “His genius is in the proportions.” There was a cult of his mysterious proportions. Just look at his residential building with a turret on Smolensky Boulevard. Such a ridiculous tower; there is all this pompous décor. But how beautiful it is! What buildings built in the 20th century can we find that are more appealing?! That’s what I mean when I criticise contemporary art. Sure, there are exceptions. But why does it matter when most of them are terrible? There must be a general direction that’s good, not some individual works. You can’t deny that Stalinist architecture in general had a strong quality and is still genuinely liked. Whereas contemporary architecture and contemporary art are both irritating and hated by the masses. 

Alexander Melamid, After Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov |Alexander Melamid | STIRworld
Alexander Melamid, After Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov Image: Katya Arnold, Courtesy of Alexander Melamid

VB: In 1972 you and Vitaly Komar started your own movement, Sots Art. It was inspired by Pop Art in America, which was kick-started by the overproduction of merchandise and advertisement, while Sots Art was sparked by the overproduction of communist ideology. Could you touch on that?

AM: First, we had very little information about art outside of the Soviet Union. So, everything we could find had a high value in our eyes. The information was so scarce that we collected everything and we memorised everything; there was so little of what we could find. And we simply realised that the man-made world that surrounded us—demonstrations, slogans, mosaics, paintings, and so on—could be incorporated into our own art. Artists around us were depicting landscapes, portraits, and so on. But we decided to reflect on this man-made world of propaganda. To us, it was another reality. Sure, Pop Art inspired us to see this disjunction between reality and what the art world was focused on. We tried to bring our reality into our art. You see, trees are the same everywhere, more or less. So are landscapes, roughly speaking. But we focused on what was unique to the marginal society we lived in.

VB: I read that after inventing Sots Art you were running like a madman, screaming that it was the greatest invention ever. What did you feel like then?

AM: We realised that it was an invention. No one appropriated that propaganda before we did. It was a revelation. We called ourselves the most famous artists of the 1970s. Well, for that time it was a fundamental invention. 

VB: Yet, you couldn’t exhibit your works to the public.

AM: We couldn’t. We were told that if we tried, we would be going to jail. There were failed attempts to exhibit underground art before. We found out that dissident artist Oscar Rabin whom we didn’t know personally, could help organise a show. This was before the Bulldozer Exhibition in September 1974. He was known for organising art shows at various scientific institutes. Scientists were better protected then. Those were half-closed shows and special invitations were required to attend. 

Oscar told us that it was not possible to organise a show at that time. That’s when we thought of the idea of arranging an outdoor show instead. We suggested that to Oscar and he worked on finding the right place in the city. There were many people trying to help and there were many KGB informers. In the end, the show that became known as the Bulldozer Exhibition was destroyed by the authorities. 

But something incredible happened right after that. The regime suddenly gave in. The bureaucrat behind the crackdown was fired. And we were even offered a space to exhibit our works soon after. I think the Bulldozer Exhibition was the beginning of the end of the Soviet regime. You can’t give in! (Laughs) There was a lot of world press about the show’s destruction, including on the cover of the New York Times, and bureaucrats panicked, instead of throwing us in jail. (Laughs) 

VB: What was new about Sots Art?

AM: The innovation was in the fact that we have crossed the border between art and life. That’s what many, particularly Russian artists, always dreamed about—to turn art into life and life into art. 

  • Alexander Melamid, After The Appearance of Christ Before the People by Alexander Ivanov |Alexander Melamid | STIRworld
    Alexander Melamid, After The Appearance of Christ Before the People by Alexander Ivanov Image: Katya Arnold, Courtesy of Alexander Melamid
  • Alexander Melamid, After Boyarynya Morozova by Vasily Surikov |Alexander Melamid | STIRworld
    Alexander Melamid, After Boyarynya Morozova by Vasily Surikov Image: Katya Arnold, Courtesy of Alexander Melamid

VB: You succeeded by bringing together both official art and the underground one, right? 

AM: That’s true. In reality, there was no border. It was the same thing. Warhol famously said, "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." I think the point is that everyone is a genius for 15 minutes. Every artist reaches a point of being genius for a short period of time. For us, it was the invention of Sots Art. If you really pay attention, you can find genius in the work of every artist. That’s the fate of every artist. Then comes the time of development, refinement, and so on, and repetition is unavoidable. Some works will be better, others worse, but that makes no difference. The artist has spoken and there is nothing to add to it. Of course, after that, you can build your career in any direction—politically, commercially, or whatever, but that’s a matter of development.    

VB: Yet, as an artist, you transitioned from one theme to the next, from one series of works to another. There is a reinvention, rebirth that’s taking place in your work. Do you agree? 

AM: Not on the same level. You also have to understand that we are not professional artists. A professional artist finds a particular style and works on it, consistently, from one painting to the next. That’s what professionalism is about. It is about production—furniture, watches, shoes, and so on. A professional artist produces paintings. For example, Dutch painters during the Dutch Golden Age were professionals. Frans Hals was a professional painter. The Dutch achieved very high quality and sold their work at high prices on a regular basis. What I am trying to say is that once you start experimenting it is hard to stay professional. You need to choose either one or the other. Those who paint for themselves, for the sake of their art, are not professionals.

Alexander Melamid, After Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin by Aleksandr Gerasimov|Alexander Melamid | STIRworld
Alexander Melamid, After Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin by Aleksandr Gerasimov Image: Katya Arnold, Courtesy of Alexander Melamid

VB: How did you start working with slogans? 

AM: The most important idea was to find a generic slogan and sign it as Komar & Melamid. The first slogan was, “We Were Born to Make the Fairytale Come True!” Another one, “Our Goal—Communism!” We sensed that we had to sign these slogans, to give them our authorship to confront anonymity. Pop artists also gave authorship to products that otherwise were quite abstract and anonymous. Authorship has changed everything.    

Alexander Melamid, After Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin by Aleksandr Gerasimov|Alexander Melamid | STIRworld
Factory for the Production of the Blue Smoke (fragment), 1975 Image: Courtesy of Alexander Melamid

VB: You said, “Our concept was a concept of change.” What drives you as an artist? 

AM: In my case, it is a short attention span. (Laughs) Again, I don’t see myself as a professional artist. I can’t speak for Komar, but to me craftsmanship is secondary. Of course, it comes with experience. But my interests change. Just like Isaiah Berlin’s book The Hedgehog and the Fox, which categorised thinking people into those who believe in one central idea and those who rather shift and adjust based on a variety of experiences. I fit the latter group. It is the very search for something new that drives me. The point is not to find meaning but to find new ways of doing something. I work at will. I never thought about selling my work. We were lucky to come across Ronald Feldman Gallery which represented our work for many years. I don’t calculate anything. Ideas pop into my head. Look what happened to Sots Art. As a movement, it exhausted itself. Most of our work since then has little or nothing to do with it. We went ahead and found new ideas. I think Komar wants to keep developing it but I moved on a long time ago. That actually became the reason why we no longer work together. We grew apart ideologically, like the hedgehog and the fox.       

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