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Vitaly Komar: “Showing your art is an act of a mating dance”

Vladimir Belogolovsky talks to New York-based artist Vitaly Komar, the co-founder of Sots Art who combines different styles in his sarcastic diptychs, triptychs, and polyptychs.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Jun 30, 2023

Any art that has something to say a priori is political. So much so that it is not tolerated by authoritative regimes. In the Soviet Union, art was censored by the state. Art that did not follow the doctrine of Socialist Realism was not allowed, although such famous artists as Aleksandr Deyneka and Aleksandr Laktionov succeeded in developing their own recognisable styles. Yet, creating a movement was absolutely forbidden by the authorities. That would be unthinkable, even criminal. Yet, that’s exactly what Moscow-born artistic duo Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid did. They invented an art movement of their own. It was a reaction against the official art, particularly political propaganda that had its inescapable presence in the media, daily lives of every Soviet citizen, and even in the streets of every city and every village. The artists called their movement Sots Art, a highly original and sarcastic version of conceptual art, although they were not aware of this term at the time. 

In the following interview with Vitaly Komar that follows after a short introduction, we discussed his student days, co-inventing Sots Art as the Soviet counterpart of Pop Art, personalising the official state slogans, participating in the Bulldozer Exhibition, emigrating to America, depicting the image of Russia as a bear, and producing diptychs, triptychs, and polyptychs to combine different styles, which the artist believes became a new step in the history of art.

Vitaly Komar was born in 1943 in Moscow. He studied art at the Stroganov Art School during Nikita Khrushchev’s Thaw. There he befriended Alexander Melamid with whom they started working together even before their graduation in 1967. The desire to start their own art movement brought the duo to a direct conflict with Soviet authorities; they resolved it by emigrating in 1977, first to Israel and then to America where they were represented by the legendary Ronald Feldman Gallery in Manhattan, exhibiting alongside the likes of Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol. In 2003, the artists disbanded their creative partnership. They now live and work in New York separately. Their fascinating collaboration is now the subject of a show Komar and Melamid: A Lesson in History at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, which is on view until July 16. Visitors will have a rare opportunity to take an in-depth look into these two artists’ rebellious careers.

  • Double self-portrait from the Sots-Art Series, 1973; by Komar and Melamid |Vitaly Komar | STIRworld
    Double self-portrait from the Sots-Art Series, 1973; by Komar and Melamid Image: Courtesy of Vitaly Komar
  • Double self-portrait as Young Pioneers, 1982-83; by Komar and Melamid |Vitaly Komar | STIRworld
    Double self-portrait as Young Pioneers, 1982-83; by Komar and Melamid Image: Courtesy of Vitaly Komar

Vladimir Belogolovsky: Let’s start with fundamentals. Why did you want to become an artist? What were your goals when you were applying to the Stroganov Art School in Moscow?

Vitaly Komar: I believe these goals started forming much earlier. I began drawing in early childhood. At home, I was surrounded by my grandfather’s antique furniture; pre-revolutionary books, which were the only alternatives to the Soviet-time official propaganda; and even some original oil paintings, including one by Ivan Shishkin, which, unfortunately, I was forced to sell right before my immigration. By the time I was 12, I entered an art school for children in my neighborhood next to the Moscow Planetarium. Among its pupils are such now famous artists as Grisha Bruskin and animator Yuri Norstein. I was simply incapable of becoming anything but an artist. 

Later on, I also became fascinated with a theory of the origin of art. I liked one particular speculation that compared an artist to a male peacock that spreads its tail in front of a female one. In other words, an artist’s paintings play the role of a tail and plumage. Showing your art is an act of a mating dance of sorts, a gesture to get attention. I liked this explanation because many of my friends would invite their fellow artists and the very act of presenting and discussing their works would turn into a kind of courtship. I recall this desire to please my own reflection in the eyes of my friends and viewers. Curiously, in the reflection, our brain’s rational and irrational halves eagerly change places. In any case, by the time I applied to the Stroganov Art School, it was already a conscious decision.    

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

VK: Let’s just mention that the school was financed by the state and everything then belonged to the state. Not just the army, banks, or land, but just about everything—all museums, all exhibition halls, all TV channels, newspapers, magazines, publishing companies, and on and on. In this situation, you constantly have to self-censor what you do or say. So, it is only natural that at least some people would express protest against such tight control. I also had this feeling of wanting to get rid of such perpetual self-censorship. There was a desire to squeeze this feeling out of oneself. It was [Anton] Chekhov who said, “Others made me a slave, but I must squeeze the slave out of myself, drop by drop.” 

We had professors who influenced our understanding of art. That’s how you start listening not only to those artists whom you encounter at museums or in books but to those who tell you what is preferable and what is “correct". I was studying art at the time of an important transition from Khrushchev’s Thaw to Brezhnev’s stagnation. It was such a kaleidoscope of constantly changing names of courses. The six-year program was replaced by five. And our professors were coming and going, each bringing attention to very different ideas. What did not change was the school’s focus on mastering artistic styles. That was a fundamental course. For example, in architecture, the ability of an architect to work in different styles, at least in the 19th century, was a sign of professionalism. Then a truly professional architect could work with any client on any commission—in neo-Renaissance style, neo-Gothic, or be it as exotic as Moorish Revival architecture. The same with artists. We worked in the style of Iranian miniatures, Russian icons, and Byzantine mosaics, or we diligently copied paintings by Rafael in a true academic style. Or, another professor would let us explore the works of Russian avant-garde artists. It was an interesting time—politically driven, dynamic, dialectic, and, of course, contradictory. Such an explorative approach taught us to understand a style as a genre. Early on, I understood a style as an intonation. I can say an “apple” with an intonation of Cezanne or Matisse. Or, I can say it with an intonation of a color photograph, and so on.

VB: How did this eclectic education influence your work?

VK: Quite directly and in many ways. You can see this mixture of ideas and styles in the paintings that we started working on with Alexander Melamid. Mixing different styles in a single work had many presidents. For example, Russian icons from the 19th century featured faces and hands in an academic style, while the clothing and landscapes were done in the Byzantine style or in an ancient manner of iconography. Klimt combined salon beauties with abstract ornamental backgrounds. There was also a transitionary period in Russia from Avant-Garde to Social Realism when faces and hands were done realistically, while clothing was represented abstractly in a Cubo-Futurist style. 

But with Melamid, we started doing something quite different. Even Picasso did not experiment with such ideas. For example, he never did diptychs combining works from his own different periods. But we started doing diptychs, triptychs, and polyptychs combining very different styles. That was a new step in the history of art. For example, when we were invited to documenta 8 in 1987 in Kassel, we presented our painting Yalta Conference made up of large square paintings, each in a different style. I believe, if we kept working in this direction, by now, we would be among the wealthiest painters alive because today, artists are recognised for their signature style. It is like a trademark—you either have to be recognised for your style or you need to discover something entirely new.        

VB: You have done both.

VK: We did. We were inspired by Pop Art, which made parodies of culture and advertising in the West, while we made parodies of political propaganda in the Soviet Union. Both suffered from overproduction.

  • Conceptual Eclectic series by Vitaly Komar |Vitaly Komar | STIRworld
    Conceptual Eclectic series by Vitaly Komar Image: Courtesy of Vitaly Komar
  • Yalta 1945 from the Big Bang Series, 1986-87; by Komar and Melamid |Vitaly Komar | STIRworld
    Yalta 1945 from the Big Bang Series, 1986-87; by Komar and Melamid Image: Courtesy of Vitaly Komar

VB: After graduation, you made a living by teaching art at the same neighborhood art school where you studied as a child. This means that you worked on your own paintings in the after-work hours, right?

VK: Of course. It was the time when home kitchens played the role of clubs. They were the only places where artists could discuss their ideas. There was just one place in Moscow where artists could exhibit their works to the public. At the time we tried to create a movement, not merely an individual style. That was not going to be tolerated. Yet, that’s exactly what we did by presenting our works in a café called Blue Bird in Moscow where such shows were allowed for a single day. It was there that works by such artists as [Ilya] Kabakov and [Erik] Bulatov were shown. Experimental poetry and music were also presented there. The place was curated by Komsomol activists. But following the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, it put an end to many liberal trends and the Blue Bird was firmly shut. 

The works we showed there just once in 1967 were done individually but we combined them into diptychs. Already then, we saw ourselves as co-authors because we worked within the same movement, which at the time we called “Retrospektivism.” In any case, there were no places left to show alternative works, which led to arranging the famous so-called Bulldozer Exhibition, a self-initiated unofficial art exhibition by non-conformist underground artists, which took place in September 1974 in the then wasteland area on the outskirts of a large urban park in the southwest of Moscow. It was then that we realised that even the air we were breathing belonged to the state, as we were not allowed to show our work on the street. Destruction of that show by the militia was the reason for our eventual emigration to the West where the show was widely covered in the mainstream media. By the time we left the Soviet Union our names and art gained popularity.   

 VB: Let’s go back to the times before your immigration. You and Melamid initiated another movement for which you became world famous, namely, Sots Art, which you invented in 1972. As you already mentioned, Pop Art in America was kick-started by the overproduction of merchandise and advertisement, while Sots Art was sparked by the overproduction of communist ideology. What were the circumstances for creating those early works?

VK: Creating Sots Art was a drunken flight of thought, really. Moscow at that time was a provincial place and its artists were trying to imitate what was happening in New York and other centers of culture. We knew little about New York but we read about Paris and we tried to drink as much as its famous artists once had been drinking—Van Gogh or Modigliani. And let me assure you, we drank a lot, at least a bottle per artist at a time. These gatherings happened practically every week. It has become a tradition. So, already, at least 30 years ago, I stopped drinking entirely. Well, almost entirely. Otherwise, I would destroy myself. In any case, teaching did not bring much earnings and we had to look for hackwork. Sometimes it was graphics or illustrations for book publishers. Once it was even a restoration of old frescoes in a church. And in 1972 a friend offered to decorate a summer camp for young pioneers—to write slogans, paint young pioneers, war heroes, portraits of Lenin and Stalin, and so on. That camp, in the suburbs of Moscow, belonged to the Scientific Institute of Civil Aviation and they paid well.

I have to point out that starting from 1967 there were many jubilee years. First, it was the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution and then every year for the next five years there was yet another huge celebration—in 1968 there was the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Soviet Army, and so on. In 1972, there was the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Pioneer movement in the country. Our camp commission was a part of the widespread frenzy of covering streets and public squares with a huge amount of patriotic communist propaganda. There was a curious contrast with America where you would see lots of abstract paintings in museums but the streets were dominated by advertising. Pop Art artists brought the spirit of the street inside the museums. In the Soviet Union, there was a similar disjunction. In museums, you would see Social Realist paintings but the streets were full of slogans. It was, in a way, a form of state conceptualism, even though no one at the time knew such a word. [Laughs.]  

We painted the camp during a very cold spring. Naturally, we warmed ourselves up with vodka. I remember discussing our thoughts. We were saying that we were real hypocrites because we were doing all that junk just for money. It was such nonsense. And there came a moment when we imagined that a painter would do all this genuinely as a cry of the soul. Imagine believing these slogans and doing our work honestly! Imagine depicting our wives as heroes and our children as pioneers! The next morning, we realised that we invented a new art movement. It was a revelation for both of us. That’s how we started—depicting our own relatives as heroes and ourselves as leaders. There was irony and sarcasm in that. Then came the slogans, which we signed as our own: “Forward to the victory of communism!” Komar & Melamid. The very first work was our own profiles to mimic Lenin and Stalin. When we were kids we saw them together everywhere—in the metro, on banners, on buildings, and even in the Mausoleum where I remember seeing them as two lovers, before Stalin was removed and buried in a tomb next to the Kremlin wall in 1961. The cult of personality was implanted into our brains. The first thing I remember reading at school was the famous slogan: “Thank you comrade Stalin for our happy childhood.” It hung over the entrance to our school. That’s how Sots Art was invented. The term entered dictionaries in many languages. It is surely more important than what I have done ever since.    

  • Thank you Comrade Stalin for Our Happy Childhood, 1983; By Komar and Melamid |Vitaly Komar | STIRworld
    Thank you Comrade Stalin for Our Happy Childhood, 1983; By Komar and Melamid Image: Courtesy of Vitaly Komar
  • The Origins of Socialist Realism from the Nostalgic Socialist Realism series, 1982-83; by Komar and Melamid |Vitaly Komar | STIRworld
    The Origins of Socialist Realism from the Nostalgic Socialist Realism series, 1982-83; by Komar and Melamid Image: Courtesy of Vitaly Komar
  • Yalta Conference from the Nostalgic Socialist Realism series, 1982; by Komar and Melamid | Vitaly Komar| STIRworld
    Yalta Conference from the Nostalgic Socialist Realism series, 1982; by Komar and Melamid Image: Courtesy of Vitaly Komar

VB: The idea was to personalise the slogans.

VK: Komar & Melamid became a personage. We played the role of this imagined personage. We even abandoned our own individual styles, which, by the way, we had already developed before we formed our collective. But because in the early years, many of our collective ideas were driven by our constant discussions while drinking. By the early 2000s we began to lose interest and fully exhausted the potential for our co-authorship. Since 2003, we work separately. 

VB: You said, “I have always been interested in the invisible line between the word and the image." Could you elaborate?

VK: That’s true. But more importantly, I was always interested in the space between paintings in the exhibition space. Is it the issue of architecture and exhibition design, or is it some kind of symbolism? For example, in a retrospective, the space between paintings is what the artist was doing in the time between painting these works—drinking in bars, having sex, conversing with friends; it is a line of the artist’s life. In a way, this space is an imagined time. It is a compressed time, a time bomb, just like the line between two halves of a diptych.  

VB: What do you think about the use of text in other artists’ paintings? 

VK: I think pure text first appeared in theatrical posters that were hung on advertising columns in European cities in the 19th century and earlier. There were posters with imagery right next to the ones with text only. That’s when different posters would be placed next to each other for the first time. For example, a poster with a performance in Moulin Rouge would be placed right next to a purely textual announcement. They would be an early prototype for modern diptychs or conceptual art installations, a stroll through a street of an old European town, passing eclectic building facades, each designed as a work of art, as a prototype for multi-style polyptychs. 

Of course, our own slogans were inspired by Russian avant-garde artists who used texts to create their works of art. There was such freedom then. It was in the art of cubists and futurists that letters and texts appeared. But it was in revolutionary Russia that slogans were first appropriated by avant-garde artists, which they treated as happenings and temporary exhibitions. Revolutionary slogans were always shown in the movement. They were carried overhead with columns of demonstrations. After the revolution they became static, displayed on walls and buildings. Slogans replaced old prerevolutionary advertising. It was ephemeral art because it had to be constantly replaced due to the harsh climate. Curiously, the only slogans left from those years are the ones signed by Komar & Melamid because they were acquired by museums and are now well preserved. No one thought of collecting authentic slogans.  

  • Triangle, 2022; by Vitaly Komar |Vitaly Komar | STIRworld
    Triangle, 2022; by Vitaly Komar Image: Courtesy of Vitaly Komar
  • Bulldozer, Red and Blue by Vitaly Komar |Vitaly Komar | STIRworld
    Bulldozer, Red and Blue by Vitaly Komar Image: Courtesy of Vitaly Komar
  • Bear, Red Vortex  by Vitaly Komar |Vitaly Komar | STIRworld
    Bear, Red Vortex by Vitaly Komar Image: Courtesy of Vitaly Komar

VB: What drives you as an artist?

VK: I want to live an interesting life, not a boring one. With age, I get more satisfaction from the process, even from creating the initial sketches, not the final works. I keep shifting my focus and interests. Right now, I am focused on depicting the image of Russia as a bear. Initially, these images that appeared in the English press at the time when the Russian army was fighting the French, were positive. But later on, especially after the Crimean War in the 19th century, the Russian bears were depicted with negative connotations. Then at the time of war with Hitler, again the Russian bear became a positive symbol of Russia. I am interested in this everchanging symbolism of a bear, which now with the Russian aggression against Ukraine, has flipped yet again. This destruction of stability is quite cataclysmic and I try to contemplate it in my current work. This terrible war is reflected in my latest paintings.

What do you think?

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