Artists’ Portraits: Putting a Face to the Name, Zimmerli Art Museum

The Faces Behind the Art: Photos of Soviet Nonconformist Artists from the Dodge Collection at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, New Brunswick, New Jersey, US

A new photography exhibition at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University provides a rare opportunity to see the personal side of Soviet nonconformist artists who risked social, political, and economic repercussions in their quests for freedom of expression during the Cold War period. Artists’ Portraits: Putting a Face to the Name, on view through April 6, 2014, invites viewers to peer into the eyes of these artists, as well as glimpse at the people and places in their lives. More than 30 works are drawn from the Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, spotlighting artists whose works are on view at the Zimmerli.

Taken by photographers who were close friends of the artists, the portraits in this exhibition provide insight into the subjects' personalities and friendships, often featuring the artists in their studios. “Most of these portraits were taken by Igor Palmin and Lev Melikhov, presenting perspectives from two different generations,” explains Julia Tulovsky, Associate Curator of Russian and Soviet Nonconformist Art at the Zimmerli, who organized the exhibition. She continues, “Palmin’s images capture an interior view of his subjects who worked against the restrictions on art imposed by the Communist regime. Melikhov’s photographs tend to serve as historical documents more than a decade later, as the Soviet Union began to dissolve in the 1980s.”

Involved in nonconformist circles since the 1960s, Igor Palmin (born 1933) is now considered one of the key Russian photographers who reflected on an era that often is unfamiliar to younger generations. His close ups and large format prints give monumental scale to even the most mundane activities, testaments to his sitters’ perseverance through restrictive times.

Palmin’s 1972 photograph of Evgenii Rukhin (1943-1976), the influential painter and activist in Leningrad’s alternative art scene, shows the artist kneeling over art materials, seemingly contemplating his next step. Known for his abilities to organize other underground artists and illegally befriend foreigners who helped bring nonconformist art to the rest of the world, Rukhin’s defiant artwork and activities took tolls on his mind and body. Palmin compares this photograph of the artist to earlier ones: “Here, I see again the Rukhin I met in 1968, the person he used to conceal later behind a demonstration of happiness and stick-on smile.” Rukhin met an untimely death not much later, during a studio fire in 1976.

In the late 1970s, when Soviet emigration was at a peak, Palmin made it an unofficial tradition to photograph his nonconformist artist friends – including Lydia Masterkova, Oscar Rabin, and Ernst Neizvestny – the night before their departures. His 1975 photograph of Masterkova (1929-2008), one of the most significant women artists of Soviet nonconformism, shows her with downcast eyes, looking away from the camera. She appears to be already emotionally and physically drained from her daunting journey – a contrast from his earlier photographs of her, which captured a “strong and independent artist, who knew what she wanted.”

Lev Melikhov (born 1951) belongs to a younger generation and his images have become unique documents of the Soviet Union’s final years. For him, the nonconformist artists of the 1960s and 1970s were mentors and living legends. He began his series of artist portraits in the late 1980s, when many of the nonconformists were immigrating to Western Europe, Israel, and the United States. Melikhov often represented the artists in ways that resembled their artworks or in the intimate spaces of their studios and homes.

Melikhov’s straightforward photograph of Eduard Gorokhovsky (1980s) is particularly poignant because the tradition of portraiture was very important to the latter artist. Beginning in the 1970s, Gorokhovsky appropriated and montaged disparate photographs into his paintings and prints, which critically comment upon the conflicting social, political, and economic forces that shaped the Soviet Union. He was particularly interested in 19th-century studio portraits of individuals and families. Symbolic of a pre-Revolutionary Russian bourgeois society, these portraits were the starting point for a revolution that culminated in brutal Stalinism and the broader quality of life crises. Gorokhovsky often altered his photo-based images, disturbing compositional unity and evoking reactions from viewers.

In Melikhov’s photograph of Vladimir Yankilevsky (1987), the artist is pictured against the backdrop of his well-known work “Pentaptych No. 2: Adam and Eve” (1980), which currently overlooks both levels of the Zimmerli’s Dodge Wing. This eight-foot-long, five-panel, multi-media installation combines authentic Soviet doors, doorbells, mailboxes, and clothing salvaged from communal apartments. Yankilevsky also incorporated what he has termed “cosmic landscapes,” or abstract color fields dotted by futuristic, machine parts. This juxtaposition of two opposing worlds characterizes many of the artist’s works and comments about the alienation of individuals and the distortion of reality in Soviet society.

“We are very fortunate to house the acclaimed Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection, with its diverse array of artists, which allows visitors and students to examine a pivotal period in the 20th century through rich, visual resources and personal accounts that are not found in text books,” states Suzanne Delehanty, the Zimmerli’s director.

“Artists’ Portraits: Putting a Face to the Name” complements “Striking Resemblance: The Changing Art of Portraiture,” opening January 25, 2014, at the Zimmerli. Spanning two centuries and surveying 130 works by approximately 80 artists from around the world, this upcoming exhibition presents an innovative exploration about the enduring subject of portraiture.

“Artists’ Portraits: Putting a Face to the Name” and related programs are supported by the Avenir Foundation Endowment Fund.

The exhibition is curated by Julia Tulovsky, Ph.D., Associate Curator for Russian and Soviet Nonconformist Art, Zimmerli Art Museum.

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