My first encounter with modern art came in the third grade, in 1971, when my eyes fell on an issue of the UNESCO Courierthat was entirely devoted to a sociological survey and called “Public Opinion and Modern Art.” The magazine consisted of many pictures illustrating social preferences, starting with Renoir and Degas and ending with Dubuffet and Picasso. What I saw shocked me terribly. More than anything else I was surprised by a Klee painting, which depicted two arrows pointing at each other against a striped background. It was titled Evening Separation. I laughed mockingly. I took that magazine outside, to school, to show my friends what idiots there were in the world. But even then the faces painted by Picasso and Dubuffet stuck firmly in my head. And when I went to art school, the first thing I did was find that issue in a stack of magazines.
My First Works
My interest in drawing began in seventh grade. I drew alien landscapes, like the ones that abounded in the magazineTekhnika molodyozhi, as well as the series Eyes. I made those pictures in oil on album-size Whatman paper, without primer. The peak of my work from that period was the painting Eye of a Crazy Negro. After that I decided to become an artist and enrolled at an art school for children.
The art school didn’t give me anything valuable except an acquaintance with Boris Ivanovich Mygas, who taught a sculpture class there. I also decided to become a sculptor. Mygas made gravestones to order. In his courtyard stood an unsold, enormous kneeling soldier and a gigantic Cheburashka with crocodile Gena. He did not spend time on art at all. He said his family had killed his art and advised me not to marry. But he encouraged all of my formal experiments.
My first sculptural work was a satiric, multi-figure composition: a big drug addict in bell bottoms, surrounded by semi-conscious children, lighting a joint for a little boy who is reaching toward the lighter.
No one else knew about my other experiments. My friends and I would switch the labels under the children’s paintings at school exhibitions.
As I prepared to apply for college, I took individual lessons in painting and drawing from Mygas, who possessed an excellent pedagogical talent. It was my only school. He summed it up briefly in one, not very precise phrase: “The most important thing in painting is comparing and daring.” By “comparing” he meant finding the proper ratio of tone and proportion, and by “daring” he meant violating all possible rules – including those ones.
At the same time I attended Club ETO (an acronym for “Aesthetics, Creativity, Communication”), which was led by the innovative teacher Tatyana Viktorovna Tambieva. It was one of the manifestations of progressive, experimental Soviet pedagogy of the 1960s, derived from Makarenko’s communes. They encouraged free creative development of the child’s personality. Like many other semi-official organizations of the time, the club had much false pomp and bad taste, and encouraged all sorts of “spirituality.” But it was the only place at that time for informal, cultured communication among teenagers. That was where I met many of my future friends and maintained those friendships for all my life.
In 1977 I met Sasha Sigutin at the club. He was my first friend whom I could speak to seriously about art. We talked about everything: about abstraction, about the space of a painting, about perspective and Cubism… In my discussions with Sasha I found the theoretical foundations for my intuitive notions.
Sigutin was studying at the marine institute and went on foreign trips. In Europe he visited museums and observed alternative political communities. Inspired, he once made posters with political content in Rostov – something about Nicaragua and against the neutron bomb – and anonymously hung them around the city. The posters were taken down. We became friends. After graduating from his marine institute he spent a few more years sailing. He managed to travel all over the world and earned insane amounts of money. Work on the fleet gave him another serious advantage. For each week of sailing he got two days off and, as a result, he saved up enormous vacations. He devoted all of his free time to drawing and spent money on a wide-ranging cultural education. He bought a four-channel Rostov-101 tape recorder for 1000 rubles, foreign art albums, brand-name records.
Eventually he quit the fleet and enrolled at the art and design faculty of the Rostov pedagogical institute.
At that time Sasha met a man who insisted that he was Christ. Sasha did not believe that the Messiah had come, but became deeply interested in Hegel and Christianity. He even said that the pinnacle of world art was Alexander Ivanov’s painting Christ Appearing to the People. And he continued to draw.
For a while he switched from his early experimental painting to realism. Because of that rough ideological invasion, all of his early works look so uneven. He did not take part in a single one of our exhibitions of that period. Our friendly relations had no effect.
In 1991 Sasha finally joined us in Moscow. He quickly tuned into the activity of the gallery on Tryokhprudny Pereulok. And he easily fit in with the Moscow discourse. He started to make interesting, post-Conceptual things.
Meanwhile, I became a dedicated Futurist.
My Futurism had literary origins. It came from the school program, or to be precise – from readings of Mayakovsky. After reading Mayakovsky in school I found in our home library everything about Futurism that I could. My papa was a civil engineer and a book lover. He collected a rather large library. I read the memoirs of Shklovsky, Chukovsky... I even got Gastev from the used book store.
“Throw Pushkin off the ship of modernity,” “a slap in the face of public taste,” “in an hour your blubbery fat will flow from here to the clean lane”... All that seemed very current to me.
All around, decadence flourished (like before the revolution!): Tarkovsky, religion, bard songs, ladies in shawls, poetry by candlelight, Ciurlionis and Krasauskas. At first I even liked it a bit. But in the end, my friend, the Futurist satirist Valery Cheban, and I became bards of electric light and machines, prophets of the cult of anti-humanism and anti-spirituality.
I enrolled in the Grekov Art School in Rostov in 1978, after ninth grade. At the first meeting of new students I randomly sat next to Max Belozor. After a brief introduction (“Congratulations, you have entered the institute, now you are students!”) the director Felix Edmundovich Domansky unexpectedly said: “Remember! The most important thing in our school is not to drink!” Max and I were very surprised.
By an ironic coincidence, he was the one who became my drinking buddy and we soon became the very best of friends. Max, who lived so moderately, gave me support for many of my radical initiatives. Belozor was also a member of Art or Death, although he never took part in a single exhibition. Due to his great responsibility he never had enough time for art. But he always actively participated in all of our discussions. And he wrote the book Magic Country, about our radical drunkenness and punk life. That book makes it possible to understand much of our work.
Vasily Slepchenko, Alexander Kislyakov and Nikolai Konstantinov – our future friend – enrolled at the Grekov School the same year as Max and I. When they appeared in my life I gained an entire circle of people to talk to.
Sasha Kislyakov was older and more erudite than us. The circle of his artistic interests and practices was marked by a great diversity – from expressionism to geometry.
He had a serious interest not only in drawing but also in literature. In 1986 he came up with his own genre, “unwritten verses.”
Kisa lived nearby and sometimes came over to visit. Once, over a bottle of vodka, we realised that Khlebnikov was already dead and that meant the position of Chairman of the Globe was vacant. We voted and, of course, elected Kisa.
Then he married the artist Natasha Duritskaya and moved to Taganrog.
In the early 1990s, Kislyakov and Shabelnikov made the city of Taganrog’s first installation. It was dedicated to Victory Day. In a small room at the local art museum they exhibited an enormous cake shaped like the Reichstag. Shot-glasses of vodka were arranged on shelves around the room’s perimeter and each one was topped with a slice of black bread. Veterans were invited to the presentation. The artists treated them to vodka and then ate the Reichstag with them.
Vasily Slepchenko was a student of Leonid Alexandrovich Stukanov, a teacher at the children’s art school in Taganrog. Stukanov was a very important character in the history of painting in Rostov and Taganrog, the only living nonconformist I ever saw. He cultivated an entire array of excellent artists: Yury Fesenko, Yury Shabelnikov, Nadya Shvets, Natasha Duritskaya,Vasya Slepchenko.
Slepchenko inherited his life position from Stukanov.
Vasenka represented the most conservative wing of our group. There was nothing avant-garde about him. Both as an artist and as a person he completely fitted the image of the underground artist. He was prepared to live in a basement, eat anything, draw “for himself.” He was an intellectual artist. He read, thought and created his own inner world.
As a deeply reflective person, Vasya narrowed his field of interests and activities to bring clarity to his thoughts. He took the position of a modernist artist trying to develop a personal language.
When all of us, included Vasenka, moved to Moscow, most members of the Rostov group immediately got involved in creating a Russian art scene. That was of so little interest to Vasya that he withdrew. Then one day he left for a short trip to Rostov, where he was killed by an electric shock.
The main sources of contemporary art theory in the Soviet Union were a few books. The most important of them, of course, was the big black book Modernism, an anthology of essays that had been issued several times. Popular books by Kryuchkova and Kulikova came out, with an analysis of art theories of the early avant-garde and abstract art. Then came Rudolf Arnheim’s book, Art and Visual Perception. Rauschenbach’s General Theory of Perspective was also published. I even read a book by Abram Mol, propagandist of machine art. Many magazines from Socialist countries that were available in the Soviet Union published articles about contemporary painting, with pictures. The annual academic anthologies of Soviet art studies occasionally included historical materials on the avant-garde, articles by Turchin and Bazhanov... I maniacally collected all such literature.
I was also extremely lucky. My mum was a planner and her social duty at her institute was to organize subscriptions, therefore she could subscribe to everything offered by Soyuzpechat, the state publisher. That included the rare L’architecture moderne en France, a real French progressive magazine. We also subscribed to Tekhnicheskaya estetika, which introduced ideas of artistic modernism and even postmodernism to Soviet soil. For example, Tekhnicheskaya estetika published articles of Jenks, I remember his essay on Robert Venturi. All of that strengthened me in my avant-garde explorations.
I wasn’t lucky with art school. I enrolled in the painting department and found myself in the studio of the most conservative teacher, German Pavlovich Mikhailov, a Soviet artist scared to death of Soviet power.
He was a mannered, Petersburg professor, a pupil of Filonov, a pure German, with a beard and no moustaches, pale and polite. An aesthete, sensitive to beauty and ugliness. Our group included Lyuba Schegolikhina, a stubborn girl from a family that owned a pretty restaurant. And she would paint that restaurant vividly, poignantly and maniacally, with flowers, mirrors and teapots reflected in the mirror... Her exhibitions were held at our children’s art school constantly. Because none of the other students were as prolific. But when she went to German Pavlovich’s lessons in some red mohair top and a stridently blue crimplene blouse, he would drop his head and theatrically shield his eyes with one hand: “Lyuba, but you can’t do that!”
German Pavlovich and I had a never-ending conflict.
My relatively innocent experiments brought inappropriately harsh criticism from him. He didn’t like anything that I did. He made strict academic demands of us. But first of all, I did not know how to draw, and secondly, I wasn’t interested in learning. For example, I brought a self-portrait in for homework. It was a very schematic depiction of a person in a gas mask. Mikhailov said “take it away” and refused to evaluate the work. I protested, demanded explanations, tried to argue about experiments and innovation. These provocations, which I then thought of as discussions, accompanied the presentation of most of my works. The very last one, made at the end of my second year, was a residential development depicted as black horizontal and vertical rectangles and identical yellow square windows. I tacked it to the wall with big nails. Because I knew that German Pavlovich would not allow it. Before the general display he always made a round and took down the works that he thought were unfit. Of course, he tried to take down that work. He started to tear it off the wall as the whole class watched. Nothing worked. That was the last straw. I was expelled as a harmful element, “for propaganda of avant-gardism,” by a decision of the pedagogical council, which voted unanimously. But at that time, unlike most students, I was a model boy. I drank little, read a lot, never skipped classes, did all my homework, I didn’t even swear.
The only real artist in Rostov at that time was Timofei Fyodorovich Teryayev. He had studied with Sarian, then taught at the Rostov Art School and commanded absolute authority among the students and artists.
Teryayev belonged to a certain category of semi-official Soviet modernists of the 1960s. He painted in large, local swaths, very precise and complex, in the spirit of Marquet and Morandi. He was a major artist and it is a shame that he never had an exhibition beyond the borders of Rostov.
Teryayev often painted portraits of students. Once he offered to paint my portrait. “Don’t overdress,” he said, “come in that sweater.” It was burgundy. But the portrait didn’t come out and he painted over it.
Sometimes we would go to his studio. He spoke to us seriously, like with artists. After one of our exhibitions he praised my works, which was incredibly valuable to me.
An important event in my studies was Yura Shabelnikov’s appearance in our group in the second year. Shabelnikov was cool. He had just been expelled “for politics” from the graphic design department of the pedagogical institute and transferred to our school, i.e. from secondary education to primary, which was total nonsense. Yura had a black leisure suit, a white shirt with no tie, with a Belomor cigarette between his teeth, caustic and grown-up.
Shabelnikov drew better than anyone else and the teachers treated him with noticeable respect, forgiving his modernist dalliances.
His development was harmonious. He had drawn since childhood. And even as a child he had mastered the realist tradition. At an age when all little boys liked to draw battles, he drew them masterfully. His drawing of Boris Godunov was even printed in a children’s art magazine.
Yura, like Vasya Slepchenko, had been a pupil of Stukanov and a fully formed modernist. By that time he had already gone through a phase of obsession with Vrubel, he was interested in Malevich’s peasant period and early Chagall. He had a fantastic series of Malevich-esque, primitivist works: Horse Thief, Haystack and others. Local colours, people with stripes for eyes... Then he painted over it for another fantastic series derived from late Chagall. And through the mellowness of Chagall he passed to the abstract expressionism of de Kooning. Later Yura would cut up his own canvases and make free collages from painted material, violating the space of the painting, underscoring its materiality, and eventually moved on to creating objects and installations.
Observing Yura’s interest in primitivism, Cossack singing and jazz, I realized a very important thing. For real art you need to have some incorrectness, awkwardness, carelessness, freedom. Freedom from culture.
I can’t say that expulsion from school bothered me greatly. On the contrary, in certain circles I gained respect. And I felt that with satisfaction. That autumn I married and started painting a lot at home. In 1980 and 1981 I made a series of gouaches, which I thought of highly enough to exhibit. Then I started to position myself as a postmodernist.
In my gouaches I experimented with the space of the painting and that was the result of my attraction to Cubism and geometric abstraction.
Most of my works were drawn from live models and were pure spatial constructions – the result of schematic composition of well-known, classic examples. I displayed the gouaches at my first personal exhibition, which took place at the aforementioned Club ETO.
The second series of such works was made and displayed in a psychiatric hospital, where I went to for examination upon reaching conscription age.
When I made that exhibition I gave myself a very specific conceptual task: to obtain a note from the chief physician confirming that it was an artistic event.
I received official permission to make an exhibition and hung my works in my ward.
This agitated one of the other patients in the ward, who threw himself at the wall and damaged a work. The exhibition was closed on the spot. Unfortunately, I was unable to obtain a letter confirming that it had taken place.
Art in the Social Space
I must say that we were familiar with forms of artistic activity that went beyond the borders of painting.
My earliest performance with an object – even before art school – was an umbrella with a bicycle horn. I would walk around with it, honking it to frighten passers-by. That was when I developed the artistic accessory Clothespin. I used it to fasten the collar of my coat.
But in my first year I made the performance Arson at the Art School. In the presence of students I used matches in an attempt to ignite the metallic water pipe on the corner of the building.
Sigutin and I prepared our first object for public display in 1982. It was a thick metallic sheet imitating a street advertisement, “Metal cutting lessons,” with the address printed on little strips below. One of the strips had been cut off with a chisel. That tablet was attached to one of the wooden lampposts on the corner of Semashko and Shaumyan and hung there for a long time.
I made another art action in the social space with Sergei Vaganov, who was my friend and classmate at the time. We took chairs from courtyards, where old women would sit, and put the chairs in the most unexpected places. We hung them on the facades of buildings, put them on the awnings over entrances to stores…
But due to our internal immaturity and the lack of an audience, those practices did not develop in any important way.
I returned to art school the next year, in the autumn of 1981. That time I enrolled in the theatre department, in Yury Scheblanov’s studio. He had a reputation as a liberal and progressive teacher, and I was certain that I had lucked out. But that was not the case.
Scheblanov maintained contacts with Polish theatres and his Polish colleagues had made statements in support of Solidarity. People heard about it in Rostov. And Scheblanov was fired. But he had been a very popular teacher, and we, the second- and third-year students, wrote an open letter demanding that he be brought back, and sent it to the school’s director, the leadership of the culture agency, and the party bosses. We announced a strike, which was supposed to last until our demands were fulfilled.
We organized a strike committee. But since we could not come up with anything to do besides the letter, the committee gathered every day at the nearby park to drink.
The protest action lasted a week. We were resolved to go on. But Scheblanov himself convinced us to end the strike.
The atmosphere at the school became totally stagnant.
Meanwhile, if before I limited my work at the school to experiments on the level of homework, now I did it in the studio. I would shift the entire palette toward yellow, or red. I tried to paint backwards: green instead of red, purple instead of orange. I warped forms grotesquely. I misused perspectives. Although these were immature experiments, in the winter session, at the end of 1982, I was expelled for good.
Attitudes toward Soviet power in our milieu were sharply negative. Like most of my comrades, I held liberal, anarchic views and wanted to go to America. Life in America, I imagined, was something like this: non-stop jazz with abstract painting, pants-less performances with naked women, rock-and-roll, shitloads of foreign alcohol with beautiful labels and no waiting in line.
After growing up a bit, I realized that all those horrors of totalitarianism that I suffered so painfully were just a form of captivity that is typical of the family and school as institutions, regardless of how society is organized.
Now I understand that Soviet power collapsed because it did not make achievements in culture. Because the leftist avant-garde of the 1930s was destroyed. And the forms of culture that we struggled against truly were disgusting.
Expulsion from the school put an end to my official art career. But actually I had never planned to have one.
In 1983 I started painting with oil. It enriched my artistic potential.
My interest in Cubism led to a new understanding of the picture plane, which I began to demonstrate not only through my line, but through my work with layers of the painting’s surface.
Abstraction intensified in my painting. The motifs became much simpler. I made a series called Still Lifes with Coffee Pot, painted in various styles.
It was a game with languages in the boundaries of painting of the first avant-garde: Klee, Delaunay, Matisse, Picasso, Derain, Léger, Dufy…
Overall three lines can be isolated in my early work: avant-gardism, modernism, and postmodernism.
In my case, the use of postmodern quotation had a bookish, analytical character. I studied the classics with interest, analyzed them. On the other hand, it was declarative. My turn to quotations allowed me to position myself as a postmodernist. At that time I was interested in the formal side of painting, and essentially had not yet passed all the stages of modernism. My attention to the language of painting, beginning with my interest in Cubism and the space of the painting and gradually moving toward a vision of the painting as an object, was an experiment with mastering twentieth-century art. In the end, it was the modernist school that helped me to develop the reductionism and simplicity and extremity of the device that manifested themselves in my later projects outside of painting.
My avant-gardism manifested itself in “Futurist behavior” and radical alcoholism. Yet in the actual conditions of Rostov-on-Don both my modernism and my postmodernism looked extremely provocative, i.e. were also avant-gardist.
In that period I became good friends with Kolya Konstantinov.
In his early youth, Kolya was a very nice, intelligent boy. But in the army he was sent to some internal security brigade in Rostov Region and later told horror stories about it. One of the boys in his unit hanged himself, another shot himself. After the army Kolya was broken.
He lived in a communal apartment, without his mother, alone. He always had a lot of new music. The key concept in his life was jazz. Everything he did was an improvisation. He approached painting like it was music. In his paintings he never changed or modified anything. Furthermore, Kolya had never been inclined to theory. His art was pure self-expression.
In 1988, he came to Moscow with us, but soon went back home, without giving any explanation. In Rostov he continued to lead a spontaneous, radical lifestyle, maintaining the wild drive of our youth until his death. While we all gradually became more moderate, Kolya never put on the brakes. In essence, his whole life was a big jazz performance.
In 1984 my wife Marianna Markova, a citizen of Bulgaria, had to work five years in a Bulgarian school after graduating from the institute. We moved to Sofia. Before that I had worked as a guard and janitor, which was convenient and easy, but now I had to go to a factory. I worked half-shifts, to leave time for making art. I was in a foreign country, without friends, without language, alone with my wife and two small children. Our family life, which hadn’t been perfect before, was ruined completely.
From 1985 to 1987 I lived between Rostov and Sofia.
At that time, due to a lack of money, I started to paint oil enamel on fiberboard. The fast-drying enamel and Shabelnikov’s influence changed my manner of painting somewhat.
I made a large-format series, Stripes. As I understood it then, it was the extreme embodiment of expressive abstraction and seriality.
At the same time I was inspired by Rauschenberg’s ideas and his understanding of the impenetrable picture surface, and the ideas of Jasper Johns, related to the use of the same compositional plan in making a series of pictures. But if Johns used extremely banal signs (target, flag, map, alphabet) as subjects, I instead took famous world masterpieces: the Dutch, Rembrandt, Manet, Giorgione. I made an entire series using the motifs of one work by Corot. I gave myself the challenge of making pure painting in the boundaries of someone else’s plan, to achieve maximal painterly freedom within a motif that everyone knew.
I did that whole trick with quotations with the goal of acquiring painterly freedom. For me another artist’s painting was an empty sign, an abstraction, fit for realizing painterly freedom within it.
Only the emphatically expressive manner of the series distinguished it from what I later realized in the series Pictures for Museums.
I met Valera at the institute. I remember his exhibition on the theme of the civil war, with crooked horses. I did not take that seriously and was not closely acquainted with him. But in 1985 when we visited our friends at Pukhlyakovskaya Station, it turned out that Koshlyakov ran the art museum there. And he showed us his etudes. I liked them a lot. Soon Koshlyakovquit his museum, moved to Rostov and got work as an artist at the theatre of musical comedy. He lived in his studio there.
After ten in the evening the theatre was locked up, with Valera inside. Often, when we went past it on our way home at night, I would walk into the theatre’s empty courtyard. The window of Valera’s studio was the only one in the entire wall and was approximately on the level of the sixth floor. I would call to him, and he would stick his head out the window.
I introduced him to Yura, Kolya, Vasya and all the guys.
At that time, Koshlyakov quite quickly transitioned from Realist etudes to Fauvist painting, in which he found his own original language.
But the most important thing happened with Koshlyakov’s collage works, which gradually reached elementary appositions. He barely changed anything in images, he only placed them adjacent to each other or on top of each other. And although in his Rostov period Valera did not fully realize his achievements in this field, in the end those practices gave him the distance from his own painterly language that enabled him to turn into the Koshlyakov that we know today.
After moving to Moscow, Valera took up preparing grisaille on canvas, re-drawing black-and-white photographs from old books on Italian architecture. His experience with collage and drawing theatrical sets enabled Koshlyakov to avoid any subjective expression in those works.
The Moscow exhibition “The Great Magicians of Art” was the first time he showed non-painting, and made a step toward rejecting the traditional picture that was radical for him. It was his series Decoration of the Beautiful, slightly coloured old photos of operetta actors that he had brought from his previous place of employment. Almost a readymade.
Having finally returned to Rostov in 1987, I lived for a while in the squat at the House of Actors. There, among other important characters of the Rostov bohemia, lived Seva Lisovsky.
He folded his clothes on the only table in his room, and threw finished newspapers on the floor, and tossed his smoked cigarettes on top of them. The only thing that saved him from a fire was that he smoked Belomor cigarettes, which extinguish themselves.
Seva was not an artist. But he was an encyclopedically educated, extremely politicized young man and was distinguished by his extravagant extremism. For example, he took a categorical stance against hygiene.
To prove that he didn’t care what he ate off, he once ate a pork chop from an ashtray, sucking off the cigarette butts and putting them to the side.
Seva moved with us to Moscow and acted as the producer of Art or Death, and found money for catalogues to two exhibitions, “Here and There” and “For Cultured Leisure!” Incidentally, it was Seva in the late 1990s who, as the member of the Moscow artistic and political group Extragovernmental Control Commission, came up with the idea for the action Barricade on Bolshaya Nikitskaya.
I met Tima in 1987. As soon as I met him for the first time, I liked him, and it was perfectly natural. More than anything else he was a cool guy of the rarest sort. That much was obvious. Then Tima met all the artists in our group and took part in all our projects, but he didn’t limit himself to us. He also befriended and collaborated with all sorts of other people.
Tima and I spent a substantial part of 1988 and 1989 in Moscow.
Tima spent 1990 in Rostov, and managed to organize the festival Cleopatra Queen of Love, and assemble the group Peking Row Row. In 1992 he moved to Moscow with his beautiful wife and put on an exhibition in our gallery on Tryokhprudny. When he got to Moscow everything was just starting for him. But in the spring of 1993 Tima was shot in a random street conflict.
Timofei was a man of many gifts. Easily, playfully, as though for fun, he could draw, write texts, compose songs, sing them, dance, and hold performances. He gave his drawings to anyone who wanted them. He typed one copy of his texts and would forget them at someone’s house. Even his most successful project, the music group Peking Row Row (which, as is now clear, gave him a definite spot in the history of culture), was easy for Tima to quit.
Because neither music nor literature nor drawing on their own interested him.
Tima’s drawings are blatantly bad. They are mannered, frilly graphics that come from Polish magazines and the decadent poison of his Lvov art education. He did all of that automatically, in huge amounts, and always identical. These drawings, taken alone, in no way reflect Tima himself. They are souvenirs of him.
The most important thing for Tima was art as a way of life. He was a complete postmodernist artist.
Tima should have been filmed on a camera his whole life. That is why the videos of Peking concerts with Tima performing live are the most adequate of all the forms of his legacy. And yet it’s silly to present Tima as a singer.
The big problem is that Rostov was not cultured enough for “life as art” to be realized there as a full-fledged artistic project.
Miroslav Maratovich Nemirov was such a vivid figure that he easily stood out from the crowd. The first time I saw this man on the street I remembered him. A week later someone brought him to visit me at the House of Actors. As it turned out, Nemirov had just come to Rostov from Tyumen to start a revolution.
Nemirov was a radical example of a counter-culture activist. He even dressed up his school-age sister, a modest little girl, to look like a tough punk. Nemirov turned out to be a great poet of our times. He wrote texts that were nothing like what others were producing. It was avant-garde in the purest form. I have never seen a cooler guy in my life.
I immediately got involved in his initiative to organize a counter-culture movement in Rostov. We decided to teach the youth how to live an alternative lifestyle and founded a movement that later in Moscow was called free-stoolers. All of us activists carried chairs around the city with them and would sit in the most unexpected places. It was a provocative violation of social order. But as soon as the police approached, we would pick the chairs up and leave.
When we went to Moscow, that initiative died out.
At the beginning of perestroika we got the chance to exhibit our works. In the lobby of the construction workers’ House of Culture we organized a commercial exhibition of unofficial art. I presented Portrait of Raphael Santi, a picture I had painted especially for it. I had written right on it in large letters: “cost 150 rubles” (a completely realistic sum for those times). The painting, of course, was not purchased.
In the spring of 1988, Yura Shabelnikov arranged a one-day exhibition at the Priboi House of Culture in Taganrog.
Our collective exhibition “Bugbear” took place several months later in the Artists’ Union on Ulitsa Gorkogo. It lasted several days.
Finally, in the big exhibition hall of the Artists’ Union on Beregovaya, we put up a two-day exhibition called “Italy Is Shaped Like a Boot.” That was where the local museum of fine arts made its first (and last) purchases of our works.
These exhibitions, in the Soviet tradition, were accompanied by so-called “discussions,” where crowds of people gathered.
At all these exhibitions we showed paintings that we had made in the last ten years, and yet we could only show a small part of what we wanted.
Most of those works were sold cheaply in the first years of our life in Moscow. Therefore it is completely impossible to see that period as a whole.
With some exhibition experience behind us, in the fall of 1988 Nemirov, Tima, and I decided to open a regularly working gallery in Rostov. We took that idea to the owners of the public bathroom located at a well-trafficked spot, on the corner of Gazetny and Engels. We offered the entrepreneurs regular exhibitions and a cultural program without asking anything in return. They liked the idea of popularizing the establishment, which would bring additional profit.
For the first exhibition, “Provincial Avant-Garde,” Nemirov, Timofeyev and I got Koshlyakov to take part voluntarily and the local journalist Sergei Sineok by force. Sineok had written a satirical review of our last exhibition, “Bugbear,” because I had displayed a brick in the ceramics section. To demonstrate his knowledge, Sineok joked: readymade, Duchamp, we’ve seen all that before, it might have been nice to put the brick in a urinal, but just the brick alone is nonsense… And suddenly we had an extremely easy way to realize his idea. The work Brick in a Urinal was attributed to Sergei Sineok.
We hung pictures and Nemirov’s poems on the walls, and Mandelstam’s verses in the stalls. The next morning the exhibition was closed by an order of the regional committee of the Communist Youth.
Tima and I spent the summer of 1988 in Moscow on the Arbat.
I brought a cart full of paintings. At first I would unpack and display them every day. But I soon got tired of that, and so I just attached a sign to the bundle that said: “Eight Rather Good Paintings. Sold Together with Cart. Price 647 Rubles.” It all looked like an object by Christo.
We made money with commercial performances. For example, we organized a choral reading of some foolish science fiction novel, after which each page that had been read was torn out and offered for sale. Or Tima would draw portraits according to a pricelist where each part of the body had a price. You could order a picture of yourself without ears or legs, which would be cheaper. I also sat in a refrigerator box with a sign that said “Automatic Oracle,” and you had to drop a coin in the slot, kneel, and listen to an idiotic prophecy. Sometimes we would display an armless female mannequin, nicked in several places, with the sign: “Fund for the defense of women against mechanical damage.”
Our commercial performances were not very successful financially, but they allowed us to make new friends who would buy us drinks. That was important, because we could not perform when sober.
Our only relatively commercially successful project was “Society for the Struggle with the Society of Sobriety.” Instead of selling membership cards we sold “membership glasses” with the owner’s name and serial number written on each one. We lived in a three-room apartment owned by my friend Tanya Tsirkina. We were so social and hospitable that soon Tanya had fourteen people living there.
By the end of August, when the weather spoiled, we started getting ready to go back to Rostov, but we found out that there was nothing to go back to. Then a miracle happened: the famous collector and heart surgeon Misha Alshibaya bought my big, freshly drawn female nude on two pieces of roofing metal for fifty rubles.
Holiday of the Avant-Garde
In May 1989, in the lobby of a Moscow hotel, we held a rather silly exhibition that was named accordingly: “The Exhibition That Doesn’t Count Because Everything Is Very Bad.” In the process of preparing it we realized that exhibiting paintings in a hotel lobby to sell them was a rather stupid idea.
After that we settled near the River Station with Nemirov and Guzel, who would later become his wife, but at the time was his girlfriend and an activist in the Tyumen rock movement.
Guzel took up producing our activity. Once she organized a commission for us to design some idiotic event at Gorky Park called “Holiday of the Avant-Garde.”
An extremely small amount of money had been allotted for the design, and the director, who didn’t know what he wanted, suggested we make “something avant-garde” and promised us sixty rubles apiece.
We took a mountain of old magazines from the park’s library and spent a whole week cutting out amusing pictures and informational materials. It was all pasted with wallpaper glue to the paved surface in front of the entrance to the park, with a strict interval of five meters, and then all along the pavement to the pool where the paratroopers usually swim on their holiday.
It was the biggest work of my life. Both we and the bosses were satisfied with the outcome. We were paid the money according to the agreement.
The Great Magicians of Art
In the autumn of 1989, Koshlyakov, who had moved to Moscow, somehow managed to find a studio. I ought to say that every studio in Moscow where we lived for a relatively long time was found by Koshlyakov.
This studio, which had views of the Illusion Movie Theatre, Ustinsky Bridge and Spasskaya Tower, was on the seventh floor of a building on an embankment in the center of Moscow.
That was where Koshlyakov began his Italian architectural series, which demonstrated his love for beauty in its purest form. It was also when Valera told me that the most powerful aesthetic impression of his childhood was the Stalinist building of the railway station in Salsk.
I made my series Pictures for Museums.
In it I significantly moderated the degree of the deformation of the originals. They were actually copies, though they were painted quite freely. To underline the principle of citation, I painted a picture of Lichtenstein making a picture of Picasso; a big copy of Jasper Johns’ flag; large landscapes of Pissarro and Manet; a big portrait by Seurat; several of Duchamp’s urinals; a black-and-white version of Yves Klein’s monochrome and a rather crude copy of his Anthropometry; four of Warhol’s Marilyn portraits and a large work with many identical Marilyns; a big drawing by Tinguely, who had recently had an exhibition in Moscow.
I showed the entire series at “The Great Sorcerers of Painting.” Koshlyakov’s “Italian” series still was not complete, and he displayed his new series, Decoration of the Beautiful.
Shabelnikov still living in Taganrog, contributed painting from the mid-1980s.
Under the brand of Art or Death there were two more collective exhibitions in Moscow.
“In Anticipation of Leisure” opened in a hall on Petrovskiye Linii. That was where Koshlyakov first showed his cardboard painting, Rome, Piazza di Spagna. Right after the noisy opening with jazz, a reading of Nemirov’s verses and other acts of misbehaviour, the hall’s director shut the exhibition down.
“For Cultured Leisure!” took place in a big hall on Kashirskoye Shosse.
These exhibitions involved our new Moscow friends: Pavel Aksenov, Yury Babich, Konstantin Bokhorov, Dmitry Gutov,Vladimir Dubosarsky, Ilya Kitup, Alexander Mareyev, Alexander Savko, Gor Chahal, Vladimir Shvayukov.
Gradually all of the Rostov members of the collective, besides Kolya Konstantinov, moved to Moscow.
Art or Death
A specific tension distinguishes true painting from stylization. This tension arises either when the artist tries to master nature or when he tries to liberate himself from it. Modernist freedom cannot exist without the struggle against nature. That is why Matisse and Picasso never broke away from nature, which allowed their work to preserve that tension for many years. Once it achieved victory over nature, modernism exhausted its specific tension.
That tension existed in our works of the 1980s.
We believed that with the help of painting we could achieve true freedom. Of course, that was a utopia.
The move to Moscow meant the end of our modernism and a transition to our postmodern phase. In the cases of Koshlyakovand Shabelnikov that transition led to neo-classicism, while in my and Sigutin’s case it led to Post-Conceptualism.
It is surprising, really, how much the name Art or Death, which we invented accidentally in 1988, precisely reflects the break between modernism and postmodernism. The death of painting, which we felt then, once again brought us face to face with the question of the meaning of art.
We resolved this problem in Moscow in the 1990s. Later I not only reinforced my avant-garde convictions, I also came to a reconsideration of political positions. Now I am committed to left-wing views.