Since their very first public exhibition in 1967 at the Blue Bird CafÃ?Â© in Moscow, Russian artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid have been at the forefront of avant-garde conceptual art. Over these past four decades, these collaborators have explored an amazing array of issues, in a wide variety of mediums, from music to poetry
to painting and installations.
As Komar explains from his New York studio, “We did many different works and only chronology united it.”
That being said, this diverse body of work is linked by an important concept about the function of art. He elaborates: “I think art must be as different as possible. Of course some art is entertaining, looks like entertainment, but the most important thing is to bring the questions in people’s minds. If art is entertainment which raises new questions, I’m for that. But if art just answers questions, it’s nothing but propaganda.”
This continual posing of questions and resistance to providing easy answers has taken numerous forms for the duo.
In 1967, they founded a movement known as Retrospectivism, a style of painting which marries abstract art with “the style of the old masters” and takes spirituality in the atheistic Soviet Union as its subject matter.
In 1972, they founded “Sots Art,” a Soviet dissident’s version of Pop Art featuring icons and slogans of the official art of the Soviet Union instead of Campbell’s Soup cans.
In 1982, they are the first Russian artists to receive a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. And in 1994, they received worldwide recognition for their professionally conducted poll on the artistic tastes of the masses, “People’s Choice,” which resulted in a “Most Wanted” and “Most Unwanted” painting for each of 14 countries and the World Wide Web, based on the resulting statistics.
In between, Komar and Melamid taught dogs, chimpanzees and elephants to draw, take photos, and paint, respectively, among other unusual projects, making points and raising their questions through irony and satire. But now, their work has turned back to its origins. It has refocused on spirituality and art with their recent, “Symbols of the Big Bang,” a series of neo-Symbolist works which attempt to visualize the origins of the universe.
“(There were) many sources of inspiration,” he explains. “In 1972-73, Alex and me created one installation, which we called ‘Paradise Pantheon.’ It was an installation full of many different gods from different religious systems…executed stylistically in different styles of different periods of art history. And after this work, we had a dilemma – what’s the next direction, to develop the idea of unity of different spiritual concepts, or develop the multi-stylistic form?”
Their decision at that time was to develop the new style they’d created, an early postmodernism of sorts. But now Komar and Melamid recognize the lost opportunity to develop these spiritual concepts in their work, and so they have come full circle, returning to the early desire to explore the range of human spirituality.
The resulting images are strikingly distinct, though, looking more like ancient mandalas than 21st century conceptual art. Pyramids, the Star of David, Yin and Yang, and even swastika symbols are present in these drawings and large-scale paintings. And yet they point to a gap between the early works of Russian Nonconformist art and the later works that received acclaim in the western art market, especially after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
“I think the spiritual sources were a very important quality of the unofficial, Nonconformist art of Russia,” he says, “because officially, the Soviet Union was an atheistic, communist country. And in the 80s, the totalitarian government produced a dream among artists, a dream about a unity of different religions, different concepts of spirituality. I remember some Jewish artists in the underground circles in Moscow, who studied Buddhism, or some Christian-background artists who studied Cabbala in the early 70s. And it was a dream about the unity of different concepts of spirituality and I believe it was… a wonderful concept which was not developed, unfortunately.”
Komar emphasizes that the collaboration between Melamid and him is not the only one he has experienced. There are many kinds of collaborations, including what he believes is the inevitable collaboration between every artist and his predecessors, a concept he admits may be hard for some to grapple with.
“Artistic ego is very strong, and many, many artists, especially young artists, don’t like to confess, to confess to themselves that they are working in collaboration with many, many influences on them. That’s my point of view , (and) the highest method of collaboration is participation in one movement. For example, Picasso and Braque as a Cubist…We are not just artists, we are a movement.”
In addition, students can sign up for a workshop on Neo-Symbolism with Komar, who believes there is a need for artists to return to certain movements of the past, like Symbolism, to continue what was interrupted by Modernism.
“I believe that because Modernism was so popular, and so shocking, the effect it had on the people, that we missed some possibilities to develop Symbolism,” he claims. “Something was not developed enough in 19th century Symbolism and in general in visual symbols.”
While he admits the recent Big Bang works are quite distinct from much of the team’s output over these past 37 years, he still sees a continuation of the earlier works, an ongoing questioning and a commitment to irony.
“The most important thing for me now is the relation in art between spirituality and irony, because my early work and Alex’s work as well had a a close relation to a concept of iconoclasm, and irony was a kind of weapon of iconoclasm for us. In irony, we questioned a few idols, the existence of a few pop idols, political idols or cultural idols. It was a kind of iconoclasm but without a real destruction of the object, but with lets say ironical deconstruction of the object.”
In his renewed focus on art and spirituality, Komar says he now sees only one irony existing in a positive way. He calls this “the irony of question.”
“Irony of answer, you can easily mix it with lie if you have an ironical answer, because irony looks like a lie for people. But if you have an irony in the form of a question, that’s a different story,” he explains.
“I can bring to your memory the first ironical question I believe, according to the bible,” he suggests. “When the Lord asks Cain: ‘where is your brother?’ That’s an irony…it’s a celestial irony… Of course Lord God knows where his brother is, but he gives him freedom of choice. He can say truth and repent or he can lie, and he chose to lie. Cain chose lie in this problem,, That’s why I believe real spiritual irony can exist only in form of question. that’s why I believe its so important to raise t eh questions in art and in spectator’s mind.”