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From the Red Square to the Black Square: Memos from Moscow

Just a few days into his trip to Moscow in the winter of 1927–28, Alfred Barr wrote in his diary, “Apparently there is no place where talent of an artistic or literary sort is so carefully nurtured as in Moscow. . . . We'd rather be here than any place on earth.”* He went on to spend almost eight weeks exploring and enjoying the culture of this city, where he met with many of the now legendary artists and writers of the Russian avant-garde, including Aleksandr Rodchenko, Varavara Stepanova, El Lissitzky, Moisei Ginzburg, Sergei Tretyakov, and Vsevolod Meyerhold. With his traveling companions, Barr toured museums, art schools, and historic sites; purchased artworks, books, and souvenirs; and partook of local cuisines and customs. Barr’s experiences in Russia were critical in shaping his idea of modernism, which became the foundation of The Museum of Modern Art just one year later, in 1929.

Following in the footsteps of MoMA’s founding director, 10 members of C-MAP’s Central and Eastern European group spent five memorable days in Moscow in June 2015. The trip complemented the group’s growing interest in Russian art over the past year. While in Moscow, we visited 13 institutions—museums, private foundations, and commercial galleries—and had meetings with dozens of individuals, including artists, writers, collectors, archivists, educators, curators, and museum professionals, who narrated a deep and rich history of modern and contemporary Russian art, with particular emphasis on artistic movements since 1960. Highlights included attending the inaugural opening of the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by Rem Koolhaas; meeting with Zelfira Tregulova, the director of the State Tretyakov Gallery; visiting the studio of artist and unofficial-art magazine editor Igor Shelkovsky; and touring the late 1920s house of avant-garde architect Konstantin Melnikov. Five days were barely enough time. Between meetings and tours, the group took in breathtaking sunsets over the Moscow River, ate delicious traditional Russian meals of pelmeni (meat-filled dumplings) and borscht, and walked the city’s streets, marveling at the eclectic mixture of Neo-classical, Constructivist, and Brutalist architecture. While getting stuck in traffic on the overcrowded boulevards and bridges is an integral part of the Moscow experience, we did not miss the chance to explore the elaborately designed, extremely clean and efficient Moscow Metro. The group returned to New York with about 50 books to add to MoMA’s library and with recordings of interviews that we conducted with artists in Moscow. They will be published soon, here on post.

Barr visited Moscow at a pivotal time in the history of the city and the Soviet Union—just 10 years after the Russian Revolution and only a few years before Socialist Realism was decreed as the official style of Soviet art and literature. The C-MAP Central and Eastern European group has increased its research and programming of Russian art at an equally critical time. Russia today is at the center of several international conflicts, and the effects of this involvement can be felt in art and culture in Moscow. Maintaining C-MAP’s commitment to understanding the historical imperatives and changing conditions of an increasingly global art world, the group will continue its studies of Russian art.

Ksenia Nouril

  • Alfred H. Barr Jr., “Russian Diary 1927–28,” October 7 (Winter 1978): 15.

Author

Bodinson headshot

Sara Bodinson

Director, Interpretation, Research and Digital Learning MoMA Sara Bodinson is Director, Interpretation, Research and Digital Learning at The Museum of Modern Art. She joined the Museum in 2000, coordinating internships for college... Read more »
Elligott  michelle headshot3

Michelle Elligott

Chief of Archives, Library, and Research Collections The Museum of Modern Art Michelle Elligott is Chief of Archives, Library, and Research Collections at The Museum of Modern Art. Ms. Elligott joined MoMA as a Mellon Fellow in 1995; she became Rona... Read more »
Jon hendricks

Jon Hendricks

Consulting Curator, The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection The Museum of Modern Art Jon Hendricks is an artist, Fluxus Consulting Curator of the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection at The Museum of Modern Art, and curator of Yoko Ono exhibitions.... Read more »
Juliet kinchin id

Juliet Kinchin

Curator, Architecture and Design The Museum of Modern Art Juliet Kinchin joined The Museum of Modern Art in 2008 as Curator in the Department of Architecture and Design, focusing on the history of modern design. Her recent MoMA... Read more »
M moskalewicz

Magdalena Moskalewicz

Former Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral C-MAP Fellow at The Museum of Modern Art In 2012-2015 Magdalena Moskalewicz was a postdoctoral fellow for the C-MAP research initiative at MoMA, where she conducted research and organized academic programs for... Read more »
Ksenia nouril

Ksenia Nouril

C-MAP Fellow for Central and Eastern Europe The Museum of Modern Art Ksenia Nouril is a Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives (C-MAP) Fellow at MoMA, where she researches and plans programs related to Central and Eastern European art.... Read more »
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From the Red Square to the Black Square: Memos from Moscow MAP

From the Red Square to the Black Square: Memos from Moscow

Just a few days into his trip to Moscow in the winter of 1927–28, Alfred Barr wrote in his diary, “Apparently there is no place where talent of an artistic or literary sort is so carefully nurtured as in Moscow. . . . We'd rather be here than any place on earth.”* He went on to spend almost eight weeks exploring and enjoying the culture of this city, where he met with many of the now legendary artists and writers of the Russian avant-garde, including Aleksandr Rodchenko, Varavara Stepanova, El Lissitzky, Moisei Ginzburg, Sergei Tretyakov, and Vsevolod Meyerhold. With his traveling companions, Barr toured museums, art schools, and historic sites; purchased artworks, books, and souvenirs; and partook of local cuisines and customs. Barr’s experiences in Russia were critical in shaping his idea of modernism, which became the foundation of The Museum of Modern Art just one year later, in 1929.

Following in the footsteps of MoMA’s founding director, 10 members of C-MAP’s Central and Eastern European group spent five memorable days in Moscow in June 2015. The trip complemented the group...

Show More

Just a few days into his trip to Moscow in the winter of 1927–28, Alfred Barr wrote in his diary, “Apparently there is no place where talent of an artistic or literary sort is so carefully nurtured as in Moscow. . . . We'd rather be here than any place on earth.”* He went on to spend almost eight weeks exploring and enjoying the culture of this city, where he met with many of the now legendary artists and writers of the Russian avant-garde, including Aleksandr Rodchenko, Varavara Stepanova, El Lissitzky, Moisei Ginzburg, Sergei Tretyakov, and Vsevolod Meyerhold. With his traveling companions, Barr toured museums, art schools, and historic sites; purchased artworks, books, and souvenirs; and partook of local cuisines and customs. Barr’s experiences in Russia were critical in shaping his idea of modernism, which became the foundation of The Museum of Modern Art just one year later, in 1929.

Following in the footsteps of MoMA’s founding director, 10 members of C-MAP’s Central and Eastern European group spent five memorable days in Moscow in June 2015. The trip complemented the group’s growing interest in Russian art over the past year. While in Moscow, we visited 13 institutions—museums, private foundations, and commercial galleries—and had meetings with dozens of individuals, including artists, writers, collectors, archivists, educators, curators, and museum professionals, who narrated a deep and rich history of modern and contemporary Russian art, with particular emphasis on artistic movements since 1960. Highlights included attending the inaugural opening of the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by Rem Koolhaas; meeting with Zelfira Tregulova, the director of the State Tretyakov Gallery; visiting the studio of artist and unofficial-art magazine editor Igor Shelkovsky; and touring the late 1920s house of avant-garde architect Konstantin Melnikov. Five days were barely enough time. Between meetings and tours, the group took in breathtaking sunsets over the Moscow River, ate delicious traditional Russian meals of pelmeni (meat-filled dumplings) and borscht, and walked the city’s streets, marveling at the eclectic mixture of Neo-classical, Constructivist, and Brutalist architecture. While getting stuck in traffic on the overcrowded boulevards and bridges is an integral part of the Moscow experience, we did not miss the chance to explore the elaborately designed, extremely clean and efficient Moscow Metro. The group returned to New York with about 50 books to add to MoMA’s library and with recordings of interviews that we conducted with artists in Moscow. They will be published soon, here on post.

Barr visited Moscow at a pivotal time in the history of the city and the Soviet Union—just 10 years after the Russian Revolution and only a few years before Socialist Realism was decreed as the official style of Soviet art and literature. The C-MAP Central and Eastern European group has increased its research and programming of Russian art at an equally critical time. Russia today is at the center of several international conflicts, and the effects of this involvement can be felt in art and culture in Moscow. Maintaining C-MAP’s commitment to understanding the historical imperatives and changing conditions of an increasingly global art world, the group will continue its studies of Russian art.

Ksenia Nouril

  • Alfred H. Barr Jr., “Russian Diary 1927–28,” October 7 (Winter 1978): 15.

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0. PROLOGUE

Views of Moscow

Moscow Musings

Many years ago, I bought an artwork in Denmark by Stanley Brouwn. It is titled Path and was “a project for USSR.” It is 600 x 70 centimeters, graphite on acidic paper that is now crumbling and tearing in spots. Brouwn drew two parallel lines that extend for a while from the left of the sheet, then jut up a bit, and finally continue onto the right toward the end of the paper. What a stunning work for the world’s largest nation! A six- meter “path.” There is no location indicated for this path and no indication of what the path is to be made of, but I sure would like to walk on this “path” in either direction—left to right or right to left; north to south or east to west.

For a number of years our C-MAP group at MoMA has been studying and...

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Moscow Musings

Many years ago, I bought an artwork in Denmark by Stanley Brouwn. It is titled Path and was “a project for USSR.” It is 600 x 70 centimeters, graphite on acidic paper that is now crumbling and tearing in spots. Brouwn drew two parallel lines that extend for a while from the left of the sheet, then jut up a bit, and finally continue onto the right toward the end of the paper. What a stunning work for the world’s largest nation! A six- meter “path.” There is no location indicated for this path and no indication of what the path is to be made of, but I sure would like to walk on this “path” in either direction—left to right or right to left; north to south or east to west.

For a number of years our C-MAP group at MoMA has been studying and traveling to Central and Eastern Europe, but somehow avoiding Russia. RUSSIA! The land of Constructivism, Agit Prop, Stravinsky, Gogol, Pavlova, Nijinsky, Goncharova, Popova, Rozanova, Stepanova, Udaltsova, Larionov, Malevich, Tatlin, Kandinsky, Puni, Berliok, Mayakovsky, Rodchenko, Gabo, El Lissitzky, Suetin—the land of ideas and innovation, hopefulness, and vision.

We are studying the post-war avant-garde. Each country has its own vocabulary, its own needs for a new art that is defined by that culture and its peoples. We can’t be judges—only observers. If we can be open and not prejudge or artificially compare, we have a chance of seeing and learning. As La Monte Young told me in a different context: “Listen and observe. ”It’s hard to do. We find what we are looking for, but we have trouble uncovering what’s in front of us.

So we went to Moscow for five days, more or less, and took a fleeting stroll, about the length of Stanley Brouwn’s Path, in Russia. We saw old and very old art, and new art. We met extraordinary artists, thinkers, curators, art historians, and museum directors. Let me say, Moscow is an extremely beautiful city that cares greatly for its past, for its architectural history, but it is also a city moving into its future. I was very impressed by its care for memory, perhaps obscuring some, but presenting it all the same.

We went looking for insight into parallels to our own avant-garde of the 1960s and ‘70s, and to those of other Central and Eastern European countries that we had been studying, discovering what we, as an institution, had missed and overlooked. Could we find enlightenment in five days? Could we see or at least sense what was not on our itinerary? We met some great artists, but then had to move on, hardly having time to catch our breath or for the artists to express their ideas. We spoke English and hardly gave a second thought to the fact that almost all those we met spoke English back to us. We asked to see what we wanted to see but were hardly open to what might appear by chance or accident.

To be continued . . . .

Jon Hendricks
New York City, August 27, 2015

1. CENTER OF MOSCOW

Igor Shelkovsky's Studio

Meeting with artist Igor Shelkovsky

It took us a while to find the way to the studio of Igor Shelkovsky among the entrances to local stores on Gogolevsky Boulevard, across the street from the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. After we finally found the right door and made our way to the 4th floor, we were welcomed into a large, bright space by a tall, strong man with white hair, intensely blue eyes, and an elegant demeanor. The studio was filled with Shelkovsky’s work: small-scale geometric wooden sculptures, mostly white, were resting on numerous tables, on shelves, and directly on the floor. The walls were crowded with other wooden structures, this time flatter and black, and abstract paintings of various shapes, each filed with stripes of white, green, red and blue—the...

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Meeting with artist Igor Shelkovsky

It took us a while to find the way to the studio of Igor Shelkovsky among the entrances to local stores on Gogolevsky Boulevard, across the street from the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. After we finally found the right door and made our way to the 4th floor, we were welcomed into a large, bright space by a tall, strong man with white hair, intensely blue eyes, and an elegant demeanor. The studio was filled with Shelkovsky’s work: small-scale geometric wooden sculptures, mostly white, were resting on numerous tables, on shelves, and directly on the floor. The walls were crowded with other wooden structures, this time flatter and black, and abstract paintings of various shapes, each filed with stripes of white, green, red and blue—the artist’s proposition for a new Russian flag, as we learned later. Among this abundance of art objects, on the table closest to the entrance, lay a pile of papers: documents, bound photocopies, and original publications with the familiar Cyrillic letters “a-Я” immediately recognizable on their covers.

These were the eight issues of the art magazine A-YA that Shelkovsky published in Paris from 1979 to 1986, the primary reason for our visit. At a time of limited information exchange between East and West, every issue of this periodical—published in 3000 copies in Russian and English, with an insert of French-language summaries—provided a unique source of knowledge about the Russian contemporary art scene. It was A-YA that first acquainted Western audiences with the work of artists such as Ilya Kabakov or Eric Bulatov, and the critic Boris Groys.

Without much prompting, Shelkovsky began telling us how the magazine was produced. The contents of A-YA were based on materials smuggled out of the Soviet Union by various trusted travellers to the West. An underground editorial office was active in Moscow, in the person of Alexander Sidorov, who conducted the initial selection and made sure the texts and images reached Shelkovsky in Paris. (Sidorov appeared in the magazine under the pseudonym Alex Alexejev, to avoid prosecution.) A-YA cost 10 francs in France, where it was circulated via subscription, while another collaborator and compatriot, Alexander Kosolapov, distributed it in New York. Most importantly, however, Shelkovsky presented it for free to anyone traveling to the USSR, where A-YA was extremely popular in the art circles. While the culture of literary samizdats was flourishing in Moscow at the time, art-focused magazines were virtually non-existent when Shelkovsky was leaving for France in 1976. A-YA filled that void. That’s what’s incredible about the magazine: It wasn’t simply a publication about Soviet contemporary art made for the Western audience. The first of the set of goals stated in the first issue’s editorial was, in fact: “To acquaint Russian artists —in and outside Russia—with each others’ work.” The authors and the primary readers of A-YA were largely the same Russian crowd, but their own periodical could only reach them after a huge detour, via France.

Our host told us that the KGB made sure to inform all the known Moscow-based contributors that they were engaging in a dangerous, capitalist enterprise funded by the CIA. (In fact, Shelkovsky had to fundraise and sell other artist’s works to fund the periodical, after the initial funding, from a private collector, fell though just after the first issue.) But Igor Shelkovsky lost his Soviet passport only after he released the special literature issue, published only in Russian, which came out after A-YA #6 (without a number of its own). Socialist states of the former Eastern Europe are known for having imposed much stronger censorship on the written word than they did on visual arts, and this case was no exception. “The government wasn’t that interested in images or music,” Shelkovsky explained. “It wanted to control the thoughts of the people.”

The last issue of A-YA was published in 1986, and Shelkovsky got his passport back during Perestroika. When years later he released an almanac of the magazine—all 8 issues bound together—the 1,000 copies sold out immediately. Today, Shelkovsky credits A-YA with raising art consciousness in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. “You have to understand,” Shelkovsky explained to us, “my generation of artists did not know anything about Russian art. We did not know anything about Western art. We started from nothing.”

Konstantin Melnikov House

Visit to the Melnikov House

During a previous visit to Moscow, I peered through a fence and overgrowth at this avant-garde masterpiece, which, like so many other Constructivist buildings of the late 1920s, was obviously in a sad state of disrepair. Today, the stucco exterior is still cracked and patched, and wrangles over the Melnikov estate and archive are evidently still ongoing, but there has been a turn for the better since the city took over the day-to-day care of this precious architectural structure. Ambitious plans to preserve, research, and publicize the property are under way. And what a joy finally to get inside! Expertly guided by the director, Pavel Kuznetsov, and architectural custodian Elizabeta Lihacheva, who since childhood has been familiar with...

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Visit to the Melnikov House

During a previous visit to Moscow, I peered through a fence and overgrowth at this avant-garde masterpiece, which, like so many other Constructivist buildings of the late 1920s, was obviously in a sad state of disrepair. Today, the stucco exterior is still cracked and patched, and wrangles over the Melnikov estate and archive are evidently still ongoing, but there has been a turn for the better since the city took over the day-to-day care of this precious architectural structure. Ambitious plans to preserve, research, and publicize the property are under way. And what a joy finally to get inside! Expertly guided by the director, Pavel Kuznetsov, and architectural custodian Elizabeta Lihacheva, who since childhood has been familiar with the house and the Melnikov family, we were given privileged access to all its nooks and crannies.

This extraordinary manifesto of modern living, like the contemporaneous Rietveld-Schröder House in Utrecht, is modest in scale and located on an otherwise unprepossessing street. The environs have changed since Melnikov’s day. The neighboring church on which Melnikov deliberately trained a view from his interior is now long gone, and with it the visual echo of the Melnikov’s interlocking cylindrical volumes with those of a traditional ecclesiastical structure. From the roof terrace it is hard to imagine away the overbearing presence of a pumped-up block of luxury apartments next door. But Melnikov’s radical exercise in economic construction—using as few bricks as possible and piercing the exterior with strange hexagonal windows—still holds its own. The peppering of windows combined with the dramatic glazing of the double-height studio above the entrance really opens up the internal spaces. At the same time, one can see why El Lissitzky had a problem with this somewhat Art Deco spin on Constructivism—perhaps feeling that Melnikov had been overexposed to decadent forms of modernism at the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationales des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes while erecting the USSR pavilion there. Inside, the curved exterior walls create oddly shaped spaces, but one can sense the underlying grasp of an engineer’s or craftsman’s intuitive understanding of the technical and load-bearing aspects of the design and features, like the hand-built Constructivist stove. It was fascinating to see a couple of the windows opened up.

The house was one of the few homes that remained private in Soviet times. It was preserved by Melnikov's son, Viktor, also an artist, who died in 2006. Even knowing this, I was unprepared for the extent to which the contents have survived, all now bearing inventory tags: solid bourgeois furniture (including a kitchen cabinet given as a wedding present by Melnikov’s in-laws); a mauve Art Nouveau carpet that set the color scheme of the double-height studio; the white wool dress coat Mrs Melnikov acquired in Paris and two of Melnikov’s beautifully preserved hats; a clunky, rusting film projector in the basement, so redolent of the avant-garde fascination with film; a bust of Homer above the telephone in the stairwell. Thankfully, such artworks and furnishings from two generations have not been purged in a futile attempt to recreate an aura of “authentic” purity. In line with revisionist views of modernism, the curators are keen to emphasize the combination of avant-garde and traditional elements at work; they do not hesitate to describe the Melnikovs as coming from god-fearing, bourgeois-peasant stock. The term “iconic” seems doubly relevant in view of the house’s spiritual aura—the glowing yellow walls of the bedroom, apparently once gilded, give one the impression of walking right into an icon painting or Russian Orthodox interior. At the same time, the yellow and blue triangles on the ceilings of the boy’s and girl’s rooms reminded me of Vilmos Huszaàr’s designs for children’s rooms and the strong links between De Stijl and Russian Constructivism. Documents and vintage photographs from a recently discovered trove in the house are integrated in the displays throughout. It was exciting to see the house at a time of such rich new discoveries.

Visit to Galerie Iragui

Artist Nikita Alekseev at Galerie Iragui

Artist Yuri Albert at Stella Art Foundation

Meeting with artist Yuri Albert at Stella Art Foundation

On the third day of our Moscow visit, the group ventured to the Stella Art Foundation, which was established to promote cultural exchange, support Russian art and young artists, and establish a contemporary art museum. There we met Yuri Albert, an artist from the second generation of the Moscow Conceptual School, to see an exhibition of his work. Aptly titled I Need To Tell You So Much with My Art, the exhibition featured several works that, in Albert’s words, continue his investigation of several related questions: What is the content of abstract painting—or any works of art, for that matter? What does an artist mean or what is he or she able to tell through abstraction? What do viewers see in it?” In the main gallery hung several large...

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Meeting with artist Yuri Albert at Stella Art Foundation

On the third day of our Moscow visit, the group ventured to the Stella Art Foundation, which was established to promote cultural exchange, support Russian art and young artists, and establish a contemporary art museum. There we met Yuri Albert, an artist from the second generation of the Moscow Conceptual School, to see an exhibition of his work. Aptly titled I Need To Tell You So Much with My Art, the exhibition featured several works that, in Albert’s words, continue his investigation of several related questions: What is the content of abstract painting—or any works of art, for that matter? What does an artist mean or what is he or she able to tell through abstraction? What do viewers see in it?” In the main gallery hung several large white canvases with prompts written at the bottom stating, in Russian and English, “After viewing this picture, please sign and date it.” Already quite full of signatures—including a slash that one woman insisted represented her signature—the canvases playfully and critically evolved into a collectively authored work.

Another gallery featured a work comprised of more than a dozen small, black paintings that at first glance appeared abstract. Upon closer inspection (and in just the right light), sighted visitors could see that the canvases were printed with braille. Albert said the texts were excerpts from Vincent van Gogh’s letters describing his paintings to his brother, but that only blind visitors would be able to know this. He said that he develops many of his works with an ideal audience in mind. However, he noted that in this and many of his other works, any audience is missing some aspect of the work and its meaning: sighted visitors cannot read the braille descriptions, but visitors who are blind cannot see Van Gogh’s original paintings.

After leading us through the exhibition, Albert presented an overview of his work beginning in the 1970s, including one work in which he advertised his availability to perform chores or other small domestic jobs for people he knew. Participants filled out a work request and then, using photography, documented him executing the task.

Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA)

Tour of the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA)

The library of the Moscow Art Museum is a researcher’s dream and is newly accessible to the public. It is housed in an all-white, perfectly orderly room filled with tall bookshelves that glow with the colorful covers of the volumes they hold. Our visit to the library completed our tour of MMOMA, which started with the exhibition Fortune Museum, a show celebrating the museum’s 15th anniversary and featuring works from the collection. Initially conceived to focus on art from Western Europe and the U.S., MMOMA now includes contemporary art from Russia in its programming and acquisitions, a policy change that was reflected in the exhibition. In Fortune Museum we saw works by Igor Shelkovsky, Irina Korina, Vadim Zakharov, and Haim Sokol, who...

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Tour of the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA)

The library of the Moscow Art Museum is a researcher’s dream and is newly accessible to the public. It is housed in an all-white, perfectly orderly room filled with tall bookshelves that glow with the colorful covers of the volumes they hold. Our visit to the library completed our tour of MMOMA, which started with the exhibition Fortune Museum, a show celebrating the museum’s 15th anniversary and featuring works from the collection. Initially conceived to focus on art from Western Europe and the U.S., MMOMA now includes contemporary art from Russia in its programming and acquisitions, a policy change that was reflected in the exhibition. In Fortune Museum we saw works by Igor Shelkovsky, Irina Korina, Vadim Zakharov, and Haim Sokol, who were among the artists we met in Moscow. Other artists, such as Boris Orlov, Igor Mukhin, and Olga Chernysheva, were familiar to us from their works in MoMA’s collection. The exhibition was introduced by poetic phrases hidden in fortune cookies given out at the entrance, but we were doubly fortunate to have as our guides the show’s curator, MMOMA director Vasili Tsereteli, and his team. We toured the galleries and impressive open storage spaces, learning about the museum’s history and mission from Tsereteli, grandson of the museum’s founding director, artist Zurab Tsereteli. We enjoyed lunch with our hosts in MMOMA’s café, where monumental bronze reliefs depicting erotic mythological scenes are framed by colorful modernist mosaics designed for the museum by Zurab Tsereteli, who is currently president of the Russian Academy of Arts.

Visit to the Ostengruppe Studio

Meeting with artists Dmitri Gutov and Haim Sokol and scholar Ekaterina Degot

Multimedia Art Museum Moscow (MAMM)

Tour of the Multimedia Art Museum Moscow (MAMM)

One morning the group visited the Multimedia Art Museum Moscow (MAMM), a state museum founded in 2010 to introduce Russian audiences to both contemporary art and multimedia technologies. We saw a diverse array of exhibitions, including the first Robert Capa retrospective in Russia as well as exhibitions of war photography, fashion photography, and solo exhibitions of work by Herb Ritts and Joseph Kosuth. We were guided by Anna Zaytseva, chief curator and deputy director of MAMM, who, prior to her tenure at the museum, worked with Joseph Backstein on the first few iterations of the Moscow Biennial. She highlighted her work with contemporary artists to activate the museum’s atrium, which cuts through several floors of galleries, where recently Rebecca Horn had developed an installation visible from all floors.

We then retreated to the office of MAMM director Olga Sviblova to look at some of the museum’s rich holdings from the museum’s collection of photographs, including a number of vintage prints by Alexandr Rodchenko and Max Penson.

Meeting with artist Taus Makhacheva and curator Joseph Backstein

2. GORKY PARK AND AROUND

Scenes from the Garage Museum Opening

Archives exhibition at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art

The Sixties: Points of Intersection, a project by Garage Teens Team

One of the highlights of the inaugural exhibition program at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art’s new building was The Sixties: Points of Intersection. This beautifully designed and engaging exhibition was the result of two years of research conducted by the Garage Teens Team. This group, comprised of high school seniors and first year university students interested in contemporary art, attends lectures, visits exhibitions, writes, and hosts tours. For this project, they focused their research on the study of five characters from the period of the Khruschchev Thaw: Nonconformist, Student, Worker, Woman, Scientist, Architect. Of these characters, the teens wrote, “We were guided by two ideas: first, this selection really conveys the spirit of the era; and second, the era itself chose them as its heroes.”

In collaboration with the Multimedia Art Museum of Moscow, the teens produced a video that posed questions about their own relationship to the 1960s through the lens of these characters. Their insights were informed by interviews they conducted with people who had experienced the 1960s and by researching these characters through music, literature, and films from the decade. Each character had its own display of related resources and ephemera, smartly designed to match each persona. Throughout the run of the exhibition, representatives from the Garage Teens Team led tours of the exhibition in Russian and English.

Scenes from theTeens Team's exhibition at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art

Meeting with artist Olga Chernysehva

While in Moscow, we met with the artist Olga Chernysheva and were able to ask her questions about her film The Train (2003), which is part of MoMA’s collection. Reflecting on why she made the film, Chernysheva said, “I really wanted to see the train as a technical material, as a machine . . . like an organism . . . a living being.” Over several months, she shot hours of footage, walking through train cars with a hand-held camera. What she told us that was most surprising is that the film was almost never made. “I had all of this material, but I didn’t know what to do with it,” she said. Then on one of her journeys, she crossed paths with the rhapsodist (bard) who features prominently in this seven-minute film. He appears almost out of nowhere—down on his luck, traveling the rails reciting poetry for spare change. Chernysheva was fascinated by this man, who, she claimed, “saved” her film. She was impressed by how he humbly bridged high art and everyday life through his recitation of an early and little-known poem by the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin on a crowded commuter train. Capturing this moment was very important to Chernysheva because “The Train is not about traveling, but about being. For me traveling is about moving from point A to point B, but the film is about looking around at where you are. Even after the train leaves the picture, we remain.”

Artist Olga Chernysheva

Tour of Fallen Monuments Park in Gorky Park

Meeting with artist Andrei Monastyrski

Tretyakov Gallery on Krymsky Val

Tour of the Tretyakov Gallery on Krymsky Val

At the Tretyakov Gallery on Krymsky Val, or the New State Tretyakov Gallery, which is the part of the larger State Tretyakov Gallery dedicated to art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we met with director Zelfira Tregulova and curator Kirill Svetlyakov. Upon entering the permanent collection, we were stunned by the colors in the paintings of the early 20th-century Russian neoprimitivists. Yes, we had all seen works by Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova in books and slides, and some of us had actually encountered one or two of their paintings in museums, but the richness of color that hit us in the first two rooms of the New Tretyakov left us breathless. We were lucky to have Svetlyakov as our guide, as he introduced each...

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Tour of the Tretyakov Gallery on Krymsky Val

At the Tretyakov Gallery on Krymsky Val, or the New State Tretyakov Gallery, which is the part of the larger State Tretyakov Gallery dedicated to art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we met with director Zelfira Tregulova and curator Kirill Svetlyakov. Upon entering the permanent collection, we were stunned by the colors in the paintings of the early 20th-century Russian neoprimitivists. Yes, we had all seen works by Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova in books and slides, and some of us had actually encountered one or two of their paintings in museums, but the richness of color that hit us in the first two rooms of the New Tretyakov left us breathless. We were lucky to have Svetlyakov as our guide, as he introduced each work and told us about the early reception of this group of painters, known collectively as the Jack of Diamonds and later as the Moscow Cezannists. Surprisingly, four rooms farther on, even the celebrated Black Square, by the group’s most prominent member, Kazimir Malevich, seemed to be full of color: red and green tones lurked behind the fading black surface, which was covered with a web of craquelure.

In the room where Malevich’s later, figurative work was shown, Svetlyakov explained that after 1932, the museum’s avant-garde holdings were hidden away in storage. Within just a few years, Socialist Realism had replaced avant-garde painting and sculpture both in artists’ studios and in Soviet exhibition halls. This dramatic, imposed shift in artistic orientation was apparent in the exhibition’s narrative. Stepping from one room into the next—from the intimate scale and intellectual focus of Constructivist pieces to the inflated glory of pretentious but technically ingenious canvases of the Socialist Realists—felt like landing on a different planet.

Scenes from Igor Makarevich and Elena Elagina's exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery on Krymsky Val

Meeting with artists Igor Makarevich and Elena Elagina

Artists Igor Makarevich and Elena Elagina, key figures of the Moscow Conceptual School, joined us at the New State Tretyakov Gallery. They guided us through their special project Analysis of Art, which was installed in the galleries dedicated to Socialist Realism. This placement within the history of official Soviet art was strategic, although we found it very ironic, since the artists are well known for their work in unofficial art circles of the 1970s and ’80s. In the first room of their exhibition, we saw works from their series Mushrooms of the Russian Avant-Garde. Combining mysticism and modernism, this series remixes many recognizable works, such as Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1919–1920) and Malevich’s Black Square (1915), which we had just seen on our tour of the New Tretyakov. The installation also made direct reference to the centenary of the Black Square. In the second room of their exhibition, Makarevich and Elagina interspersed several vitrines featuring materials and apparatuses of other artists and other craftsmen. Particularly clever are their conceptual plays on words. For example, the stenciled Russian letters УНОК appear in a floating frame filled with rice, or “рис” in Russian. While “УНОК” is a nonsense word—perhaps referencing the famous Russian avant-garde school UNOVIS—the two words together make up the word “рисунок,” or “drawing.” By means of this subtle engagement with language, Makarevich and Elagina introduce a self-reflexive meditation on the life and work of artists.

Dima Vilensky and Olga Egorova of Chto Delat? and scholar Ilya Budraitskis

Meeting with artist Vadim Zakharov

Meeting with artists Dima Vilensky and Olga Egorova of the group Chto Delat? and scholar Ilya Budraitskis

“Education is impossible without entertainment,” asserts the collective Chto Delat?, with a nod to Bertolt Brecht. On a windy afternoon we met with Dmitry Vilensky and Olga Egorova, two of the 10 artists and activists who make up this group, which formed in St. Petersburg in 2003. They began by explaining that Chto Delat? models its artistic and political inquiries on the Brechtian triangle of speculation and critique, aesthetic pleasure, and political engagement. Their work is often embodied in films, actions, and newspapers. Today, it is circulated largely via the Internet, but before the era of widespread digital connectivity, the collective engaged a lot with radio.

Chto Delat? means “What is to be done?” or “What to do?” Although the name is usually associated with Lenin’s famous pamphlet of the same title, Vilensky and Egorova told us that it actually comes from a 19th-century novel by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, from whom Lenin borrowed it in the first place.

Together, we watched excerpts of Chto Delat?’s Tower Songspiel (2010), the final piece in a video trilogy of socially engaged musicals that addresses current political issues with the theatrical means employed by Brecht. The music was still reverberating in our heads as we left for lunch, where we discussed the role of art activism in Russia today. Ilya Budraitskis’s essay on the topic, which provided the basis for our conversation, will be published soon on post.

Meeting with artist Arseniy Zhilyaev and scholar Keti Chukhrov at the Strelka Institute

3. OUTSIDE MOSCOW

Winzavod Center for Contemporary Art

Visit to the V-A-C Foundation (VICTORIA — The Art of Being Contemporary)

Visit to Regina and XL Galleries at Winzavod

Winzavod, or the wine factory, is an epicenter for contemporary art in Moscow. Built in the late 19th century as a brewery, the complex later served as a winery and since 2007 has been home to numerous galleries, design boutiques, educational spaces, and cafes. We visited Regina Gallery and XL Gallery there and met with several artists. At Regina, Anna Parkina showed us a selection of her iconic collages, which were composed from colored paper and photographs, as well as her more recent collaged sculptures, in which she applied the same technique to abstract, three-dimensional forms. Viktor Alimpiev shared one of his films with us. Having seen his meticulously orchestrated works at various international biennials, we made the most of...

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Visit to Regina and XL Galleries at Winzavod

Winzavod, or the wine factory, is an epicenter for contemporary art in Moscow. Built in the late 19th century as a brewery, the complex later served as a winery and since 2007 has been home to numerous galleries, design boutiques, educational spaces, and cafes. We visited Regina Gallery and XL Gallery there and met with several artists. At Regina, Anna Parkina showed us a selection of her iconic collages, which were composed from colored paper and photographs, as well as her more recent collaged sculptures, in which she applied the same technique to abstract, three-dimensional forms. Viktor Alimpiev shared one of his films with us. Having seen his meticulously orchestrated works at various international biennials, we made the most of this opportunity to ask him questions about his process and production. On view at Regina were 60 portraits of Moscow artists, curators, dealers, and collectors by Alexey Kallima, who is best known for his light-hearted, brightly-colored, large-scale, neo-expressionist paintings. At XL Gallery, Irina Korina spoke to us about her major works, including Chapel, which she made for the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2013. While her installations and sculptures address serious and even controversial social and political issues in post-Soviet Russia, Korina has not lost her sense of humor. For a past project, she made and wore a larger-than-life head of the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. She appeared in this full-body costume at the Lenin Library in Moscow as well as outside Moscow at Tolstoy’s estate, Yasnaya Polyana, where she attracted crowds with her performative sculpture.

Visit to the Smirnov and Sorokin Foundation Studios