Excerpt: Exploring Moscow’s Temple of Modernism
by Hannah Yudkin from Hyperallergic
If someone were to tell me that I’d have to walk for an hour and a half down a number of unknown streets in the southern part of central Moscow to get from the main building of the State Tretyakov Gallery at 10 Lavrushinsky Lane to its 20th-century counterpart at 10 Krymsky Val, I’d still do it again in a heartbeat. That’s because the Tretyakov Gallery at 10 Krymsky Val houses what is arguably the best collection of 20th-century Russian art I have ever seen.
Situated within the Muzeon Park of Arts across from the Moskva River, the museum at 10 Krymsky Val is a Soviet structure par excellence: grandiose, concrete and overpowering from the outside and similarly cold and monolithic on the inside. The building isn’t particularly beautiful or innovative (that is, unless you actually like Soviet-style architecture), but it serves as the perfect venue for a collection of 20th-century Russian art — art that was, by and large, impacted by the USSR.
In contrast to the more lackluster State Hermitage and Russian Museums, 10 Krymsky Val is exceptionally curated and properly outlines major movements in Russian art history. Starting on the fourth floor, viewers begin their survey with the likes of primitivist/fauvist/cubist Natalia Goncharova and Cezannist Ilya Mashkov. An entire room is dedicated to the work of Kazimir Malevich and includes, in addition to the more typical works like “Black Square,” a series of small, white, suprematist architectural models he constructed in the late 1920s.
No other artist in the collection, however, is as actively represented as Alexander Rodchenko, whose works span roughly five different galleries. Several of his early abstract paintings are on view, as are later prints and lithographs. A large nook to the side of one room is filled with Rodchenko’s small, wooden sculptures and mobiles, some of which are originals, like “Oval Hanging Construction No.12″ (1920); others have been recreated specifically for the museum in an effort to show most, if not all, of the artist’s sculptural oeuvre from the 1920s….
The most exciting portion of my visit was on the third floor of the museum, where the galleries have been transformed to feature artworks from the 1960s through the present day in a brand new exhibition titled Monuments and Documents. The purpose of the show is to reflect contemporary trends in Russian art and, as the accompanying text states, to present “the move from monuments of modernism to the documents of post-modernism, from ideological knowledge to the post-dialogue of our contemporary times….”
“Sots Art: Documents and Countermonuments,” the title of the fifth section of the installation, features pieces by Sots artists Komar and Melamid. “We Were Born to Turn the Fairytale into Reality” is a classic Komar and Melamid work that I was very glad to see in person. The artists have taken a well-known Soviet slogan, slapped it across a banner and signed the piece in the right-hand corner, drawing a parallel between Soviet propaganda and the underlying falsity of its written word.
Artists like Andrei Monastyrsky, founder of the Collective Actions Group, are placed in the sixth room, “Documentations and Realities of Proof,” while the eighth room, “Subtext, Context, Hypertext,” includes several artists that hail from the Medical Hermeneutics group, known for their installations and performances revolving around language. One piece in particular, Yurii Leiderman’s “Untitled” (1988), surprised me and stood out. It’s a work that was exhibited in Exit Art’s Green Show in 1989, which was curated by Margarita Tupitsyn and featured works by Russian artists such as Kabakov and Monastyrsky; I happen to own the catalogue, purchased recently at one of Exit Art’s last openings.
“Untitled” is a green canvas with text printed across the upper portion of the composition (my translation): “Look around yourself, look at the sky. Look at the ground, between the stars. At every point you will see suffering.” It’s a slightly dramatic combination of sentences and a bit absurdist in nature, but it makes the viewer acutely aware of her surroundings in its instruction, which we so openly follow. Knowing that this painting was created before the collapse of the USSR and that it was brought over to the United States in 1989 resonates very strongly with my own past. 1989 is the year when my family moved to the United States. I also happened to work at Exit Art in 2007.
Seeing artworks by Kabakov, Komar and Melamid, Leiderman and Monastyrsky in one space, and in such an important venue, is very rare. It’s true that these particular artists are quite visible and exhibited on occasion: Monastyrsky and others from the Collective Actions Group represented Russia in the Venice Biennale last year; e-flux magazine dedicated an entire issue to the collective this past fall; professor and critic Boris Groys discusses these artists frequently in lectures and essays. But most museums and galleries in the West tend to exhibit them in solo shows or alongside seemingly similar artists. Most dishearteningly, they’re often viewed through a Western-centric lens, which, in my opinion, perpetuates an alocal, acultural and ahistorical understanding of their work…
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