Russian artists are coming to town and into their own

January 16, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

They're under-priced. They're under-exposed, both here and in their homeland. But some of the world's leading museums are buying them. And now, at last, they've come to Baltimore.

"They" are Russian contemporary artists, four of whom are featured in "Four Russian Messages," an exhibit that opened yesterday at the Evergreen House Museum of the Johns Hopkins University.

Long forced underground because their work was in opposition to official Soviet art, hundreds of Russian contemporary artists were known only to a few curators, dealers and collectors until the mid-1980s. Some managed to make their way to the West, where they could create in freedom. But most remained in their homeland, their work seldom seen because it couldn't find favor with government officials.

Then, first with glasnost and later with the collapse of the Soviet regime, Russian contemporary art came into its own. And it's surprised the world.

"It represents the strength of the human desire for freedom of expression against great adversity," says Norton Dodge, a scholar of Soviet economics from Mechanicsville who has amassed the leading American collection of contemporary art from the former Soviet Union. "In terms of technique, these artists are better than many Western artists because they have been trained in a very classical school. And there are some brilliant artists with some very fine unique styles."

Dodge is in the process of donating his collection -- some 8,000 works by about 600 artists -- to Rutgers University.

"Many art historians and curators look upon this movement -- after the early Russian avant-garde [of the first part of the 20th century] -- as the most significant movement in this century in Russia," says Stuart Levy, whose New York gallery is now showing the work of 40 Russian artists.

As the Russian contemporary movement emerged, the cognoscenti quickly took note. Sotheby's held an auction of Russian contemporary artists in 1988 with a pre-sale estimate of $1 million. The auction brought $3.4 million. In recent years, these artists' work has entered the collections of leading museums on both sides of the Atlantic, including New York's Metropolitan, Guggenheim and Museum of Modern Art.

Yet to the general public they are still unknown. A few, such as Ilya Kabakov, who represented Russia at the Venice Biennale last year, may be creeping into the public consciousness. But outside major centers such as New York, Russian contemporary art is still to be discovered.

"Four Russian Messages" represents a toe in the water for Baltimore. It includes work of Leonid Lamm, Nikolai Filatov, Natalya Nesterova and Vladimir Nemukhin, all highly regarded. It is one of a series of exhibits being presented by a New York group organized last year under the cumbersome title Society for the Advancement of Understanding Post-Modern Russian Art Inc.

A privately supported non-profit foundation, SAUPRA is the brainchild of Alexandre Gertsman, an architect and art critic from Ukraine who immigrated to this country in 1992. The Evergreen show is the group's second. The first opened in White Plains, N.Y., in November. There are plans for SAUPRA shows through 1996 at such places as the Greater Hartford Jewish Community Center and the Washington Project for the Arts.

The Evergreen connection

Evergreen is a house museum, not an art gallery. But Mr. Gertsman considered it a good site because of its connection with early 20th-century Russian art.

Its owners in the first half of this century were diplomat John Work Garrett and his wife, art patron and collector Alice Garrett. In the early 1920s they had the house's theater decorated in designs by Leon Bakst.

"He was one of the leaders of the Russian [early 20th-century] avant-garde," says Mr. Gertsman. "He did a lot of the designs for the Diaghilev ballets in France that traveled all over the world, and he is a name that Americans know."

The show is appropriate for Evergreen "as a reflection both of the collecting tastes that formed the Evergreen holdings, and of the international interests of the Garrett family," writes Lili Ott, director of Evergreen, in the exhibit's catalog.

Making Evergreen especially appropriate is the fact that the four artists are indebted to earlier 20th-century art movements, including the Russian avant-garde of such now world-famous artists as Aleksandr Rodchenko, Kasimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky.

Mr. Filatov's work recalls the futurists, Mr. Lamm and Ms. Nesterova have roots to some degree in surrealism, and Mr. Nemukhin's art has been linked to that of Malevich and Kandinsky.

Of the four, only Ms. Nesterova still lives full-time in the former Soviet Union, in Moscow. Mr. Nemukhin divides his time between Moscow and Cologne, Germany. Mr. Lamm and Mr. Filatov are now in New York, but their work in this show reflects the concerns they had as artists in Russia.

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