Iron Curtain artwork brought in from the cold LIBERATING ART

July 03, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

At the end of the dirt road that runs through the Southern Maryland farm called Cremona sits an early 19th-century farmhouse that looks out over the placid Patuxent River. The owner of the farm, Norton Dodge, a guy with a walrus mustache and a down-to-earth manner, sits in front of the house at an old picnic table talking about his life.

This peaceful scene seems far removed from contemporary art, international politics and smuggling canvases through the Iron Curtain. But in the past 30 years this soft-spoken economist has put together a giant collection of contemporary art from the former Soviet Union. It now numbers some 9,000 pieces by nonconformist artists whose work was condemned by the former Soviet authorities.

In 1991, Mr. Dodge and his wife, Nancy, decided to give the entire collection -- valued at $18 million to $20 million -- to Rutgers University in New Jersey, where it is scheduled to go on display next year.

In recent years some of the artists he collected have emigrated, bringing their works with them, and borders have opened up to allow easier transportation of artworks from East to West. But Mr. Dodge started collecting in the early 1960s, when the KGB watched outsiders closely, and when buying non-conformist art could get you in trouble.

"Norton was one of the first Americans to pay serious attention to underground Soviet art," says Ronald Feldman, a New York art dealer who mounts major shows of contemporary art by artists from the former Soviet Union. "He was way ahead of everybody and took great risks and put in an enormous amount of time and effort. He was brave."

And he wasn't in it for himself, but as a tribute to artists who couldn't help expressing themselves even though their work was condemned in their homeland. "I wanted to show what people could do under such adverse circumstances," Mr. Dodge says. "And how strong the human creative spirit was, and how despite no end of political control and even prison sentences and worse they still couldn't suppress the human spirit."

Since the 1970s, Mr. Dodge has organized shows of works in his collection from New York to Washington to St. Mary's College of Maryland, where he used to teach economics. Now, his gift to Rutgers allows all the world to have access to his collection.

"It's a gigantic collection," says Dennis Cate, director of the Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers, where the collection will be displayed. "In my evaluation of it, in the 21st century when people want to understand the Soviet Union, and specifically in the past 30 years how artists responded to the totalitarian system, this collection will be the means to do that."

Mr. Dodge, 67, began collecting because of a love of art and a profession that allowed him to travel to the Soviet Union when few others could. "I'd been interested in art as a grade-school student. I realized at an early age that I wasn't going to be focused enough and be able to concentrate enough on art that I'd ever make a good artist."

So he became a collector.

As an economist specializing in the Soviet economic system, he began going to the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Entree to non-conformist art circles was difficult, but Mr. Dodge knew the artists must be there. "As more and more literature emerged -- early works by Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak and the underground writers -- I thought if they were doing interesting things in literature and some of the other arts, they must be doing interesting things in painting."

At that time, largely through ignorance, Americans paid little or no attention to such work.

"The dealers weren't showing the art and the critics weren't writing about it, so the museum people weren't going to get interested," says Mr. Dodge. "So the art mechanism that would generate interest really had no way of functioning at that time. So I thought if people who should be doing this aren't doing it, maybe it falls upon an economist like me with an interest in art to try to find some of these artists."

Through a Russian friend of an American friend, Mr. Dodge was introduced to artists, and the world of non-conformist art opened to him.

Some of the artists whose work Mr. Dodge collected, such as Ilya Kabakov and the team of Komar and Melamid, have become successful in the West in recent years, with corresponding rises in their prices. Although Mr. Cate estimates the Dodge collection's current worth at $18 million to $20 million, in the early years of Mr. Dodge's collecting he was able to buy works inexpensively.

"They were a maximum of a few hundred dollars," he recalls. "Many works on paper were $100 or so -- $300 to $400 for major things."

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