Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 16, 2018
Margarita Tupitsyn Moscow Vanguard Art: 1922–1992 New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. 288 pp.; 148 color ills.; 129 b/w ills. Hardcover $55.00 (9780300179750)

It is difficult to assess Margarita Tupitsyn’s new book, Moscow Vanguard Art, 1922–1992, because of its strong spirit of partisanship. It covers wide historical ground and brings in a lot of new material gathered from primary sources, but it is also unabashedly selective, its choices circumscribed by the author’s personal history. A well-known art historian and curator of Russian and Soviet avant-garde art, Tupitsyn belongs to the generation of intellectuals who came of age during the period of stagnation and decline of the Soviet Union. The history she narrates belongs to this period fully and inextricably. Her important contribution to the field is to be one of the first and most consistent specialists to write about the formerly marginal subject of Russian and Soviet art, which has come to the attention of mainstream art history in the West only in the past fifty years. The author’s personal participation in this history forms an important part of the book and contributes to its strengths and weaknesses. Beginning in the 1970s, she was first a participant and later an organizer of the key events and exhibitions described in her book. Thus, her narration comes not only from her vast knowledge of history and theoretical literature, but also from her own experience. This personal element is reflected in the fact that Tupitsyn writes only about artists from Moscow, Russia’s capital and its largest and most developed city, where she was born and raised and socialized with many of the artists she describes in her book. This focus is a positive aspect of the book, as the author narrows down the topic to what she knows best. Tupitsyn’s decision to embrace “vanguard” art under a wide chronological umbrella is more problematic because she traces a direct parallel between the avant-garde of the early 1920s and experiments conducted by Moscow artists after Stalin’s death during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras. Tupitsyn talks about art in terms of its accepting or, the contrary, confronting the dominant political structure. This argument makes sense within an oppositional framework of a “left” versus “right” political struggle, but it dismisses a “gray” area in-between, which may be most interesting of all in the realm of aesthetics as it questions and often negates the polar divisions. In this sense, Tupitsyn’s reading of “vanguard” art is limited by its insertion into this oppositional structure.

As an actual participant of the many events she chronicles, Tupitsyn certainly has a story to tell. The book captures this story vividly, documenting it with numerous illustrations and photographs, some featuring the author herself. In the introduction to the book, she explains some of her choices by referencing her interest in the particularity of a “milieu” surrounding the artist, “with its perpetual mechanism of conversing” (1). Tupitsyn’s story is connected with the tradition of experimental and political art or “art in context,” which, she explains, demonstrably veers away from the concept of aesthetic purity propagated by Clement Greenberg in particular. Bearing in mind the specificity of Tupitsyn’s point of view, the book uncovers layers of history from published and unpublished sources. As a counterbalance to her personal involvement in the history she writes, Tupitsyn aptly quotes liberal philosophers, cultural critics, and art historians from Ernst Bloch to Michel Foucault and her teacher Rosalind Krauss to make or amplify her argument about the experimental nature of avant-garde thinking and production and its continuity through generations of Moscow artists.

The book has seven chapters, roughly a chapter per decade of the narrated history. The first two cover the decades before World War II, before the author’s lifetime. Tupitsyn begins with a story of an ideological and personal rivalry between Kazimir Malevich, the leading painter of nonobjective art, and a certain Evgeny Katsman, his brother-in-law, who turned out to be among the leading propagandists of conservative visual culture, later endorsed by Stalin and the officially supported Academy of Arts. Tupitsyn weaves an intricate narrative based on Katsman’s diaries, which reads almost like a detective novel. It reveals Katsman as a man ruthless in his attempts to destroy his rival both in art and in life, going as far as meeting with Stalin personally to plead the cause against the avant-garde. Tupitsyn makes Katsman’s diary a foil against which she develops her story of the foundation and functioning of such conservative artistic collectives as AKhRR (Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia) and Malevich, the protagonist of the avant-garde’s fight against the reactionary tendencies exemplified by the ideology propagated by Katsman. In this chapter, she touches on the key issues of this standoff: the debate about the teaching tendencies in VKhUTEMAS (Higher Artistic-Technical Workshops); the progressive role of Anatoly Lunacharsky, who promoted avant-gardists in the early 1920s; and the government support behind Die Erste Russische Ausstellung in Berlin in 1922, to which apparently only “left” artists were invited. It was interesting to learn, for example, that AKhRR was founded as a reaction to this exclusion as well as a means to associate with the Wanderers, an established group of nineteenth-century realist painters whose agenda, Tupitsyn insists, was much more progressive in its day than that of AKhRR. Tupitsyn’s listings of AKhRR’s exhibitions and her detailed chronicling of its confrontations with theoreticians affiliated with LEF (Left Front of the Arts) is helpful in reminding the reader of the fundamental difference between the approaches of the “right” and the “left” artistic factions: the rear guard aspired to study the conditions of people’s everyday lives and “depict [them] naturalistically,” while the avant-garde “imagined the proletariat not as subject of art, but as its participatory force” (11). This formulation of the pivotal ideological difference between the conservative and the progressive factions in Soviet art touches on the question of the conservatives’ idealization, the progressives’ utopia, and the loss of the reality principle in both camps. Tupitsyn weaves in the stories about other artists, such as Vladimir Tatlin, Alexander Rodchenko, and El Lissitzky, but in her choosing the Malevich-Katsman rivalry as the guiding thread of her argument, she creates a structure resembling that of a phallic, pre-oedipal standoff. In this dualistic confrontation, the raging competitors need each other in order to release their aggression against one another, but in fact the enemy they fight is invincible, because without it, their existence would be devoid of sense. This penchant toward analyzing art from the political perspective of the fight of the “left” against the “right” without giving the issues of aesthetics any consideration makes Tupitsyn argue against a growing interest of Western scholars in a comprehensive study of Socialist Realism, which she raises in the second chapter of her book.

In line with other histories of Soviet nonconformist art, Tupitsyn locates the possibility for a continuation of the spirit of the avant-garde with the death of Stalin, the concomitant end of terror, and the onset of Khrushchev’s thaw. The period from the 1940s to the 1950s is associated for the author with the resurgent interest of the Moscow artists in abstraction. In chapter 3, the author traces the development of this line of artistic thought in the work of Vladimir Nemukhin, Lydia Masterkova, Vladimir Yankilevsky, among others, including such relatively unknown names in the West as Vladimir Slepian and Mikhail Chernyshov. Artists doing three-dimensional work in open air, such as Francisco Infante, Lev Nussberg, and his Movement Group are also included, as well as early works by Ilya Kabakov and Erik Bulatov. Kabakov and Bulatov are well-known artists who resurface in subsequent chapters dedicated chiefly to performance and immigrant art from the 1970s and continuing through the 1980s and 1990s. While developing a convincing chronology of key exhibitions and events that spurred the development of the underground art scene, Tupitsyn excludes several notable names. In the section on abstractionists, important artists, such as Mikhail Shvartsman, are absent, for example. In the section on immigrant art in New York, a recently deceased Leonid Lamm is missing. This is especially surprising because Tupistyn worked with Lamm, having included him in her Sots Art exhibition at the New Museum in 1986, and authored essays and even a book about him. The reader is left guessing about the criteria of the author’s selection. The book has an index, but at times the page numbers do not correspond to the exact mention of a name, as is the case with the group Medical Hermeneutics.

Tupistyn’s book continues an impressive series of her publications, produced in the course of more than thirty-five years. She has always been a strong voice of support for the kind of art she writes about—politically involved and outspoken—which in many ways reflects her own personality. Perhaps partisanship in writing histories is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, nowadays it may be impossible to write a good history without taking sides and making clear which ideology you support. In this particular book, however, the author pushes this principle to its limit, making the reader wonder what is missing as a result of the personal choices she made.

Natasha Kurchanova
Independent Art Historian