Saturday morning, as a column of rebel mercenaries seemed hell-bent on capturing Moscow, I made my way to the campus of Rutgers University to visit the Zimmerli Art Museum’s exhibition “Komar & Melamid: A Lesson in History.” Against the burlesque backdrop of Russian politics, it was a fitting day to view this puckish duo’s artwork—paintings, mixed-media installations, and conceptual presentations ranging from the early 1970s to the early 2000s that satirize the pomp and circumstance of Socialist Realism.At least as far back as Potemkin’s village, Russian public and political life has been a farcical affair, a set of glaring dissonances between high and low registers—officious and vulgar, sincere and facetious, tragic and comic. The Soviet art duo Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, promising students classically trained at Moscow’s Stroganov Institute, were two of the first to crystallize these dissonances in a gonzo style they dubbed “Sots Art,” a play on Socialist Realism, the mandated genre of art in the Soviet Union from the time of Stalin on. Predictably, their subversive material could only be shown in underground venues and apartments and found little appreciation among the authorities. When the pair participated in an infamous show of nonconformist art in the Moscow woods in 1974, a crew of “gardeners” with bulldozers “spontaneously” appeared, flattening canvases and wounding attendees left and right.
In the opening room of this sprawling, comprehensive retrospective, we see the duo’s first attempts at subversion, such as their 1973 canvas Double Self-Portrait, which flips the Communist personality cult on its head by depicting the two artists in profile à la Marx and Lenin. Next, scarlet banners, inspired by the signs hand-painted by workers for public events in the Soviet Union, either replace the typical agitprop slogans with banal phrases like “You’re feeling good!” or let the existing quotations stand—“Our goal is Communism!” is instantaneously derailed by Komar & Melamid signing their names below, while “Thank you Comrade Stalin for our happy childhood!” appears with a kind of copyright notice.
In the next room comes a delightful flight of fancy from the mid-1970s: hoax exhibitions of two artists entirely invented by Komar & Melamid, complete with wall text, primary sources such as letters and diary entries, and everyday objects from their lives. The whole affair creates the sensation of a whimsical Borges or Nabokov story brought vividly to life. Both of the sham artists serve to satirize the priorities of Soviet art history (and draw an ironic parallel to the treatment of nonconformist art): they are proletariat trailblazers ignored in their time, and their work is discussed in entirely biographical terms, avoiding bourgeois aesthetic judgements. The first, Apelles Zyablov, an eighteenth-century serf and proto-abstractionist, created a series of canvases depicting “nothing,” which we see here in six thickly worked oil paintings of churning mist and flame in green, red, brown, and black. If the aged Goya had been sent on an assignment to paint the landscapes of Hell en plein air, he might have produced something similar.
The second painter, one Nikolai Buchumov, painted four times a year over a period of fifteen years the same view of the field in which his peasant mother had given birth to him. On display are his sixty tiny canvases from the 1910s to 1930s, in which, evincing a hilariously intractable dedication to realism, the one-eyed painter included his own nose jutting into the field of view. It’s not all for laughs, however—glance back and forth across the passing of the years between these landscapes, and one can just barely make out the spires of an Orthodox church on the horizon. Sometime in the early 1920s, after the Soviet seizure of power, the church disappears off the face of the earth.
A final series of rooms is entirely composed of Komar & Melamid’s output after successfully immigrating to America in 1978. The strongest material here is a bravura series of large neoclassical and Old Master–inspired oil paintings. In one, a Protoceratops dinosaur apes the pose of Lenin against the ubiquitous scarlet curtains of Soviet hagiographical art. In another, Nikita Khrushchev invites Georgy Zhukov to his plot to assassinate Beria, the conspirators’ faces grinning in the darkness—from any way you slice the pie, this is an embarrassing look at the inner workings of Soviet politics, here heightened to absurd dramatic proportions using Caravaggesque chiaroscuro.
Though it does not lose the duo’s characteristic playfulness and inventiveness, the remainder of the American output of the 1980s and ’90s, trading the context of Soviet oppression for American free speech, lacks much of the earlier work’s dynamism and moral thrust. Their subsequent conceptual work, such as a “collaboration” in wood with a beaver and a monkey’s photographs of Red Square, is good for a chuckle but becomes a kind of exercise in conceptual art for conceptual art’s sake. Their political material attempts to lampoon American figures such as George Washington with precisely the same methods used in their parodies of Soviet leaders, but attempted twice, the same joke falls flat—at the very least, because America suffers from no dearth of parodic images of Washington in various postmodern situations (here, holding a baby/bald-eagle chimera, wearing a business suit), and more importantly because nothing is morally, aesthetically, or existentially at stake. In other pieces, the analogy drawn between Soviet propaganda and the utopian aspects of American consumerism and liberalism is a slightly more effective angle, but hangs so low on the ideological fruit tree as to drag the ground, once more falling flat both as a joke and as art.
In the early 1970s, the American press was quick to jump on the similarities between Komar & Melamid’s work and the Pop Art movement in the West. But while the similarities are visible aesthetically, Komar & Melamid’s sensibility seems much more aligned with Dada and the Surrealism of Salvador Dalí. The enormously fertile imagination and taste for the fantastic seen in the duo’s best work is alien to the clinical impulses of Pop Art. Whereas Pop Art only furthered the sense of estrangement brought about by propagandistic consumer culture in the midcentury—eventually becoming subsumed by the very phenomenon it tried to analyze—Komar & Melamid’s desire to involve the viewer in a humorous and cathartic dialogue with the propaganda at hand is a consistent and obvious throughline in their work.
In this spirit, upon being denied exit visas to Israel from the Soviet Union in 1977, they created their own make-believe country called “TransState,” replicated in a room here that serves as a bridge between the duo’s Russian and American output. Here we can view this nowhere-land’s passports, currency, constitution, and more. This is a genuinely touching distillation of the frustrations and hopes of the refusenik generation—Komar & Melamid are Jewish—who struggled to escape from the veritable prison that their birth country had become.
At their best in their Soviet work, Komar & Melamid are rightly fascinated with the ability of creations of art and artistic propaganda to comment unconcsciously on themselves—the innocent proletariat realist accidentally documenting the Soviets’ persecution of Christianity, or a banner’s word of thanks to Comrade Stalin for his benefactions giving us grim pause. The duo shows a keen judgment for when to let a work speak for itself—and sometimes speak itself into an ideological corner in so doing.