Theodora Clarke meets Julia Tulovsky, Curator of the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum is part of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. The museum’s permanent collection totals more than 60,000 works in a wide range of media and includes particularly strong holdings in Russian art. The Zimmerli’s Russian and Soviet Non-Conformist art collection contains over 22,000 objects spanning the fourteenth century to the present. George Riabov’s 1990 donation covers the Imperial era of Russian art whilst the Norton and Nacy Dodge donation in 1991 introduced Soviet Non-Conformist art to the museum. As a result of this gift the Zimmerli now holds the largest collection in the world with the collection totalling over 20,000 works by more than 1,000 artists. The current exhibition ‘Leonid Sokov: Ironic Objects’ is the artist’s first major show in the United States and runs until 31 December 2013. Theodora Clarke: How did the Zimmerli Collection at Rutgers come about?

Komar and Melamid, The Origin of Socialist Realism, courtesy of the Zimmerli Museum

Komar and Melamid, The Origin of Socialist Realism, courtesy of the Zimmerli Art Museum

Julia Tulovsky: We have this collection by sheer luck. The collection of George Riabov covers more traditional Russian art. George was an alumnus of Rutgers who decided to donate his collection to his university. In those days the community around Russian art was very closed; everyone knew each other. Norton Dodge found out that Rutgers was interested in Russian materials and he decided to make acquaintance with the director there. George Riabov introduced him to Norton Dodge, who was the director at the time, and this is how this collection came to Rutgers. It’s a fascinating resource. It’s the largest and the most comprehensive collection of this kind in the world. We also have Social Realist works on show, which act as a comparison to the underground art, as well as works by the Wanderers and a collection of several hundred Lubki. There is a large collection of Ballet Russes costumes, some Constructivist works by Stenberg and paintings by artists such as Sudeikin, Repin and Roerich. TC: Was Norton Dodge in contact with the artists he collected? Did he commission works? JT: Yes he was definitely in contact with the artists. I don’t think there was a stipend but I think he was one of the earliest people interested in this type of art. He was a wholesale collector and interested in purchasing the works and saving them from censorship. He wanted to preserve them. That also supported the artists, from a moral perspective rather than financial one, as they couldn’t legally sell their works there. TC: Can you explain a bit more about what Sots Art and Non-Conformism is and why these artists were not part of the Russian state institutions? JT: There was only one style of art allowed in the Soviet Union and that was Socialist Realism. In 1932 there was a union of artists and writers and if you wanted to practice art officially you had to be a member. Only the state could commission you. It was in 1934 that the concept of Socialist Realism was formed. It was essentially a propaganda style that glorified the leaders and their labour and the workers and the young, in a highly idealistic manner. Everything else was censored out. After Stalin’s death a new movement began to take force. Whilst he was alive nothing was possible; everything was physically limited. But after Stalin’s death people could think differently. Some were allowed back from the camps and others began to be a little bolder in their desires to express themselves. In 1958 Oskar Rabin and his wife Valentina Kropivnitskaia opened up a room in the barrack where they lived on Sundays to everybody who wanted to see something different. This room is one of the first endeavours in underground art and became home to the Lianozovo group. This ‘different’ art was by Rabin himself and his circle of friends including Vladimir Nemukhin, Lydia Masterkova, Olga Potapova and Lev Kropivnitsky. Their mentor was Rabin’s father-in-law Evgenii Kropivnitsky who was connected to the earlier avant-garde times and could direct these young people in how to stand for their own ideas. However, they weren’t doing anything political. Mostly they were trying to explore their own style of art. They had to find some ground on which to stand in order to reconnect with the avant-garde. Essentially, they were renewing a lost tradition and trying to cultivate this field. It was in the 1970s that art became more political. Artists started to use the methods of Socialist Realism but slightly shifted the accents. As a result the works carried a very different message, sometimes even the opposite of the original. TC: It’s interesting that you say that whilst we are stood in front of Komar and Melamid’s The Origin of Socialist Realism which is a very well-known work of Sots Art. Can you tell us a bit more about this work in particular and how it subverts the official style?
Leonid Sokov, The Most Important Word in the Russian Language, courtesy of The Zimmerli Museum

Leonid Sokov, The Most Important Word in the Russian Language, courtesy of The Zimmerli Art Museum

JT: You can see that theoretically everything here is right from a Socialist Realist perspective. The presentation is heroic – there are classical columns and drapery and of course Stalin with his heroic face. But because he is seated low down, behind a half-naked muse, he looks more like a Mafioso than a glorified leader. Socialist Realism incorporates the grand classical style and incorporates the classical subject. But this work is a joke, a parody of these ideals. The muse is depicted straightening his profile. This is in reference to the famous legend of a Corinth couple; when the man had gone to war the girl traced his shadow and that is how art initiated. So this is how Socialist Realism initiated: with the muse tracing Stalin. In the collection we have many different approaches to Sots art and we try to have examples of all the main artists on show. TC: The Bulatov works you also have here remind me of Soviet posters. JT: That’s exactly the reference that they have, especially to warning posters such as ‘don’t go onto the railroads’. He also mimics postcard printing. The references of the time are very clear. But he is also very subtle in terms of the message he conveys. The other artists are more explicit and have narrative qualities to their work but Bulatov works on an almost subconscious level. TC: Many of the works in the collection also seem to have religious references. JT: Religious art was forbidden in the Soviet Union. That was one of the directions that Norton had in his collecting strategies. There are various approaches to religious subjects here from Christian to Jewish. Grisha Brushkin, for example, portrays a pantheon of Soviet people. Each of them has a signifier of their profession.  That method actually comes from religious paintings, where saints would be identified by the attributes they held in their hands. In the Soviet Union everybody had to have a profession by which the person would be identified. However, there is also figure included that doesn’t have anything. He is faceless; he is like a Gollum and is out of the Soviet pantheon. We also have works by Leonid Lamm including a notebook with illustrations. This was the diary that he produced while in camp. We have on display a number of facsimiles from the book. TC: It seems unusual that he was allowed to write in a camp? Did he do it secretly? JT: Artists were ‘special’ people and as a result they did have privileges in camps when they served in the army. They could make posters and slogans so he was in a privileged position because he had a workshop where he could work to produce all this decoration. The display of the notebook is a special installation that he created for us. TC: How often do you have exhibitions on rotation at the Zimmerli? JT: We have two special exhibitions per year in our lower level and we have one in our main space which is where the Sokov show is now. TC: Let’s talk about Leonid Sokov exhibition. Why did you decide to feature works by this particular artist? JT: Sokov was one of the main nonconformist artists together with Kabakov, Bulatov and Vasiliev. He recently turned 70 and there was a show in Moscow to mark this anniversary. We wanted to partner with Moscow but then later decided to do a show from American collections. He’s an American artist in the sense that he lives in America now and this is the first solo museum show of his work here. There are a lot of works of his is America that nobody has really seen. TC: Would you describe it as a retrospective? JT: It’s kind of a retrospective. The layout is both chronological and thematic. Here in the entrance we have a self-portrait and it’s a reference to the famous bulldozer exhibition. This first room defines him as an artist and the roots of his art and many of the works are from his student years in the 1960s. He was interested in the sculpture of Shamans and magic and he studied the subject in books. Shamans struggle with one organ and perform their magical tricks on them so he started to do the same by drawing them like pictograms and hieroglyphic symbols rather than in a naturalistic way. This can be seen in his work Two Sexual Organs. The magic thing about him is this combination of obscene subject matter but in a very chaste manner. We also have a few later works from around 2007. So the exhibition is loosely chronological but yet it also thematic. There is another section called ‘materialising the material’ and another about Sokov’s absurdist take on the Soviet cosmos which are mostly Sots Art works done in the Soviet Union. After 1980 he moved to the United States. His principle is to work with this myth and the keys notions of popular culture and art history. TC: How does he mix these elements of Russian and American popular culture and art history?
Leonid Sokov, The Meeting of Two Sculptures, courtesy of The Zimmerli Museum

Leonid Sokov, The Meeting of Two Sculptures, courtesy of The Zimmerli Art Museum

JT: A good example is the painting Stalin as ‘David’, where Stalin is depicted as Michelangelo’s David. The sculpture of Giacometti and Lenin is another of his most famous sculptures and probably his signature piece. It is called The Meeting of Two Sculptures but really it’s the meeting of two different approaches to art; Socialist Realism and Modernism and also two different political systems. This oppressive fat Lenin contrasts with the Giacometti existential figure representing personal life. It’s a juxtaposition of power versus the personal. There is also a reference to Boris Kustodiev’s painting Russian Venus, which shows a large woman on pink pillowcases with a blue background. Sokov calls his work Soviet Venus and he puts Stalin next to her. It’s a kind of myth and spirit that is present everywhere. TC: The exhibition is incredibly varied; ranging from his work in the Soviet Union to his later influences from American culture. What are Sokov’s major themes? JT: Sokov often takes on the theme of word and image. This is a very large topic and he takes a variety of different approaches, although usually he does it by incorporating text into the image. We have on display The Most Important Word in the Russian Language, (Хуй) which is actually the crudest word in the Russian language and he monumentalises it by turning it into an iron sculpture. It’s a universal word. It can express a variety of emotions from admiration to anger, anything. Another method he uses to explore this theme is displayed in Four Portraits. Sokov makes each of the subjects from the material that his name signifies, so Stalin is made of steel (Stal), Gorky is made of mustard (Gorchitsa), Solzhenitsyn of salt (Sol) and Khlebnikov from bread (Hleb). It makes you think about the connection between the materials and the character.
Leonid Sokov, Jaws, courtesy of The Zimmerli Art Museum

Leonid Sokov, Jaws, courtesy of The Zimmerli Art Museum

He has a work called Glasses for every Soviet Person and they mark the entrance to one of the sections. This is the principle of this absurdist culture and this is the principle applied to the ‘Soviet Universe’. There is also a section on hedonism where Stalin, who is this personification of masculinity. Sokov looks at things from the perspective of a simple guy and this very sly folk humour that he brings into his works. These are the Jaws that refer to the shamanic ideas, but it also refers to a proverb: ‘put your teeth on the shelf’. It means if there is nothing to eat you might as well put your teeth on the shelf. It’s an expression that everybody knows in the Russian language. These drawers are the entrance to the next section which are sculptures of things that do not have a shape – for example constellations and fire. So how do you make a sculpture of something s that’s not a physical object, that is an idea, notion or geographical place? He of course relied on the absurdists like Kharms but also in the Soviet times there were very heavy language clichés that were almost tangible in culture. It was visible in poetry with people working with the clichés that were meaningless but also very weighty. Maybe that prompted Sokov to respond in this way. TC: How popular is Sokov now in Russia as a contemporary artist? JT: He is established. He is one of the big names of non-conformism and has recently had a large retrospective in Moscow. Regarding folk popularity, Russian contemporary art is a growing field and the general public still seems quite far from consuming art in general. Zimmerli Art Museum website: http://www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu/