On October 13 Zimmerli Art Museum, New Jersey, USA, opens a new exhibition Dialogues – The 60s Generation: Lydia Masterkova/Evgenii Rukhin. This exhibition is the first in a series that pairs artists who were prominent in dissident circles, but whose careers have been overlooked by histories of unofficial art outside Russia.
Zimmerli Art Museum occupies a special place on the map of Russian art and culture. Being a part of Rutgers University it is a teaching museum with diverse collections and dynamic programming which offer something for everyone. It owns a large collection of Russian and Soviet art which provides a unique overview in Russian cultural history from the fourteenth century to the present. The biggest gem is the Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union which is the largest and most comprehensive collection of unofficial Soviet art in the world. In 2005 the museum received the generous gift from Claude and Nina Gruen which included approximately 180 works by leading Russian contemporary artists, some of whom were Soviet artists now living in the diaspora.
Marina Maximova of Russian Art + Culture met with the curators of the show, Professor Jane A. Sharp, Research Curator for Soviet Nonconformist Art, and Dr. Julia Tulovsky, Curator of Russian and Soviet Nonconformist Art, to learn more about the museum, its holdings and the upcoming exhibition.
The show is the first of the series of exhibition with the same idea. Are you planning to continue the same principle?
Jane Sharp:Yes, we have planned this exhibition as part of a series that seeks to constitute partial, rather than larger master narratives about unofficial art in the Soviet period. I believe that especially this generation (of the 1950s-60s) has not been served well by survey texts and exhibitions of this period—in contrast to the more nuanced and certainly multi-vocal responses to Moscow conceptualism. My hope is that by attending to the particular materiality and ideas manifested in a few artists work, their contributions to the wider culture (beyond that of Moscow or Leningrad) will be better appreciated. These two artists knew each other, and their work speaks to shared commitments to substantially integrate their sense of the past, of specific aspects of Russian culture into an affective engagement with the present. So, rather than emphasize the “nonconforming” or dissident profile of each, pairing Rukhin and Masterkova sensitizes us to their broader interests, and their mastery in creating (not merely restoring or retrieving) an authentic visual culture whose connections to the past may be obscure but are also immediately tangible. In particular, their use of collage and the complex materiality of their paintings sustain an ongoing dialogue with historical visual arts traditions and, crucially, with contemporary audiences.
You bring together two artists of different genders. Was it an important aspect of your concept? Could you comment on the gender balance (or rather misbalance) in Soviet nonconformism?
JS:The pairing of these two artists was not motivated by a consideration of gender in either case. However, it is important for me/us to represent women artists and give them their due (long overdue) visual exposure. It is often said that there were fewer women artists of stature working during the late Soviet period–an assumption that guarantees their continued exclusion, and is simply untrue. I am convinced that a large, untold number of visually compelling and intellectually demanding oeuvres remain to be explored by art historians, including curators at the Zimmerli Art Museum. Masterkova is clearly an example of the rare artist recognized during her time (but, sadly, less frequently now)—so beyond this exhibition, she definitely merits a full retrospective. Indeed this exhibition may prepare us for viewing her work in its full scope, at a later date. The lack of balance that you refer to is an historical artifact of a discipline that has always been gendered, denying women access to the same privileged discourse given to their male colleagues. It cannot be proven (as a fact) of Soviet art history that there were fewer “great women artists” because the “evidence” is stacked against them (as was the case for the historical avant-garde as well). But certainly, that is the perception.
Julia Tulovsky:Although the choice of the two artists was not by any means motivated by consideration of gender, but by considerations of similarities in their methodological approaches and general impact of their work, it is nevertheless interesting to compare their work from the gender point of view. Precisely because their work is so close in time, style, energy, quality, methodology, and creative goals, it seems curious to consider the gender difference as an additional component. Such difference, it seems, manifests itself not in energy, emanating from their work, but in such personal preferences as choice of colors, compositional balances, and choice of found objects for their assemblages: more balanced and “precious” in the case of Masterkova and more rough and aggressive in the case of Rukhin.
The holdings of the museum go beyond the collection of nonconformism. Could you tell a bit about how Russian collection was formed?
JT:The museum acquired its first Russian collection in 1991 from George Riabov, who was a Rutgers alumnus. The Riabov collection contains materials pertaining to the history of Russian art from icons to the avant-garde of the 1920s. The earliest item in the collection is a 14th-century stone icon. It was Riabov who introduced Norton Dodge to Denis Cate, the Zimmerli’s director at the time. Dodge was looking for an academic institution that would have the capacity to accommodate, study, and promote his encyclopedic collection. He found such an institution at Rutgers University, making its Zimmerli Art Museum the largest repository in the world of Soviet nonconformist and Russian contemporary art, practically overnight, when the Dodge Collection came to the Zimmerli in 1992. In addition to the Riabov and Dodge collections, the Zimmerli acquired the Claude and Nina Gruen Collection in 2005. The Gruen Collection is important for the Zimmerli, among other reasons, because it extends the museum’s holdings into late nonconformist and contemporary Russian art, creating a precedent for expanding the Zimmerli’s Russian collections into the future. Overall, thanks to the Riabov, Dodge, and Gruen collections, the Zimmerli is the only museum in the United States whose holdings and galleries represent the entire history of Russian art from ancient times to the present day.
Your museum occupies a special place on the map of Russian art institutions as it is part of the university. How is the museum strategy connected and influenced by the university ongoing research?
JT:Norton Dodge’s goal as a collector was to create a visual archive, a kind of intellectual monument to the epoch. It was his idea and his mission from the start to make this “visual archive” available for interdisciplinary study.
JS:This is why, when Norton Dodge sought out institutions to which he might donate his collection, paramount in importance was the teaching and research component. He looked to Rutgers because, in its role as a major research university, he could be certain that the collection would be used in teaching (it is, by various departments), and by allocating funding for a full-time position in the art history faculty, he assured that graduate students would also further research in the area of unofficial art. We also offer courses on Russian and Soviet era art at the undergraduate level—both are extremely rare in the United States. This is the only art history department that pairs dissertation research with curatorial experience in the field of Russian and Soviet art (in the U.S.). Additionally, the education department at the Zimmerli is dedicated to providing informed access to a wide range of viewers, from children to adults, through various types of programming.
How would you define the audience of your Russian and soviet related exhibitions? Has interest to this art changed over the last decade?
JS:My exposure to audiences is based primarily on interactions with students and faculty. I understand that a diverse immigrant population also is attracted to our events, and when individuals who know nothing about this art find themselves walking through the collections, they are fascinated and spend a great deal of time looking and reading. I don’t believe I’ve noticed a difference in publics over the past decade, but unfortunately fewer students are drawn to the survey courses (this also has to do with changes made to the graduating requirements at Rutgers, which disadvantage certain “elective” areas within the humanities).
JT:We have a wide range of audiences, from students of Rutgers and nearby universities, to a seasoned international professional crowd, to local communities. I also did not notice the difference in publics, but I dare think that our international and local audiences are slowly, but sturdily, growing.
What are the challenges or advantageous aspects of promoting Russian and Soviet culture abroad?
JS:Advantageous aspects of promoting Russian and Soviet art abroad are the integration of Russian and Soviet Art into a different institutional framework in the U.S. (curating and caring for collections has a different professional history and context here, from that in Russia). Challenges remain creating an audience, and engaging in research, which requires long and regular travel away from the museum (to Russia and other collection locations). Both have lasting impact on the history of Russian and Soviet visual culture. Establishing a new context for viewing Russian and Soviet art in the U.S. should expand interest in the longer history of Russian culture abroad—and make us more aware of its real impact– benefiting both communities. It may also integrate this history (deemed particular, and occasionally marginal, vis a vis American or French art) into our wider visual culture.
What other museums in the USA would you recommentd to your readers interested in Russian art?
JS:The Museum of Russian Art in Mineapolis and the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College (The Thomas Whitney Collection). Both have substantial collections of primarily Russian art. Additionally, major works are owned by a number of museums and are frequently on view at the LA County Museum of Art, the Yale University Art Gallery, MoMA, and the S. R. Guggenheim Museum.