By Ksenia Nouril
Who remembers the Cold War? This is how I begin my tours of the exhibition Dreamworlds and Catastrophes: Intersections of Art and Science in the Dodge Collection, which is on view until July 31 at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers—New Brunswick. If you are over the age of twenty-five, you lived at least part of your life during the Cold War, a period between 1947 and 1991 in which there were no “hot” wars or direct, large-scale fighting between the global superpowers of the United States and Soviet Union. Chances are, you have memories of some of its major events, including the repercussions of dropping the atomic bomb during World War II, the building of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the first human on the moon, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Yet, for a younger generation, the Cold War may seem like ancient history. So I ask the question not only to capture visitors’ attention, but also have them reflect on how the art on view might relate to their lives, regardless of age or background.
The exhibition Dreamworlds and Catastrophes explores the aforementioned events through Soviet nonconformist, or unofficial, art—the name given to art created outside the state-sanctioned cultural infrastructure between the 1960s and the 1980s. It features sixty-four works in a variety of media by twenty-four artists from the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine, and Russia. Faced with both the positive and negative effects of innovations in science, technology, mathematics, communications, and design, these artists used art to express the utopian fantasies and anxious realities of everyday Soviet life.
Dreamworlds and Catastrophes frames the Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union within the period of its own conception. In this way, it honors the collecting history and legacy of Norton Dodge (1927-2011)—an inimitable mediator—whose commitment to this kind of art continues to shape an understanding of the transnational exchanges in art and culture during the Cold War. Dodge was a Maryland-based economist who first traveled to the Soviet Union in 1955 to research the role of women in the country’s economy. While Dodge began his travels under the auspices of academic research, his passion for art quickly took over. In 1962, he began surreptitiously meeting nonconformist artists living in Moscow, visiting their studios and apartment exhibitions. Over the next four decades, Dodge collected works from across the former Soviet Union, including the Baltics and Central Asia.
Unofficial art did not conform to Socialist Realism, the official style of art that realistically depicted positive, heroic, and idealized subjects unencumbered by the trials and tribulations of the everyday. The state did not financially or materially support the production of unofficial art, thus artists who wished to work outside the confines of Socialist Realism usually kept their day jobs. While there are salient examples of moments when this work was exhibited in the Soviet Union, unofficial art was indebted to Norton Dodge and others like him, who collected and promoted this kind of work abroad.
Knowing that the Soviet authorities were aware of his activities, Dodge felt it best for him—and, even more so, for the artists—if he ceased visiting the Soviet Union. In 1977, Dodge made his last visit. However, his passion remained strong and he continued collecting—thanks, in part, to a network of close friends, colleagues, and art advisors, as well as artists, who had since emigrated. He began exhibiting Soviet unofficial art in the United States—first in 1976 in St. Louis, Missouri, and then in 1977 in Washington, DC, and Ithaca, New York—bringing local and international attention to himself and his growing collection.
The Dodge Collection was donated to the Zimmerli in 1991, where it has since served as a resource for students, faculty, and visiting scholars alike. Its twenty thousand works by more than one thousand artists reveal a culture that defied the politically imposed conventions on Soviet official art. Since the early 2000s, the Dodge Collection has supported graduate students in the study of nonconformist art through a number of fellowships.
I was surprised to find out that the largest collection of Soviet nonconformist art was not in Russia but only an hour’s train ride from New York City and began researching the Dodge Collection in September 2011, when I entered the PhD program in Art History at Rutgers—New Brunswick. As a Dodge Fellow, I have assisted in organizing numerous exhibitions of the collection and started preparing Dreamworlds and Catastrophes in the spring of 2014. My goal was to find ways for the Zimmerli’s audience to access the Dodge Collection through the larger narrative of transnational Cold War networks of science and culture.
Advancements in science and technology during the Cold War gave Soviet citizens great hope, but they also came at a steep price, taking their toll on the economy, environment, and quality of life. For example, Soviet, as well as American, artists working at this time were conscious of the effects of the atomic bomb on society. The works of Boris Mikhailov and Alexander Zhitomirsky reveal concerns for the well-being of the average Soviet citizen in the face of impending nuclear war and the onslaught of American capitalism. In a photograph by Mikhailov from the 1970s, two boys are transformed into monsters by gas masks. Directly above them hangs a portrait of Vladimir Lenin, the first leader of the Soviet Union, who was said to always be watching. In his carefully constructed photo montages, Zhitomirsky juxtaposes seemingly incongruent objects to send strong, critical messages. Ferocious Appetite from 1969 makes literal the phrase “sharks of capitalism.” A decorated American general is turned into a monster with a nuclear warhead for a face. With a nameplate reading “Pentagon,” he devours a hospital, a school, an office building, and numerous links of juicy sausages that fly through his sharp fangs into his large, gaping mouth.
A salient motif of Dreamworlds and Catastrophes is that of the cosmonaut or Soviet astronaut. Cosmonauts were celebrated as heroes and became icons of popular culture. Yuri Gagarin, who is depicted in multiple works on view, is the most famous cosmonaut. The son of a carpenter and a milkmaid from a village outside Moscow, Gagarin was the first human launched into space on April 12, 1961. After orbiting for 108 minutes, he parachuted back to Earth, landing in a collective farm—much like the cosmonaut in Sergei Sherstiuk’s painting The Cosmonaut’s Dream from 1986.
Kinetic art, which uses movement, light, and even sound in three-dimensional constructions, allowed Soviet unofficial artists to directly apply science to art. In the Soviet Union, critics often did not value kinetic art as a fine art and relegated it to the decorative arts and exhibition design. As a result, many kinetic objects and installations went unrecognized and even unrealized. In Soviet Russia, kinetic art was dominated by Dvizhenie (Movement Group), a short-lived, loose collective of artists. At the same time, kinetic art also thrived in Latvia, a Soviet republic located on the Baltic Sea. Inspired by the utopian ideals of the early twentieth-century avant-garde, their works used art to revitalize everyday life under the often repressive Soviet regime. Janis Borgs’ Dynamic City references a series of compositions of the same name made by Gustav Klucis, the early twentieth-century artist. Borgs proposed installing a large-scale electrokinetic clock and graphic mural on the wall of a building on the corner of C?su and Lenin (now Br?v?bas) Streets in Riga. Valdis Celms’s Positron was also to be a work of public art on the grounds of an electronics factory in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine. More than just art, the sculpture would have rotated and emitted different patterns of colorful light, producing psychological and emotional effects meant to relax the factory’s workers and enhance overall morale.
To have a look for yourself at these and many other fantastical and cosmic works of unofficial art from the former Soviet Union, I encourage you to visit the Zimmerli before July 31!
Ksenia Nouril is a PhD candidate in Art History at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey and a Dodge Fellow at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Her dissertation examines the practices of contemporary Eastern European artists who actively question and engage with the history and historical representations of socialism since 1989. When she is not dissertating or curating, Ksenia is a Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives (C-MAP) Fellow at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, where she researches and plans programming related to Central and Eastern European art. Ksenia received her BA magna cum laude in Art History and Slavic Studies from New York University in 2009.