NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Art exhibitions, like literary works, come in different genres. Some resemble lyrical poems or detective stories; others appear as farces or political treatises. Artist retrospectives most often fall into the genre of historical fiction. They tend to be presented as a chronological sequence of works accompanied by a curator’s statements and a handful of facts, leaving it up to the viewer to come up with a meaningful story.
Being a historical genre, a retrospective will always give rise to more than one narrative. Some exhibitions may even suggest several conflicting stories, daring the viewer to choose one over another. The Vagrich Bakhchanyan retrospective at the Zimmerli Museum is one such exhibition. To present the life and work of the Russian-born artist, whose career began in the 1960s Soviet Union and ended in post–Cold War America, the curators assembled a collection of objects and images that include not only Bakhchanyan’s most radical and intriguing artworks, but many of his less-successful and essentially unresolved pieces, as well as some of his books, magazine cover designs, and other ephemera. The abundance of the material and the convoluted chronology of the installation, with works grouped thematically as well as sequentially, make for a rich and varied experience. Even the layout of the exhibition is non-linear: one must walk through it in a circle, beginning and ending the tour in the first of its four galleries. The works on view suggest at least two plausible narratives of Bakhchanyan’s artistic trajectory: the uplifting story of an artist’s perseverance and creative growth in spite of difficult circumstances of his life, or the tragic tale of an artist whose talent never reached its full potential due to the pressures of external historical and political forces. It’s up to the viewer to choose one of the two stories, or to come up with an alternative.
Born in 1938 in Kharkov (then Soviet Ukraine), Bakhchanyan was a high-school dropout, working at a factory while starting his experiments in art making. He used transfer techniques to collage fragments of images from magazines and newspapers into abstract compositions — the kind of imagery that was condemned by the Soviet authorities as ideologically backward. The first dislocation of his life took place in the mid-1960s, when a local newspaper initiated a shaming campaign against him, forcing him to leave Kharkov and move to Moscow. By then Moscow had become an unofficial capital of Soviet nonconformist art, where artists like Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulatov, and Andrey Monastyrski were developing new methods in performance, conceptualism, painterly abstraction, and other art forms that had been banned by Soviet authorities. Secluded from the international art scene and working in self-imposed isolation from official Soviet art institutions, the nonconformist artists operated within small communities bound by close friendships and mutual loyalties, inventing artistic codes that were private and esoteric, yet strove to subvert the official ideology.
Bakhchanyan became an active participant in this scene. He made works on paper in which appropriated texts and images were combined and layered using transfer techniques, some utilizing official notices by Soviet administrators — the terse, usually handwritten flyers that punctuated the everyday life of Soviet citizens with warnings, admonitions, and exhortations. One such announcement scribbled on a page torn out of a logbook reads: “Comrade residents! On Monday the 19th there won’t be any cold or hot water. We ask you to close the taps and shut off the heating system in your apartments.” Over top of this message, Bakhchanyan has layered an image of a peaceful country landscape. In this and other works, the juxtaposition of random texts and images was meant to produce a momentary disorientation, a visual and mental shock caused by two or more layers of signification clashing and negating one another. The artworks reflect the absurdities and humiliations of the Soviet life — the tragic contradictions between the official ideology of socialism and its everyday reality.
In 1974 Bakhchanyan was given permission to leave the country, and he took his chances moving to New York. A well-respected conceptual artist with a small but devoted audience in Moscow, at the age of 36 he was thrown into an unfamiliar culture, where his language, background, aesthetics, and artistic vocabulary of subtle ironic gestures were either incomprehensible or of little interest to most people. One of his works from this period features a clipping from a major Soviet newspaper with an article titled “A teenager ponders over his future” and a photograph of a nude in an explicit posture layered on top of it. The English translation of the title is printed at the bottom of the piece, suggesting the artist’s ironic reflection on his own future in the English-speaking culture. In the years that followed, Bakhchanyan attempted to forge a new identity as a Soviet artist working in the West. He tried to invent a visual and conceptual language that would be accessible for international audiences while addressing the themes of social and political absurdities. For the first time in his career, Bakhchanyan used the image of Vladimir Lenin, the leader’s face distorted by cutting out and rearranging parts of the photograph, the iconic profile disfigured by a cap pulled down over his face. Images of the leaders were rarely used by nonconformist artists, who tended to avoid overt references to official ideology, inventing an arsenal of artful signs and gestures that appeared innocent but had subversive meanings that could be easily deciphered by sympathetic audiences.
Working in New York, Bakhchanyan had to rely on the widely recognizable symbols of the Soviet regime — the leaders’ portraits, the official banner, the color red — using them in conjunction with gestures and strategies borrowed from the international vocabulary of conceptual art. To create his “First Russian Propaganda Art Performance” (1978), he went to the MOMA wearing scores of communist and absurdist slogans pinned to his clothes. For his 1975 project “Red Week (Diary),” he picked an everyday object for each day of one week, May 15 through May 21, and painted it a deep red. The exhibition features a hat, a book, an electric burner, a pair of shorts, and a framed picture, all covered in thick oil paint, with a date scrawled on top.
A different strand in Bakhchanyan’s practice focused on the passage of time and the physical and psychological experience of temporality. The earliest of his time-based projects, “Diary,” was begun in 1979: for two years Bakhchanyan took a daily photograph of himself with the date glued on his forehead. The series of mug shots may have been another step in his search for an artistic identity, this time in the shifting yet tangible reality of his face. In 1991 Bakhchanyan started drawing during his phone conversations with friends in New York’s Russian-speaking community. He continued this practice for 18 years, filling more than a hundred scrapbooks with gouache-and-ink drawings; 28 of these are presented in the show.
The last and most impressive of Bakhchanyan’s time-based projects, “One Day Exhibition of One Work,” lasted from 1993 to 2008. Every morning the artist made a new 8 x 11 drawing and displayed it in his studio and online. The retrospective includes one annual cycle of the project: the 365 drawings made between July 28, 2007 and July 27th, 2008. This colorful mosaic of images is among the most appealing parts of the show. Some images are purely abstract compositions, others feature human figures and faces, and many include magazine and newspaper clippings, Russian product labels, and other small traces of daily life. Unlike most of Bakhchanyan’s works — marked by agonized self-reflexivity and somewhat forced drollery — these drawings appear both playful and confident, with an irresistible spontaneous humor.
Bakhchanyan’s late artworks are installed near the entrance to the exhibition, alongside works created 50 years earlier. Among these, a single piece stands out: a small gouache drawing measuring 7 x 4, completed only months before the artist’s death. The image is an overall pattern of white and blue arabesques on a bright red background, each shape resembling a dancing figure. Playful and rigorous, delicate and precise, the drawing presents a powerful and oddly poignant synthesis of form and color. It hints at another narrative that may help to interpret Bakhchanyan’s practice: the story of an artist’s lifelong search for a universal artistic language that would transcend the limitations of a particular culture, historical period, or personal background. His late drawings suggest a happy ending to this story.
Vagrich Bakhchanyan: Accidental Absurdity continues at the Zimmerli Museum (71 Hamilton, New Brunswick, New Jersey) through March 6.