If someone were to tell me that I’d have to walk for an hour and a half down a number of unknown streets in the southern part of central Moscow to get from the main building of the State Tretyakov Gallery at 10 Lavrushinsky Lane to its 20th-century counterpart at 10 Krymsky Val, I’d still do it again in a heartbeat. That’s because the Tretyakov Gallery at 10 Krymsky Val houses what is arguably the best collection of 20th-century Russian art I have ever seen.
Situated within the Muzeon Park of Arts across from the Moskva River, the museum at 10 Krymsky Val is a Soviet structure par excellence: grandiose, concrete and overpowering from the outside and similarly cold and monolithic on the inside. The building isn’t particularly beautiful or innovative (that is, unless you actually like Soviet-style architecture), but it serves as the perfect venue for a collection of 20th-century Russian art — art that was, by and large, impacted by the USSR.
In contrast to the more lackluster State Hermitage and Russian Museums, 10 Krymsky Val is exceptionally curated and properly outlines major movements in Russian art history. Starting on the fourth floor, viewers begin their survey with the likes of primitivist/fauvist/cubist Natalia Goncharova and Cezannist Ilya Mashkov. An entire room is dedicated to the work of Kazimir Malevich and includes, in addition to the more typical works like “Black Square,” a series of small, white, suprematist architectural models he constructed in the late 1920s.
No other artist in the collection, however, is as actively represented as Alexander Rodchenko, whose works span roughly five different galleries. Several of his early abstract paintings are on view, as are later prints and lithographs. A large nook to the side of one room is filled with Rodchenko’s small, wooden sculptures and mobiles, some of which are originals, like “Oval Hanging Construction No.12” (1920); others have been recreated specifically for the museum in an effort to show most, if not all, of the artist’s sculptural oeuvre from the 1920s.
While I’ve seen my fair share of work by Rodchenko (including his famous 1921 triptych “Pure Red Color, Pure Yellow Color, and Pure Blue Color,” which I was lucky enough to view in person at the Tate’s Rodchenko and Popova exhibition in 2009), it was quite exciting for me to stumble upon something that I was completely unfamiliar with — a reconstruction of his Workers’ Club. Originally designed for the Soviet pavilion at the International Exhibition of Modern Decoration and Industrial Arts in Paris in 1925 (where Rodchenko won a silver medal for his design), the space is painted bright red, while text and accessories, like chairs, tables and shelving, are outfitted in gray, black and white. Two long reading tables surrounded by a series of white and silver chairs occupy the central portion of the space, and two chess-board tables, flanked by larger chairs, are placed on either side of the entrance. Naturally, there’s a “Lenin Corner” and wall space reserved for constructivist posters.
It’s easy to miss the true mission of the Russian avant-garde, to acknowledge that these artists were very supportive of Communist doctrine and wholeheartedly devoted to perpetuating the USSR’s existence. Art, especially for those like Rodchenko, served as a means to distribute Communist ideology. By placing the Workers’ Club en route to the museum’s galleries dedicated to Socialist Realism, the Tretyakov’s curators prompt viewers to view the artists who follow Rodchenko — like Sergei Gerasimov and Ilya Repin — as natural successors within the trajectory of Russian art, perhaps not aesthetically but certainly ideologically.
Unless you live in Russia, it isn’t everyday that you get to see a Gerasimov painting up close, since most Soviet Socialist Realist paintings are exhibited in their home country (for the same reason that Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington portraits stay Stateside). The Tretyakov at 10 Krymsky Val has many incredible examples, including one of my favorite pieces of all time, “Collective Harvest Farm Festival” (1937). The painting, which depicts proletariats gathering for a meal after a long day’s work, is extremely powerful. The piece is gigantic — comparable to many of Diego Rivera’s free-standing murals — and the colors are extremely vivid. After viewing the work in person, I can understand why Gerasimov was a popular and respected Soviet painter. His pieces are refreshingly hopeful, cleansing and transforming.
The most exciting portion of my visit was on the third floor of the museum, where the galleries have been transformed to feature artworks from the 1960s through the present day in a brand new exhibition titled Monuments and Documents. The purpose of the show is to reflect contemporary trends in Russian art and, as the accompanying text states, to present “the move from monuments of modernism to the documents of post-modernism, from ideological knowledge to the post-dialogue of our contemporary times.”
In order to explore these trends and critical movement shifts, the museum has separated Russian and Soviet artists into 12 different thematic rooms, which are presented mostly in chronological order. Moscow Conceptualists are largely jammed into the fourth room, titled “Tactics of Disappearance within Conceptual Art.” This section includes pieces by Ilya Kabakov, such as the dual “Answers of an Experimental Group” (1970–71), in which the viewer is prompted to read over a set of statements reflecting upon a hanger that dangles from the right half of the canvas.
“Sots Art: Documents and Countermonuments,” the title of the fifth section of the installation, features pieces by Sots artists Komar and Melamid. “We Were Born to Turn the Fairytale into Reality” is a classic Komar and Melamid work that I was very glad to see in person. The artists have taken a well-known Soviet slogan, slapped it across a banner and signed the piece in the right-hand corner, drawing a parallel between Soviet propaganda and the underlying falsity of its written word.
Artists like Andrei Monastyrsky, founder of the Collective Actions Group, are placed in the sixth room, “Documentations and Realities of Proof,” while the eighth room, “Subtext, Context, Hypertext,” includes several artists that hail from the Medical Hermeneutics group, known for their installations and performances revolving around language. One piece in particular, Yurii Leiderman’s “Untitled” (1988), surprised me and stood out. It’s a work that was exhibited in Exit Art’s Green Show in 1989, which was curated by Margarita Tupitsyn and featured works by Russian artists such as Kabakov and Monastyrsky; I happen to own the catalogue, purchased recently at one of Exit Art’s last openings.
“Untitled” is a green canvas with text printed across the upper portion of the composition (my translation): “Look around yourself, look at the sky. Look at the ground, between the stars. At every point you will see suffering.” It’s a slightly dramatic combination of sentences and a bit absurdist in nature, but it makes the viewer acutely aware of her surroundings in its instruction, which we so openly follow. Knowing that this painting was created before the collapse of the USSR and that it was brought over to the United States in 1989 resonates very strongly with my own past. 1989 is the year when my family moved to the United States. I also happened to work at Exit Art in 2007.
Seeing artworks by Kabakov, Komar and Melamid, Leiderman and Monastyrsky in one space, and in such an important venue, is very rare. It’s true that these particular artists are quite visible and exhibited on occasion: Monastyrsky and others from the Collective Actions Group represented Russia in the Venice Biennale last year; e-flux magazine dedicated an entire issue to the collective this past fall; professor and critic Boris Groys discusses these artists frequently in lectures and essays. But most museums and galleries in the West tend to exhibit them in solo shows or alongside seemingly similar artists. Most dishearteningly, they’re often viewed through a Western-centric lens, which, in my opinion, perpetuates an alocal, acultural and ahistorical understanding of their work.
I really hope that some day an exhibit like Monuments and Documents will make its way to New York. And not just for my viewing pleasure, but for the sake of art history altogether.
The State Tretyakov Gallery is located at 10 Lavrushinsky Lane, Moscow. For more information, visit www.tretyakovgallery.ru.