Sots Art: Kosolapov, Komar and Melamid, and Bulatov

from the book: ART SINCE 1980: Charting the Contemporary by Peter R. Kalb

While Kabakov rejected official art to create non-art, sots artists, including his friend and fellow illustrator Erik Bulatov, challenged official art from within. Sots Art, a name invented by Komar and Melamid from the elements of “Socialist Pop Art”, was based on the bold graphic style of state propaganda and the heroic figuration of Socialist Realism, the official Soviet painting style. The latter accented clear compositions that foregrounded assertive human actors in readily understood narratives that conformed to the political content promoted by the government. Every country had its own form of nationalist realism, rooted in the styles of the 1930s, though the degree to which national leaders were lionized by the style was far greater in the Communist East than the capitalist West. Nonetheless, Three Soldiers (1982-84) by Fredereick Hart, erected in tandem with Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial (see figs. 6.1-6.3), provides a populist Western counterpart to the Communist Socialist Realism so objectionable to the Soviet avant-garde.

Sots painting such as Alexander Kosolapovʼs (b. 1943) Manifesto (1983) (fig. 8.4) neutralized the power of official imagery by separating the icons of Soviet power from their ideological functions, creating a distance between artistic form and its state-sanctioned meanings. In Sots Art, the appearance of heroic figures such as Marx and Lenin or monumental Soviet Landscapes ceased to convey messages about national stability and power. In Manifesto, a colossal bust of Lenin depicted in rich tones of red with black shadows rests on a plinth next to a toppled Classical column. In the foreground, three cherubs relax among flowers and curiously examine a piece of newsprint with the words “The Manifesto” across its top. Mixing ancient and modern was a familiar device in Socialist Realism, used to imbue the events of the present with the glamorous aura of history. In Kosolapovʼs image, however, the flow of time is disrupted. The age of the ancients has come to an end and been replaced by that of the Communists, but they too have fallen and the cherubs have returned from a mythical past to muse over the ruins of modernity. All of history has turned to rubble in this arcadia, and past and present, utopia and reality, have been folded over one another. Margarita Tupitsyn, curator of several U.S. exhibitions of Sots Art in the 1980s, noted: “Its critical importance lay in the fact that the Sots artists proposed to view Socialist Realism not as mere kitsch or as simply a vehicle for bureaucratic manipulation and state propaganda, but as a rich field of stereotypes and myths which they could transform into a new contemporary language, one able to deconstruct official myths on their own terms”. Kosolapov assembled the symbols of Soviet ideology, the style of Soviet propaganda, and the narratives of Neo-Classical art in such a way that the past envelops the future that Communism promised. In this way, Manifesto not only challenges the promise of Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto, but all later Modernist proclamations that history is an inevitable progressive match toward a utopian future.

Kosolapov painted Manifesto in New York. By the 1980s, few of the Sots artists remained in the U.S.S.R. The Soviet authorities as well as art historians recognized their manipulations of the language of power as political critique and made it difficult for such unofficial artists to show their work, leaving this new avant-garde with only the apartments of their friends as exhibition spaces. Moreover, Soviet officials threatened the more outspoken artists with deportation and destroyed their art. The government did, however, permit many artists to obtain exit visas. Emigrating first to Israel and then to the U.S., Vitaly Komar (b. 1943) and Alexander Melamid (b. 1945), the instigators of the movement in 1970s Moscow, became its stars in exile in the 1980s. Their images presented Western audiences with visions of the Soviet experiment that were full of humor, irony, longing, and tragedy, bound up in elaborately crafted allegorical narratives, and painted in their variation on the official Socialist Realist style. The Origin of Socialist Realism (1982-83) (fig. 8.5) recasts the Neo-Classical topos of the birth of painting in which a maiden traces the shadow of her sleeping lover on the wall. Komar and Melamid’s version takes place in richly appointed chambers where the muse of Socialist Realism traces the silhouette of an alert and carefully posed Joseph Stalin. In the U.S.S.R., the painting argues, Socialist Realism was only ever about expressing Soviet power, not socialist reality.

The most prominent of the artists to stay in Moscow was Erik Bulatov (b. 1933). His Danger (1972-73), a sly juxtaposition of “danger” signs and a bucolic scene painted in a Socialist Realist style, conveys a sense of urgency by disrupting an image of a peaceful picnic with threatening text and by refusing to indicate either the source of the danger or the steps we might take to nullify it. Are the picnicking pair under threat, or are they the threat itself? In either case, a scene that should evoke clam has been turned upside down. In the later Perestroyka (1989) (fig. 8.6), Bulatov again combined representational imagery and text to unsettling effect, transforming the word perestroyka (which, as stated above, means literally “restructuring”) into a great pyramid, silhouetted against a dramatic sky. Strong male hands hold the central letters aloft and lock them together to produce the shape of a hammer and sickle, the Communist symbol used on the flag of the Soviet Union. The word is made monumental-but what this means is pointedly unclear. One can see in the stylization of the text and its integration with the classic symbol of Soviet power a linking of the reformed present with the unreformed past. This connection could be read as a critique, suggesting that Gorbachev’s reforms were simply more of the same: Such message, dispelling clams of Soviet progress, would be in keeping with other Sots works such as Manifesto. However, in 1989, many members of Communist Party were looking to perestroyka as a means of guiding the nation into a brighter, better future. In this case, a connection to the heroic Communist past would be a symbol of fidelity to Soviet ideals. Bulatov’s Perestroyka thus uses the materials of “official” Soviet culture to reach ambiguous conclusions.

As they became more immersed in Western capitalism, Russian artists incorporated Western icons into Sots-style work. Pop art, a style that symbolized capitalist society just as Socialist Realism stood for Soviet power, took on special importance. In the 1980s, Kosolapov developed a series of images that juxtapose icons and logos of East and West. On the left-hand side of Symbols of the Century (1982) (fig. 8.7) is the head of Lenin, familiar from Communist propaganda, shown facing a Coca-Cola logo that floats on the right. Below the logo is the catchphrase associated with the drink, “It’s the real thing”, and below that the name “Lenin”. Beyond the joke of a Marxist revolutionary selling Coke, Symbols of the Century is a poignant expression of the degree to which the idealism of Communism is underwritten by the reality of capitalism. But, the painting also suggests that the reality of free-market capitalism is not so different from that of state-controlled Communist economies; one’s options are limited to the choices provided by those in power. The artist’s intentions for the work, however, were at least much autobiographical as they were critical. He explained: “When I was a little boy, the first exhibition of American industry was held in Moscow. Every visitor to the exhibition was served Coke or Pepsi, symbols of the American Paradise for every Soviet person”.

When he immigrated to the U.S., however, Kosolapov discovered that “Coca-Cola was really only a sweet beverage, sometime, though not often, pleasant to drink.” This realization that in daily experience the symbol of paradise was, at best, rather mundane paralleled his earlier disappointment about the reality of “the ‘paradise’ that operated under the sign of Lenin”. The wok, taking the images of Lenin and Coca-Cola as a concise means to represent the adversaries at the end of the Cold War, also uses icons and logos to write the autobiography of the artist in a fashion not dissimilar to the brand-conscious compositions of commodity artists such as Ashly Bickerton and Sylvie Fleury (see Chapter 5). The pervasive influence of capitalism rendered the commodity form of artistic communication that was relevant all over the world.