The cult of the Word and Letters always was present in the work of artists at various times. I am not speaking of ancient books or icons, there it is natural. At the start of the [twentieth] century they appeared in paintings and handwritten books in Russian fine arts. Letters were present as one of the components of the picture, together with color and texture. The distorted letters followed the distortion of drawings. Words were shattered and tossed around, like subjects of a still life, on the whole extent of the canvas. The artists used these separate words, demonstrating their possibilities in calligraphy, composition, up to lapsing into formalism. For artists the old traditional concepts of words and letters were a source of inspiration. They tried to combine them with the latest directions in art. To sum up, letters on a picture had the same value as broken glass, sand, bitumen, and newspaper clippings.
 
I always wanted to remove the artist who appears every time between the picture and the viewer. Probably, with time, the role and significance of the artist in the creation of an art work will be reconsidered.
 
Now we hear the names of few artists who are considered to be the "fathers" of the main directions in contemporary Russian art. I quietly shifted away, like a willfully neglectful father. On many of my works the signature and dates appeared long after (although there are slides from those years). In the 1960s and 1970s it could not come into the head of any normal person that this heap of newspaper clippings or pages of old magazines in fact were works of arts. This work could easily go for scrap paper (tied with twine, they long remained under a bed). I clearly understood, that nobody needed either me or these works, but a conspiracy is a conspiracy. And I didn't know how to send these works abroad, or how to organize a press conference, and foreign diplomats were hardly likely to come to my defense.
 
I don't find interesting anymore to look at the work of my younger colleagues. I'm afraid that they are still loitering around in trenches abandoned by their old comrades. They are going around the second circle, but are struggling to gain new beachheads. Of course they will be victorious. But after victory there will be hard times. Today young artists can become classics in four or five year and from then on they have to permanently confirm their rank as classics. The work of the young isn't interesting to me, but it is not a matter of my age. I now am like a viewer who is shown magic tricks, but who knows the secrets of these illusions.
 
There is no reason to fear that, in the latest art, there is an increased opportunity for deceit and the appearance of charlatans. It will certainly happen, but even among the realists there were quite a few scoundrels. There were also rascals among the politicians, biologists, economists, computer scientists, and poet-songsters. Are artists less talented than they? There's no need to justify them. Where there's money, business, a market – there always is a place for scoundrels.
     Not to worry. Modern art has its own laws of value. Many of them I don't understand. Why do the works of the same artist, made in the same year and of the same size have different prices? I don't know these laws, but they exist. And the fact that in general the museums acquire good works, is an example of these laws. 
 
I really haven't felt the change of times. As under the old regime, I continued to illustrate the historical and detective books, short stories of dubious quality, and folklore of the multicultural South of Russia. I am happy that now, as before, my art is art for art's sake and in no way I yearn impatiently for "long-awaited meetings with an audience." And I'm not sorry that less work is getting done. What difference how many stacks of newspapers sit in the corner of the room or hang on the walls. It's not a matter of quantity. The idea is what counts.
    
Duchamp created only several works (I don't have in mind his inferior paintings). I mean that if he was the artist who made only these paintings, one would hardly have spoken of him. Duchamp will always remain as the author of "Ready-mades."
     This also holds true for Malevich. He was an ordinary painter before his "Squares." He painted the same way half the painters of Russia did, but he will always remain as the author of "Squares."
     The same for Tatlin and his "Counter-Reliefs."
     Probably a distinctive feature of Twentieth Century art also consists of the fact that the art works must be done "differently," not "better." Indeed it is impossible to paint a "black square" better than THE "Black Square." Still talking about Duchamp, the works he made in the 30s, 40s, and 50s are forgotten in comparison with his "Ready-mades", although he passed away in 1968. I do not compare myself to this example of Duchamp. It was just a cause for reflection about the heritage of an artist.
     But a time comes when I feel a need to justify by various examples my own, more or less visible, creative activity. I am even not talking about talent. But I am still thinking about how, contrary to all reasonableness, despite the obvious absurdity and tangible danger of the way I chose, I nevertheless abandoned the craft of a painter.
 


 

I saw an interview with [realist painter Ilya] Glazunov on Russian TV. Glazunov, as always, poured mud on modernists. This time he chose Vassily Kandinsky as the subject of his wrath. The anchor was amazed, “Really? But in the West they say he’s great.” The head of the Institute of the Fine Arts exclaims, “Why always the West? People get ill from his pictures, schizophrenia begins, there is even a mental disease named after Kandinsky, called “the Kandinsky Syndrome!” The fact that the anchor didn’t know about the artist, a great artist but with little popularity here, is forgivable. However the favorite of the public, the People’s Artist, making not only portraits, but also historical books should know that THAT Kandinsky is another one, a physician, not an artist. This all was rather ignorance or lack of knowledge than planned disinformation. And nevertheless Glazunov every time seeks ridiculous, stupid means to blacken artists that are “not from his camp.” Moreover he never stops talking about his intelligentsia status and Christian rectitude.
      It fact, it seems strange that under the aegis of the State such an artist heads a whole institute. He could open a school in his workshop or something else, on fee-paying or free basis, and teach as he wished. Future realists could with pride say: “I am a pupil of Glazunov, I completed Glazunov’s school.” The manner of this real educational institution under Glazunov’s leadership is like a Communist Party school, where from the beginning they cut out all irrelevant disciplines. There is a strange art policy in Russia at the end of the twentieth century.
 
“Can one make works that are not of art?” [Peut-on faire des oeuvres qui ne soient pas d'art ?] - Marcel Duchamp
 
On Radio Liberty I heard a talk by a specialist on modern art, a certain Epstein. I don't have a specific record of it - I'll write what I remembered. The main thing here is the theme, something like "Art and Jews," from Levitan to Kabakov and Bruskin.
     Epstein’s theory was that the letters (texts) used by modern Jewish artists are in fact the “cabbalistic signs,” and that the image of the real world they transform in signs, and this is a purely Jewish approach.
     When in the 1960s I started to do works based only on text (sometimes there was a combination of text with a picture or photo), I had not heard of Kabakov, and Bruskin was (I'll say to liven up the text) in nursery school. I didn't know about cabbalistic signs. To my shame, I still don't have a clear idea about them. I was a pure Soviet artist (in the old films they write "Made in the USSR," about new ones, "Made in Russia"), so I was a Soviet artist of Armenian origin.
     I had the impression that a theoretician, as soon as he thinks up a new thesis, immediately looks for a place or a niche where he can introduce his discoveries. At one time, I remember, in Armenia some philologists debated whether or not the American word "cowboy" and the Armenian word "kov" (cow) were related.
     To be even clearer, let's imagine an Armenian art critic who could find rather many text and word examples in old Armenian manuscripts or inscriptions on rocks and could report all this as art born in Armenia, as art exclusively of Armenian origin. And to be more concrete, he could have added that artist Levon Khatchatrian at the end of the twentieth century continues, undoubtedly, the centuries-old tradition of the immortal masterpieces of his ancestors. It sounds stupid and awkward. One could make up such a theory, it would look impeccable, and the artist perhaps would be delighted at the scholarly justification for his work. But all theories seem to me very artificial.
      In fact such works can appear without any of this pathos. I will even omit the rock drawings and ancient manuscripts. I do not want to give examples from the recent past, the experiences of French, Italian, and Russian artists and poets. I think that in parallel with the traditional viewing of the real world alongside, like an aura, there are many other accompanying visions. In the twentieth century they are particularly numerous. Honor and praise to those rare artists, who in absolutely equal (state system, education, social position, etc.) conditions create something untraditional, but all this (I'm tired to repeat it) is revealed by other sources.
     According to all of Epstein's norms, Prigov also could be squeezed into this niche. He fits in all parameters except age. It was rather late that he remembered "the ethnic character-symbols." For long years he was engaged in "normal" creativity. And suddenly, after living fifty years of life, he decided to hang colored, written-over newspapers at exhibitions, i.e., in his age he began to have contact with signs and symbols. Naturally, he had seen similar works somewhere. He took newspapers and hung them up. I will not speak about the quality of these works. I want to say that the "system of ethnic characters" is irrelevant to this.
     One can recall Kosuth, but he is an American of Hungarian descent.
     After a few years, Prigov gave up his "newspaper activity." I don't think that he became disillusioned with national symbols. I can assert daringly that he purely and simply didn't know what else he could do with those newspapers. At one of the many meetings he, "the father of Soviet conceptualism" (although in the press I have counted five or six such "fathers") was asked why he today ignores newspapers as pictures. The artist answered: "Nowadays newspapers have become very boring." I was quite amazed: could he really believe that any of his viewers reads his newspapers?
     The national (ethnic) roots are present, but not always and not everywhere. What can one find:
- in Warhol's soups?
- in Uecker's nails?
- in Beuys's fats?
- in Duchamp's objects?
- in Bakhchanian's montages?
- in "texts," etc.
 
Reading Sokurov (I write as I remember it): "If the movies had not been invented by the French, it would have been developed in absolutely different way. The great misfortune of the movies is that they were born in France. They started to show movies in cafes. If movies has been born in Japan (this was after his trips to Japan) or in Muslim countries . . ." The reporter asked – and if here, in Russia? Sokurov said something about cultural differences and that Russia at the time needed absolute conservatism and an iron fist. He also said that big money was invested in the American movie industry and that is why America became the center of movie art, but it is a country that could not be the center of any art. As they say, end of the quotation. How could this be said by the filmmaker, who at his time passed an examination of foreign cinematography history, who does not use film stock or a movie camera made in his own country. That America is not good for anything is something I often read and heard from actors and film specialists. I felt the simple and obvious envy in their words. "That country cannot be the center of any art." And how about post-war modern art?!
     All movie people are spiteful. One should gather all those who are dissatisfied in one room, lock the door and for seven to ten days show only Soviet (or Russian) films.
 
On the back of one of the photographs Malevich wrote in his own hand that Le Corbusier was standing alongside, but they were not acquainted; moreover they never met at all.
 
And Tatlin affirmed that he posed for Picasso.
 
In 1943 the Moscow Art Theater put on the play "Detailed Reconnaissance," with music by Aram Khatchaturian and scenography by Vladimir Tatlin.
 
Many years ago, in the magazine "Literary Armenia" I read a paragraph about Arshile Gorky. The author passionately defended the Armenian artist from slanderers who had spoken about various influences on the early period of Gorky's work. I suspect that the author's thesis were build upon the foreign article describing this very influence of Picasso or Miro on Gorky's work. In this "reworked" version it was already asserted that our countryman was a truly Armenian artist and that there were no foreign influences in his art. To make this thesis more evident, some works of the early-American period of the great Gorky were printed on the third page of the glossy jacket. Of course, at the editorial office of the magazine they could not know that these works were the most evident proof of the influence of European artists on the early period of creativity of the future classic of the twentieth century.
 
"Bottle Dryer" by Duchamp (1914) has been lost. That which is printed in magazines today is the 1964 version.
 
I went to the exhibition of American graphics artists. In the main building the Dutch painters were exhibited, there were a lot of people, particularly children (holidays). Many went in groups (tourists?). Almost the same long line was at the exhibition of Academician Shilov. This could be defined as corruption of youth.
     And in "my" rooms there was hardly anyone. A few people, schoolchildren or college students. There was a music center and a women turned on some American music. No printed sheets; everything was "natural." A lot of sketches. Famous works were seen in miniature. Unfortunately, by Gorky there was only one black and white sheet done with pencil. For the first time I saw Pollock. A small sketch. I know that he ran round on the canvas with cans of paint, but here there was a miniature sketch. From the knowledge that this was HIS scrap of paper arose the feeling of something else, not connected with the usual meaning of art. A black and white by Rauschenberg was hanging. An early work, but already with transferred pictures. The modest work of a young artist. No comparison with those colored almost frescos (I think it was the Japanese series) that were exhibited in the Central House of the Arts on Krymsky Val in the spring of 1989. Then the huge sheets created a feeling of a fun-fair. And here - a poor, almost beggarly sheet. Fantastic! Rothko was good although quite different from his large paintings. One Rothko's sheet even looked like half-Gorky, half-Miro. At first I thought that the label had been incorrectly written. But then I found the signature on the picture. It indeed was he. Nothing to do, everybody has his various periods.
     I walked around for a long time. I was among the classics or among the old bones. I can show limitless respect and bow my head before these frames, but not admire them. Admiration was in my blood thirty years ago. I was interested by the number of brushstrokes, the quality of paper, what they thought or said during the work. In one word, everything possible, just not "how was this done?" The solution was known to me long ago. The latest shock was at the start of the 1990s (in the same exhibition hall, at Beuys's exhibition). A classic is a classic, and the Americans used everywhere India ink, gouache, colored pencils, etc. But Beuys did something inexplicable. How could one hang dirty papers smeared with fat (oil) and not only hang but have an effect on the viewer! If American pictures could somehow be classified, then Beuys's ochre sheets with spots of brown gouache could be called "abstract," but this classification would be greatly overstrained.
     With all my admiration for the exhibition of Joseph Beuys seven years ago, I am happy today after the exhibition of the American graphics artists. In my works I completely deny the traditional attributes of the fine arts, be it colors, subject, presence or participation of the artist and still more things, but I endlessly enjoy seeing great works where mastery cannot be evaluated by traditional means, where smeared scraps of paper with amazing ease extend - or loosen - the limits of another great art.
     At the exhibition, besides Rauschenberg, there was one work by Johns. There were beautiful works by [Franz] Kline. I thought of "Chief" and "New York." There was a small work on a newspaper background, but it left me indifferent. It is hard to impress me with "newspaper works."
     In fact, speaking of an exhibition, I involuntarily fall into pathos. I can't do anything with it. To show my happiness I have to use those high-flown words that I have. It is consoling that many "specialists" on this question also think and talk the same way. Finally no one needs my observations, but once I've begun, it has to look worthy.
 
"In selecting items to exhibit 'in a frame,' the museum staff can transform the most radical artist into a totally compliant one (as this happened with Beuys, who, after the Moscow exhibition of 1992, many would consider merely a clumsy watercolorist)."
     It is good that M.Bode and A.Tarkhanov from "Commersant Daily" still recalled this exhibit.
     But I remember something entirely different about this event.
     This was the only exhibition that I visited twice. Both times there was nobody in the room. Visitors, without coming in, looked through the door at the empty room and went past, to the right or the left. And there was no connection with the setting of the pictures.
     I was happy at this unpeopled exhibition. There you didn't even think what sort of frames there were, whether the works hung too regularly, what sort of watercolorist he was. There was a lot of pencil, some newspapers, grease, gouache, and watercolor too. Striking beauty, inexplicable magic. Some incomprehensible threads, some unseen currents pulled me. One of the rare cases in which I felt my helplessness in our craft.
     I CAN'T DO LIKE THAT.
     For me there remained the traditionally published catalog and poster.
     In those days I did the series "After Beuys."
 
In student years the professors always said to us: "See what picture skills Picasso has; this is a real master! He learned first to draw and then went over to Cubism and various formalisms." They repeated this nonsense at the Art College and in the Institute. Usually this theory was most zealously argued by pedagogues of a rather dubious artistic level. The awkward mystification worked for many. It was true that the young Picasso's drawing was beautiful, but the trap was on the fact that the 17 year old Picasso did not know that at the age of 35 he would destroy the classical picture. I.e., he, crudely speaking, was wasting his time with drawing, drew in vain in the traditional realistic manner.
     Are the drawing skills really needful to Christo or Rauschenberg?
     Would it have been possible to guess that the computer era will bring the appearing of virtual colors, so that it would be possible to draw without paints and without paper. "Draw" of course in quotes. "To make an image" would be more accurate. I am even afraid to think about such things. To draw without drawing, to write letters without paper, to compose music without musical instruments.
 
It is true that mass culture is nevertheless better than mass lack of culture.
 
Here is what the reputable Moscow newspaper "Novye Izvestia" wrote. They have a column “Figure of the Day.”
     So: "17 million dollars. For such a sum a picture of the founder of abstract art, the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, "Suprematist Composition" was sold at the Phillips auction house in New York. The buyer wanted to remain anonymous. The picture is very simple and consists of black and white squares on a white background. Since 1936 it was part of the permanent exhibit of the Museum of Modern Art in New York."
     Who writes such notes? How can such stupidity be justified? Malevich is in no way the founder of abstract art. He is the author of "Suprematism," just as Larionov is the author of "Luchism" ["Rayism"].
     "The picture is very simple." Why, the author of the note saw such a picture for the first time and is hastening to report his surprise to the reader? "...and consists of black and white squares," but on the picture are not black and white, but black and RED, and not squares but RECTANGLES.
     This is the information in the Moscow newspaper printed in color in a hundred thousand copies.
 
I watched the first twenty minutes of Sokurov's "Moloch." An absolutely stupid film. I could find nothing in it. NO-THING. What I found and this was in every scene – the STRAINED hand of the director. Strained light, strained play by the actors. The fat guy (Bormann?) goes up a broad staircase, and even there is felt the firm insistence of the film director.
     But how many delighted reactions have I heard and read!
     I think that if one asked these delighted people what they would have named as the best ten or fifteen films of the past year, none of them would have named "Moloch." They might name it among the top thirty, only there are not so much people who saw so many films. One of the striking particularities of Sokurov: they talk, they blare forth, they make noise, but as soon as the "official part" ends no one remembers, not what the episodes were, not even the name of the films. As if these films never existed at all. The name of the director is there, but the films aren't. And he is one of the most productive directors. Despite this, he somehow attracts sponsors. As they say, he is always "in the money."
     BUT "THE LONELY VOICE OF A MAN" IS STANDING APART.
     Does someone remember the Sokurov's documentary film on Solzhenitsyn? I remember it because of Fokina. She also got a film finished by the Solzhenitsyn anniversary, but something in her film did not please the Classic and he didn't permit the broadcast of the documentary film. In my stupidity I thought that Sokurov, the former victim of rough justice would himself take his own film off the screen in sign of film directors' solidarity. But no. It would be like in a movie.
     Sokurov started a new film where he, himself, would be the cameraman. He was the scriptwriter, the director, the voice for his pictures, the composer (?), and now the cameraman. All that is left is for him to become the viewer.
 
Sherstiuk died of cancer. We once were introduced. Another time a friend suggested visiting Sherstiuk in his workshop somewhere in the courtyards of Chekhov Street, but this time the door was locked. Actually he was a stranger to me, but somehow I felt his death. He was a friend of Sergey Geta. And everyone with whom Geta has been friends I considered worthy of respect.
     Sherstiuk's memoirs or diaries were printed in the magazine "October." They must be read although, I heard, they are very painful. A story runs that in his youth Sherstiuk thirsted for Warhol's fame. Was it true or not, but I do remember well one of his interviews. Once he was in America as a guest of a millionaire art collector. This collector also had bought works by Sherstiuk. Well, he had bought them, what's more? And then Sergey Sherstiuk said, "Having bought my pictures, my host started to energetically rip down Warhol's works from walls with words like 'I'm tired of them' and freeing space for my works."
     I don't think that he dreamed up this story. It happens (how? why?) that we hear things that we would like to hear, and those "heard" words could be absolutely deserved. Probably the American millionaire didn't understand anything about Warhol nor about Sherstiuk, but the words pronounced in Sergey's presence became in some sense the quintessence of a dream. America, invitations, pictures sold, disparaging words about their great contemporary.
     Will they remain in the History or not? At one time I could say for sure. In the 1980s there were not much young ones worthy of note. Time goes on or the times change. In our days a great deal depends upon who writes this very "history" where the various people are recalled. One can write for money, one can write for family connections, one may write because drinking together in some restaurant. Finally one can write because the "market" demands certain details or specific factors. There are almost no reasons left for writing the honest and just history of those years.
     There was an artist named Purygin. He was not "my" artist, but with his talent he could leave many of the "Bulldozer"1 artists far behind. He passed away several years ago. Will he be remembered or not? And what about Vladimir Yakovlev? "Unfortunately," he wasn't drunk and homeless like Zverev. The example of the latter shows that sometimes they recall "the wrong one." One more example – Konstantin Vasiliev. Is it possible to compare all this ragtag of art with Vagrich Bakhchanian, now absent from Russia? Well, not Vasiliev, not Zverev. Prigov or Brener. These ones won't let go of what's theirs.
     I will read Sherstiuk's memoirs. Maybe after that I'll write about him again.
     It is time to wind up my notes, but... Not long ago the twentieth anniversary of Vysotsky's death was commemorated. One more reason for many to appear on the screens speaking of his tragic fate, of his creative oppression. At least now, could it be said that he often (!) traveled abroad, lived in an expensive cooperative apartment house, often (!) traded his foreign (!) cars, regularly (!) was starred in the movies, three (!) times a day appeared before spectators. Right, the Soviet authorities did not print his poetry. But they did not print the actor! Of course it would have been good if they had printed it. But many didn't travel, didn't speak publicly, simply didn't live normally. Of course many were unlucky, they had no luck with a French wife then nor with nimble children now: three and a half monuments to Vysotsky in Moscow! Three(!). Three monuments in Moscow. What else could be said. PR is PR.
 
[Ilya] Kabakov stands apart. An artist who for many years truly really was devoted to the work with text. I considered him to be the best modern Russian painter. Namely a painter. By some threads he was nevertheless tied with traditional painting. Using text, he nevertheless worked on canvas or on paper. In his pictures the author (the artist) was nevertheless in the foreground. I gave this up many years ago. In my work there are only the picture (the object) and the viewer. The disappearance of the artist, this is a great achievement of the art of the twentieth century. Besides Kabakov there also is Bakhchanian. Unfortunately, Russians prefer [Mikhail] Shemiakin (like Bakhchanian, he also lives in America) and Armenians, as always, don't even know about the existence of such an artist.
 
I saw that Kosuth was born in 1945. So, he is four years younger than I. My real artistic work started in 1964, while serving in the Army. My homesickness, separation from my relatives and friends, the unfamiliar and unaccustomed milieu made me tear apart Siamanto' s Armenian-language verses (and there were many patriotic verses there) and past these pages on a canvas. On this canvas I depicted in dark oils the portrait of a young men. I thought that it was better to have a "generalized" portrait of young man that concretely my portrait, although, of course, this undertaking was provoked by my plight. Razmik Davoyan should have a photograph of this work, according to his words. We had various relationships with him for many years, and I once asked if he hadn't thrown out my letters, photographs, and books. "No," he says, "every time I go to a new position with my old baggage."
     I would like to say that I am proud to have begun the whole era "together," "before" or at the same time as Kosuth, but there is nobody to share my pride. Nevertheless my pride is still there. A private from Armenia, defending the aerial boundaries of Moscow, independently from THAT founder (it would be interesting to know what Joseph did when he was nineteen years old) creates a work (well, not in a pure form, half picture half text), from which starts a new concept in the visual arts. Were there previously letters, words, and text? Of course. Thus as there were things and objects before Rauschenberg. However all these texts or works with text became "legalized" only after being included in the information streams. These works are like a radio or TV with the picture turned off. One day I will have to write on this theme further. These few lines were suggested by the year of Kosuth's birthday.
     That's all. Enough for today.
 

 
1) "Bulldozer" artists are those Soviet "unofficial" painters that organized an open air exhibition in Moscow in September 1974. The authorities dispersed this exhibition by bulldozers. This event became known as "Bulldozer Exhibition." é
 
 

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