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A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma: the art of S. Y. Kochelev.

Andrew Solomon, the foremost critic of Soviet art in the West, wrote this appreciation of S. Y. Kochelev in conjunction with the recent retrospective of that artist's work in New York, under the auspices of Ilya Kabakov. Josif Bakshteyn, the preeminent critic in Russia, wrote his reply after a copy of Mr. Solomon's appreciation was leaked to him by an unknown source.

The name of S. Y. Kochelev often comes up in discussions of Kasimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky, and Marc Chagall, with all of whom he had close friendships. But the difficulties posed by the provisions of his will, which place all his studio pictures in the collection of the Barnaul Museum of Art and Natural History--Barnaul, a mining town of half a million or so, is 110 miles south of Novosibirsk--have made exhibitions of his work infrequent in the West. There can be little question, however, that Kochelev was the real visionary of postrevolutionary Russia. There is no room here to dwell on how he laid the foundations of Suprematism; this essay is about Kochelev, not his followers. Nonetheless, the layman should recall Malevich's statement that "although it was my idea to adduce white-on-white abstraction, . . . it was a principle I first located in the remarkable geometric plumage . . . of Kochelev's chickens."

The Kochelev retrospective mounted in September in New York included much of the artist's best work from the period 1926 to 1934, though one was disappointed that the Barnaul would not loan the great New Plough at the Farm. And of course one cannot arrive at a true appreciation of Kochelev without study of the murals--The Meeting of New Friends, in the electric plant in Barnaul, and, most particularly, Toward a New Frontier, in the Pavilion of Exploration at VDNCh in Moscow. Still, it was a triumph to bring together in the West, for the first time, so many of the artist's late masterworks, and Kochelev enthusiasts may rest assured that this exhibition will bring him the recognition that he has so far failed to receive.

Little of Kochelev's early work has survived; many pictures were destroyed in the terrible fire at the Sredne Kolymsk Museum in 1941. The earliest work in the recent exhibition was the Lunchtime of 1926. This painting, from Kochelev's middle (pre-Zagorsk) period, demonstrates his characteristic use of radiant but diffuse light to define complex outdoor spaces. There has been some debate as to whether these are the chickens that inspired Malevich; if so, the painting must have existed in an earlier version. Certainly the complex interplay among the monochrome white forms, punctuated by the red of combs and wattles, reveals Kochelev's lifelong obsession with pattern and surface. Windy Day and The Actors Have Arrived, from the same period, share this picture's Cezanne-like self-consciousness in the manipulation of form.

Viewers previously unacquainted with Kochelev will respond most readily to the work created around 1930. These pictures exhibit the artist's new understanding of the scale of his country's transformations. Stay Still!, subtitled Foreman A. Gracheva and her charges, shows a beautiful farm woman with two cows. In a letter to his friend B. Y. Kabachuk, written in late May of 1930, Kochelev mentions spending several days painting near Yestov, where "the peaceful harmony of farm life and the simple humor of the farm laborers . . . have restored my very soul, and shown me what the future of our great nation's art must be." Kochelev's notes, now housed in the Lenin Library in Moscow, suggest that Stay Still! was completed during this trip; and indeed the close observer finds a certain easiness in Kochelev's brushwork here that presages the supernal clarity of his late masterpieces. The woman in the foreground is surely Kochelev's Yestov hostess, "a woman whose fresh face and strong bones . . . call to my mind the shape of a new Soviet state."

This brings us to the late work. The New York exhibition included First Snow, The New Teacher, and Whose Shawl is Better?, of 1932; O. V. Zhiltsova and the Hog Zhenjka, of 1933, perhaps Kochelev's masterwork; and The Lucky Number and The Apples Are Ripe!, both 1934. In his last years Kochelev was extremely productive; these works seem to be stretching toward a new and greater vision. "I am so close," he wrote in his notebook in 1932, "to finding a visual language of . . . love and . . . philosophy. The secret . . . is always light." The shining faces of the laughing women with their colorful shawls are at once individual and universal, reflecting an integral part of Kochelev's deeply spiritual vision, in which the collective was made up of but at the same time surpassed individual character. There now seems to be little doubt that the painting O. V. Zhiltsova and the Hog Zhenjka shows the previously unidentified woman about whom Kochelev wrote, "In her arms . . . I can feel that flushed inspiration of youth . . . without losing . . . the knowledge of my age, and when we are together in the fields, I am like a child in my happiness. To see her with the animals who love her . . . is to find again the depth of my own love." This wise but youthful energy further illuminates The Apples Are Ripe!: the viewer is drawn into the shimmering promise of the heavy, Edenic orchard, which Kochelev would so soon leave behind.

Many Western critics have been critical of Kochelev's work because they disavow the idealism of the Russian revolution. Kochelev was indeed among that original group of visionaries for whom communism meant the glorious equality of all men. The shimmering optimism of his art, which is only the more moving for the failure of the system to which it relates, is the real basis of its greatness. In the smiles on the faces of these happy workers, students, horticulturists, and farmers are written the beliefs that were, for Kochelev, a path to divine beauty.

The circumstances surrounding Kochelev's untimely death in 1935 are as mysterious today as ever. I can only join with the Russian critic G. Y. Pajolstina in saying, "What Kochelev envisioned . . . would become a new way for art. If he had lived a bit longer . . . he might have been . . . more strong than his strongest followers; what he left us . . . was a vision that would change . . . the . . . work of a generation . . . and also a body of his own work . . . to speak the dreams of an era of dreams."

Thoughts about the Past

The S. Kochelev show in New York inspired great ambivalence. On the one hand, the Russian art community was delighted that this prominent Russian artist had finally exhibited in the USA, and that he had attracted some attention from our American colleagues. On the other hand, the circumstances of the exhibition, and the unfortunate developments of the opening night, have caused us much distress.

What have we in mind? One must begin by explaining why it is so important that an American audience get to know Kochelev's work. It seems that in the USA, and in the West in general, a whole stratum of prewar Soviet art--of which Kochelev's paintings are a prime exemplar--is unknown. Yet without knowing this work, one cannot comprehend the experiments of the Suprematists, the art of the Stalinist period, or even the unofficial art of the '70s.

One of the biggest problems in Russian 20th-century art is the difficulty of linking the first and second Russian vanguards--Suprematism and Conceptualism. One looks with confusion for a relation between Kasimir Malevich, Nadezhda Udaltsova, Olga Popova, and Vladimir Tatlin, on the one hand, and Ilya Kabakov, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, and Erik Bulatov, on the other. In the understanding of much of the Russian art community, Kochelev's work is the missing link.

What substantiates this opinion? S. Kochelev was always independent, never painting portraits of Soviet leaders, etc. And he was an innovative interpreter of a number of his period's art trends, synthesizing the peredvizhniki, Post-Impressionism, and even elements of Suprematism. Furthermore, in composition and coloristic technique, he did all this in a most unusual way. As Roland Barthes would say, he achieved the effect of a "zero degree" of painting: his subjects are thematically neutralized by their formal properties and become autonomes, creating the effect of having hidden with their own forms their real social circumstances. The "provisional subject" of S. Kochelev resembles the "Suprematist subject" of K. Malevich. Kochelev's peasants are the same as Malevich's "Black Square," which was also used to cover up reality.

In speaking of the relationships between Kochelev and Suprematism, one clearly has to pay attention to his influence on the late work of K. Malevich. Recently, Russian art magazines have published certain essays by V. Leonov, a student of the late academician V. Alpatov. V. Alpatov wrote monographs on Kochelev, which Leonov quotes to demonstrate convincingly that it was Kochelev's work (of the period exhibited in New York) that motivated Malevich to renounce geometrism and return to figuration. The remark from Malevich's correspondence cited by Andrew Solomon, then, demands quite a different interpretation than Solomon gives it.

On the other hand, S. Kochelev created an ideological distance between his own stand and that of his subject; this anticipated the ideas of Moscow Conceptualism. Before writing about S. Kochelev, the American critic should understand that although the artist's paintings remained within the framework of the official Soviet school of visual arts, they occupied the left wing of that school. He should not forget that Kochelev's followers participated in the initiation of the nonconformist movement in the postwar period. Though I of course admire the international perspective of my American colleague, his sometimes striking failure to assimilate such knowledge makes me very uneasy.

What was distressing about the Kochelev show in New York? In preliminary negotiations, the Americans suggested that the exhibition might take place in any of several museums. It was only after these preparatory discussions had been concluded, as work was being shipped out of Russia, that the venue was changed to a gallery in the SoHo area. This was done without consulting the Russian side. Thus we had, at great expense, to imitate a museum interior in this gallery in order to create the necessary atmosphere for a show of this importance. Moreover, on the initiative of the Americans, artworks were taken not only from the Barnaul Museum but also from private collections. Regrettably, the authenticity of some of these other pieces is dubious at best. (I personally have strong doubts about The Actors Have Arrived.) One is disappointed that a critic of Solomon's apparent renown seems to have failed to notice the work's uneven grade.

Of course what was absolutely incredible was the opening night at the gallery, when key figures of the Russian and American art worlds gathered to celebrate the show. All of a sudden something happened to the ceiling pipes, and water started to drip through onto my colleagues' distinguished heads. One is only relieved that the Americans had insured the paintings.

Despite these regrettable incidents, I hope that Kochelev's show was appreciated by American art historians, and that his work will be displayed in the future in venues more suitable to its importance.

There have been any number of art-world rumors about the Kochelev exhibition. It has been suggested that the work in that show was really the work of the Russian conceptualist Ilya Kabakov, that Kochelev is in fact a fiction developed by Kabakov, and that the paintings caricature the work of Socialist Realist artists of the 1920s and '30s. Some have even said that the leaking sprinkler pipes, which went unrepaired throughout the exhibition, were also the work of Kabakov, that the water dripping from the ceiling had been orchestrated by Russian composer Vladimir Tarasov into an avant-garde symphony, and that Kabakov's point was to demonstrate the accidental poetry of postcommunist Russia, a poetry lying not so much in the country's "art" as in the disruption of its entire esthetic system.

Our fact-checking department has devoted considerable energy to uncovering the truth, and we can find no evidence to support such propositions. We trust in the integrity of Andrew Solomon, and in the reputation of Josif Bakshteyn. Appreciating the tradition of debate between Western "sovietologists" and Soviet "critics," we felt it appropriate and even necessary to publish their disagreement.

We thought, naturally, of the scandals that have surrounded the opening of each exhibition of new Russian work in the West, when Western "experts" have hailed previously unknown figures as great geniuses, quoting primary-source material of dubious origins, while Russian critics have disputed everything they have put forward. Thus straightforward material has been tangled in webs of irrelevant theory, petty resentment, and groundless connoisseurship controversy. In this context (though we cannot approve of the means through which Bakshteyn obtained a copy of Solomon's essay), we found their argument illuminating.

Andrew Solomon is the author of The Irony Tower: Soviet Artists in a Time of Glasnost. He contributes regularly to The New York Times Magazine. Josif Bakshteyn is the director of the ICA, Moscow.
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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Bakshteyn, Josif
Publication:Artforum International
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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