Beginning after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and continuing sporadically through the 1980s, unofficial Soviet art developed outside the public realm and largely beyond the reach of critics, art historians, and viewers. A hostile regime set unofficial artists in opposition to those in power, despite the fact that many of the artists displayed little interest in politics and treated the authorities with disdain or indifference.
Mary Nicholas, associate professor of Russian, recently began a study of conceptualism in Russia and an assessment of its overall place in the history of modernism and postmodernism. Her current study concerns visual texts, words painted on canvas that advance the importance of language while de-emphasizing the concrete art object.
Her current study concerns visual texts, words painted on canvas that advance the importance of language while de-emphasizing the concrete art object.
This painted word and its replacement of image with text calls visual art itself into question. In the Soviet Union the conceptualist movement was the most important unofficial art development of the late 20th century. However, establishing what constitutes Russian conceptualism and identifying its main proponents and tenets has been complicated by the fact that the early history of the movement took place “underground,” away from the prying eyes of Soviet authorities but also out of reach for most archivists and critics. The complete history of Russian unofficial art is only now being recovered.
“Despite its cultural significance, Russian conceptualism has received little critical attention,” says Nicholas. “Most Russian studies of the movement have been narrow or partisan. There is no general work on the subject in English. We need to consider the work of the main Russian conceptualist artists and position their work in an appropriate international context.”
Nicholas, who has been interested in Russian conceptualism since the early 1980s, notes that understanding this movement is important to the history of both art and politics. Despite a lack of access to state patronage, museums, mass media, and the public, this small and insular group of unofficial artists nevertheless threatened the Soviet system with their powerful critique. Conceptualism, with its shared concern for the communal construction of meaning, provides the ideal workshop in which to chronicle the evolution of Russian art.
“By focusing on this discrete and relatively self-contained movement, we can begin to construct a trans-national, cross-disciplinary history of conceptualism that will eventually encompass artists across Europe, North America, China, South America, and elsewhere.”