May 01, 2023

Komar and Melamid

Komar and Melamid
"The Essence of Truth (Grinding Pravda)," 1975.

“Komar and Melamid: A Lesson in History” brings to light and life the comedic artist pair Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid’s work from the early 1970s in Moscow and then in New York through 2003, when, like a married couple, they broke up and went their separate ways. Though the chockful catalog’s illustrations are fine, seeing the exhibit in person in the terrific Zimmerli Art Museum on Rutgers’ main campus should be everyone’s preference.

For one, the other exhibits serendipitously give Komar and Melamid’s satiric work artistic and historical context: there are excellent pieces from Zimmerli’s permanent collections, short-term exhibits, and, most conspicuously, the paintings and sculpture from the museum’s Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union. Before I went downstairs into the main part of the Komar and Melamid exhibit, I wandered along a hallway past posters of actual unironic Soviet propaganda featuring “Papa” Stalin and “Divine” Lenin. But even better, because they’re actual sincere art, are the Dodge Collection paintings that knocked me out, among them Boris Sveshinkov’s “Autumn” (1950), Oskar Rabin’s “Lianozovo” (1960) and Dmitrii Krasnopevtsev’s suave, spare “Untitled” (1961).

In person, we perceive and appreciate the size, proportions, and alternately homemade and professional finish of Komar and Melamid’s work. The grand “Minotaur” (1991), for example, is impressive in size and construction.

Venus de Milo 1983
"Venus deMilo," 1983

Like most satirists, Komar and Melamid are well-educated, politically and socially minded, deadly serious, and, it should be emphasized, deadly humorous – hence the pointed and absurdist “sots-art” movement they invented in Moscow, combining “official and unofficial art.” Among their most clever artistic skits are “Factory for the Production of Blue Smoke” (1975) and the Dead Souls takeoff in 1978-1983, wherein they set up a company in New York to buy “souls,” to be sold later in Moscow. Komar and Melamid bought, supposedly, more than a thousand, including their friend Andy Warhol’s and patron Norton Dodge’s. In response to their stateless status when they emigrated from the USSR to Israel in 1977, before arriving in New York in 1980, they invented a new country, TransState, whose principles were comically simple: “a federation of free and independent state-individuals – ‘I-States’—with the right of self-government and autonomy, even including secession.” They signed their names to every work as one artist rather than two.

Painting by Komar and Melamid.
Proletarian and Madonna,
from the Sots Art Series, 1972.

In 2010, Melamid recalled those happy days:

“We were on a roll. Ideas would come into our heads. We would laugh, it was always funny. Actually, that’s another fundamental thing: it has to be amusing and funny. About some of our work, we’ve even been told: ‘That’s too funny. It’s too much.’ In other words, if it’s funny, it’s not art. That’s one of the radical themes. It had to be funny. The funnier, the better. Sometimes this humor was incomprehensible from the side. But to us, it was always funny. […] I read somewhere in Hegel about the pyramid of the arts, where tragedy was at the top. ‘But here,’ he says, ‘there’s something even higher. This is comedy, which destroys the whole pyramid to hell.’ And that’s it. I mean, that was one of the arguments—that above tragedy, there’s still comedy.”

Among my favorite of the tragedy-shattering comedies are the landscapes by their fictional nineteenth- and twentieth-century painter Nikolai Buchumov, who, as a result of an artist’s brawl, lost his right eye. Thus, in each of his 59 landscapes (the sixtieth was primed but unfinished) the foreground depicts the tip of Buchumov’s nose. (Close your left eye, reader, and gaze at a panorama before you.)

Komar and Melamid do not position themselves outside of their satire and criticism; they have imbibed the culture they mock. “Ours is the art of incongruity,” they told Newsweek in 1976, “for we are the middlemen of East and West. Unlike many Russian artists, we believe there is a world culture. We have always tried to work with that in view, without making allowances for our original culture. Russians see us as a grimace from the West. Foreigners see us as a smirk from the East. Our art has to be eclectic, for its elements are incompatible. The humor comes from the clash between an unsuitable container, détente, and its unadaptable contents, Russia.”

Editor Julia Tulovsky loads up the first quarter of the catalog with conventional art-speak essays on the artists and their work by renowned critics, but the most useful essay Tulovsky could have used, a 1986 feature on the duo in The New Yorker by Ian Frazier, is mysteriously absent and unmentioned (titled simply “Komar and Melamid,” which you can find in The New Yorker archives or in Frazier’s Nobody Better, Better Than Nobody). Frazier catches them in the midst of their relatively youthful celebrity, wherein the excited artists constantly joke and work. “The best description of an artist,” Frazier quotes Melamid, “is he was born in this year and he died in this year. We do not think ahead when we paint. We spend no more than one day on a picture. Splash one, splash another, put straight lines. You must work every day and work everything you can do. We paint in styles, yes, like Stone Age man or Botticelli or Jasper Johns or whoever, but really it is because we are Botticelli. We are a cocktail of all artists who have lived. This is our greatest discovery: according to Marxist theory, there is on one side the enormous, powerful force of history and the other side the helpless, tiny individual. What we discover is that there is no difference between the two. The individual is the history of the world, the history of art.”

We buy and sell souls poster.
"We Buy and Sell Souls." Advertisement poster for the project
Komar and Melamid,  Inc., We Buy and Sell Souls, 1978-1983.

The only items in the catalog that provide them with anything like the same presence as Frazier’s delightful piece are two solo interviews conducted by Yuri Albert. As Komar and Melamid are alive and kicking and still working away, examples of their independent work are also on display. The catalog is a neat, useful container of the exhibit, and when it comes to their extended written skits, it is easier to read than on the museum walls. In an interview, Albert tries to suggest to Komar that his and Melamid’s work exists in language – in concept – rather than in deed, but I disagree. The artworks really do exist, and the physical objects and photographs of the performance pieces (including their anti-gravity machine) should be experienced visually.

The exhibit, which is free, is at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, NJ, through July 16, 2023.

Exhibition catalog edited by Julia Tulovsky, Hirmer Publishers, $50, 288pp.

All images reproduced above (c) Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid.


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