Portrait of V.I. Lenin with Cap, in the Style of Jackson Pollock III 1980 is a large rectangular painting in which thick layers of predominantly white, black and grey enamel paint, with some flashes of yellow and red, have been dripped, splattered and poured over an off-white background. The concentration of paint is very dense in the centre of the composition, while around the edges it is much thinner.
The painting was made by the British artists Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden under the identity of Art & Language, a collective name used from 1968 onwards by a changing group of conceptual artists based in the UK and New York. Baldwin was a founding member of Art & Language, while Ramsden joined in 1970 along with the art historian Charles Harrison (1942–2009), whose critical writing on the group’s work formed part of its practice. From the late 1970s Baldwin, Ramsden and Harrison became the leading figures associated with Art & Language.
Between 1979 and 1980 Baldwin and Ramsden completed a series of works that combined references to the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870–1924) and the American abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock (1912–1956). Initially the artists produced a series of pencil and ink drawings – each described as a ‘map’ for a portrait – featuring a stencilled black and white image of Lenin in a worker’s cap overlaid with a grid. The artists then made a series of seven paintings where images of Lenin were covered with thick layers of paint in a gestural, expressive manner highly reminiscent of Pollock’s work (see, for example, Summertime: Number 9A 1948, Tate T03977). Although they were later shown in their original format, these seven works were not initially intended to be shown as finished paintings but were made to be photocopied, with the paper copies cut up and reassembled into new formations for an exhibition in Eindhoven in 1980. Portrait of V.I. Lenin with Cap, in the Style of Jackson Pollock III, however, was one of eight subsequent paintings made in the autumn of 1980 that were not created as source material for the Eindhoven show, but rather to shown in their complete and original states.
‘A Portrait of V.I. Lenin with Cap, in the Style of Jackson Pollock’ was also the title of an essay by Art & Language published in the magazine Artforum in 1980 that explored realism and representation, although it did not discuss the paintings in question. The same title was additionally used for a song with lyrics by the artists released in 1981 by the Texan band The Red Crayola.
Harrison has claimed that the series combining Lenin and Pollock emerged from the title’s ‘linguistic description, an ironic proposal for an impossible picture, a kind of exasperated joke’ (Harrison 1991, p.129). In 1999 Baldwin, Harrison and Ramsden explained how the politics of the Cold War was central to the series, in that the image of one of the most iconic Russian communist revolutionaries appears to be ‘hidden’ in the work of an American artist whose abstract paintings were marketed in the 1950s as products of the ‘free world’. From a Western perspective, the paintings of Pollock, who Art & Language have called ‘the superhero of a superseded modernism’, as well as publicity images of him at work, have been ‘both celebrated and put to use in the war which saw Lenin tarnished or effaced as international capital proclaimed its triumph’ (Fundació Antoni Tàpies 1999, p.27).
One of the ironies of Art & Language’s series on Lenin and Pollock is that the Russian revolutionary is more commonly depicted in the style of socialist realism, a mode of lifelike, figurative art that became official state policy in the Soviet Union in 1934, and one that is far removed from the spontaneous form of abstract painting developed by Pollock in the 1940s.
The way in which these paintings seem to ‘copy’ the work of a famous artist might also be related to the ways in which Art & Language has, since its formation, sought to challenge the value placed on individuality and authenticity in the art world. After a period in which Art & Language was mainly associated with the production of text-based works (it established the journals Art-Language in 1969 and The Fox in 1975), Baldwin and Ramsden returned painting to the group’s activities in the late 1970s. After the Lenin and Pollock series, they produced in 1981 two versions of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica 1937 also in the style of Pollock and using the same initial stencilling technique. The group’s practice has continued to employ a variety of media, including installations and music, in works that explore the authority of the art object and the art institution, as well as the role of artists and viewers.
Art & Language: The Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Société des Expositions du Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels 1987, pp.26–9, 43–9.
Charles Harrison, ‘On “A Portrait of V.I. Lenin in the Style of Jackson Pollock”’, in Essays on Art & Language, Oxford 1991, pp.129–49.
Michael Baldwin, Charles Harrison and Mel Ramsden, Art & Language in Practice: Vol.1: Illustrated Handbook, exhibition catalogue, Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona 1999, pp.26–35, 182–7, reproduced p.182.
Supported by Christie’s.