Artist interview: Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid

Was ‘pop art’ a term used by yourself or colleagues or was there a different terminology that referred to a new figurative art movement in the 1960s and early 1970s?

AM: We used two terms – pop-art and our own Soviet version of it that we called Sots-art.

VK: In 1972 I began working in co-authorship with Alexander Melamid. We coined the term Sots-art. ‘Sots’ is an abbreviation of ‘Socialism’, just as ‘pop’ is abbreviated from ‘popular’. Sots-art reflects the images of Soviet agit-pop that surrounded all of us from childhood … Since the USSR was a conceptual state, Sots-art can be understood as ‘conceptual pop’. Unlike Western pop art, which responded to the overproduction of advertising and commercial consumption, Sots-art instead was a comment on the pervasion of Soviet ideology and its propaganda. Of course, advertising and propaganda have a lot of structural similarities. Having lived half a lifetime in Moscow and half a lifetime in New York, I can refer to mass culture in the Soviet Union as the ‘advertising of ideology’, while in the West it is the ‘propaganda of consumerism’. Sots-art was not a part of the Western ‘new figuration’ of the 1960s and early 1970s. In Soviet Russia figurative art was revived much earlier, after the death of the Russian avant-garde in the late 1920s and early 1930s – a time that can be called ‘post-avant-garde’. This was a time of unique eclecticism, during the transition from avant-gardism to socialist realism. The Russian post-avant-garde was a kind of proto-postmodernism, preceding the appearance of postmodernism in the West. From the outset, ‘conceptual eclecticism’ and other features of postmodernism were initiated in many of our works of Sots-art.

Did you ever consider yourself (now or in the past) a pop artist?

AM: Never thought about it.

VK: Very often artists don’t like it when they are attributed to one of the collective styles. I know, for instance, that in Russia and China there are artists who don’t want their work to be called either pop art or Sots-art. Some works of pop art I believe to be Sots-art. When I asked Andy Warhol why he drew a hammer and sickle he answered: ‘Maybe because I’m Czech’. And then with a smile he added, ‘You did my soup can, and I did your hammer and sickle’. He meant our Post-Art No.1.

In 1978, Lawrence Alloway asked me why we (Komar and Melamid) didn’t call our work pop art, but instead chose Sots-art. I knew that in the mid-1950s he had coined the term pop art, but since then the value of the term had changed. Therefore I told him that our Sots-art is closer to his (Alloway’s) original understanding of pop art as ‘the products of the mass media’. I explained to this great critic that Sots-art is not equivalent to the later understanding of pop art as an elitist reflection on the visual imagery of popular and mass culture. The thing is that although the propaganda images of the Soviet ‘mass media’ surrounded us always and everywhere, they were never popular among the masses. They were imposed on the people by a totalitarian elite.

In the 1950s huge abstract expressionist canvases were hanging on the walls of museums in New York. And through the window, the streets were dominated by the commercial advertising of Coca-Cola and other popular products. In those same years, on the walls of museums in Moscow hung huge patriotic canvases depicting the heroes of labour and war. And through the window, on the streets there were eye-catching political billboards, red slogans, quotes and appeals to build Communism, to praise the Communist Party and to love the government and party leaders.

Through this comparison one can see the similarities and differences between pop art and Sots-art.

Did your work engage with current events in the 1960s and early 1970s?

AM: I don’t know what you mean.

VK: I was part of a small circle of ‘underground’ artists in Moscow. We were in a particular kind of isolation. Our work was not sanctioned by the state and was considered to be in opposition to official art. Officials from the Ministry of Culture did not recognise or exhibit us. All this created in me an unbearable feeling of loneliness.

Remember that the Soviet government had at its disposal not only the army, the police and all the banks; not only all the factories, farms and offices; but also all the radio stations and televisions, all the publishing houses and newspapers, all the art journals and all the exhibition halls. Trapped in this environment we tried to show our work in our own homes. Apartment exhibitions became a unique form of alternative art. In the spring of 1974, during an apartment performance, I was arrested together with the spectators and released only the next morning. After that we began to look at other options and decided to exhibit our work in the Moscow wastelands, under the open skies. I thought that the sky didn’t belong to the bureaucracy. I was wrong.

Our outdoors exhibition (on 15 September 1974) would mark the culmination of the development of the post-war avant-garde and enter into history under the name Bulldozer. We hadn’t even managed to put up our easels before bulldozers, waste trucks and ‘art bureaucrats in plain clothes’ suddenly appeared. They began to smash up and confiscate our work. Those who resisted were arrested. One Western journalist even had a tooth knocked out. A lot of works of Sots-art were destroyed before my very eyes. I was in shock and clung to my chest one of the versions of Double Self-Portrait as Lenin and Stalin. I decided not to behave as Lenin and Stalin taught, but as was taught by Tolstoy and Gandhi. So when one of the ‘art bureaucrats’ pushed my face into the autumn mud and tried to break the self-portrait by stamping on it with his foot, I just looked up from the ground to this ‘censor’. Our eyes met. And I quietly said: ‘What are you doing? That’s a masterpiece!’ There was a strange connection. He froze, his hand (or rather his foot) wavered and he didn’t destroy the work, but tossed it in the back of a waste truck. Still lying on the ground, I fixed my eyes on the truck receding into history and somehow I smiled. Perhaps every artist secretly and unconsciously dreams that his/her work will be destroyed at the hands of its viewers.

The destruction of our exhibition caused an international outcry. It was threatening to undermine Brezhnev’s plan to sign the very important international Helsinki Accords. Events unfolded dramatically and quickly. Within several weeks the position of the authorities suddenly changed and in Izmailovsky Park we were allowed to stage the first uncensored exhibition in the history of the USSR. At that outdoors exhibition I showed works from the series Post-Art. Then the thought struck me that if at some point in the future there was to be an archaeological excavation of the Moscow wastelands, at the level of the 1970s, the Sots-art remnants of the Bulldozer exhibition would look very much like my Warhol painting from the Post-Art series.

How did you choose the subject matter for your work included in The World Goes Pop?

AM: I believed that these works [Post-Art No.1 (Warhol), Post-Art No.2 (Lichtenstein), Post-Art No.3 (Indiana)] represent a revolution that will destroy the works of the revolutionists.

VK: The Post-Art series is an apocalyptic vision of the future. The viewer can see famous works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Indiana and other pop artists as they might be after a nuclear war or a political or natural disaster. They would come to be as the ancient frescoes of Pompeii have survived to us, after the eruption of Vesuvius. This project also included Pictures from the Future: drawings and landscapes of the ruins of modern architecture, such as the Guggenheim Museum and MoMA in New York. The inspiration for the project came from the fact that in Russia historical antiquities, icons and paintings of Old Masters were considered to be of higher value than modern art. To this day I love unrenovated, darkened pictures or the dilapidated sculptures of ancient Greece and the ruins of ancient Rome, which I sometimes saw in the works of Giovanni Battista Piranesi and Hubert Robert. In the Soviet museums the restorers were scared of washing off, together with the darkened layers of the old lacquer, the final layer, the layer of the author’s glaze, which is often jammed between two layers of lacquer. To me, brought up with such darkened pictures, it seemed that the golden darkness of these old paintings was a thrilling and mysterious symbol of time. The grime of the past separated us from ‘the death of the author’. So, for me, seeing contemporary pop art through the patina of time means seeing our own time from the future, along with its tragic history and aesthetic values. To this day, when I see Dutch still lifes of the seventeenth century, with simple pots, herring with beer, clay tobacco pipes, playing cards and the like, the usual subjects of bygone daily life, it seems to me that this is the older sibling of pop art.

Where did you get your imagery from (what, if any, sources did you use)?

AM: One pocketbook published in the 1960s.

VK: The samples used for the Post-Art project were not originals but reproductions. In Russia in those days it wasn’t possible to see the famous original pop art works so I hadn’t seen them. The black and white reproductions from Soviet booklets criticising the ‘soulless West’ were badly printed, like grey ghosts. But for Post-Art we used brightly coloured pictures from the famous book by Lucy Lippard, Pop Art (1966), which was a priceless gift from an American student friend. I’ll let you into a professional secret. (Maybe it will come in handy for a young artist.) Firstly, with the help of a projector, we increased the reproduction to the size of the original. Then we made a colour copy and let it dry out. Then we covered it in a dark lacquer and, without allowing it to dry completely, we burnt it with the flame of a gas burner. And finally we let it dry out with a second layer of cracked matt lacquer. After the exhibition in Izmailovsky Park, ‘a friend of a friend’ smuggled many Sots-art paintings to New York. There in 1976 they were shown in an exhibition of Komar and Melamid at the Ronald Feldman gallery. We were not allowed out of Russia for our own exhibition. The exhibition was unusually successful. Ronald sent us a bunch of reviews from newspapers and magazines. In his words, when Andy Warhol saw Post-Art and the future of his soup can, the face of this great artist turned as green as his beloved dollar bill. Only in 1978 was I able to get to New York and see the original pop art. It didn’t differ much from the reproductions in Lippard’s book.

Were you aware of pop art in other parts of the world?

AM: Yes.

VK: Apart from the work of American pop artists I knew about the pop art of England: Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake, Eduardo Paolozzi and the rest. But in Russia the centre of global pop culture was always considered to be the United States. That’s probably why we exclusively chose the works of American artists for the inversed images of Post-Art.

Was commercial art an influence on your work or the way in which it was made?

AM: No.

VK: In Soviet Russia, commercial art (in the Western meaning of the word) did not exist. It’s paradoxical that the marks of commercial art were easily found not only in official art, but also in the underground manifestations of our post-war avant-garde. For instance, due to the alternative conditions in Russia, the idea to show artworks on the streets (the Bulldozer exhibition) showed all the signs of commercial art in the West, a type of modern Montmartre serving the tourists in Paris.

Was there a feeling at the time that you were doing something important and new, making a change…?

AM: Yes, there was.

VK: I didn’t consider Sots-art to be a commodity, but rather a very important means of ‘self-cleansing’ from the hypnosis of Soviet propaganda and, primarily, a cleansing from oneself. Sots-art does not try to impose its medicine on everyone. Anton Chekhov, who was not only a writer but also a doctor, wrote of ‘squeezing the slave out of oneself, drop by drop’. In the totalitarian society it was important to remember that ‘squeezing the slave’ meant squeezing it from oneself, not squeezing it from others.

Was there an audience for the work at the time – and if so what was their reaction to it?

VK: We showed work in our own apartments, which at the same time were our studios. I was struck by how differently audience members reacted to our Sots-art. Some considered it to be far from ‘pure art’, an ironic ‘idolo-clasm’. Although I did not argue with them, I made the important qualification that Sots-art is, above all, a ‘self-irony’, with the idols not outside of us, but within us. Propaganda had implanted them in my brain since childhood and so due to the Soviet conditions ‘self-parody’ could become a means of self-cleansing.

Other viewers – Muscovite liberals – tried not to notice the official art of ‘visual propaganda’ surrounding all of us: all of those red slogans, exclamation marks, quotes from the Soviet leaders and posters of heroic images. Ignoring Soviet reality gave them an illusory sense of innocence and personal independence. For people of this type, the unexpected appearance of totalitarian imagery in Sots-art, in the intimate context of an apartment exhibition of unofficial art, was irritating and shocking.

Sometimes these differences of opinion caused controversy even among people who were very close. I remember how the leader of Soviet dissidents, the inventor of the hydrogen bomb Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov, liked our Sots-art very much, especially the works which combined difference styles. But his wife clearly didn’t share the opinion of her husband.

I remember that once an American journalist arrived together with Sakharov and said that he perceived our works to be ‘a protest against Soviet power’. I would not deny the right of viewers to have a subjective perception of artworks. But I said that his words were unilateral and an extreme oversimplification of the ‘idolo-clasm’ of Sots-art. With help of a translator friend I tried to explain the idea of ‘self-cleansing through self-irony’, but I realised that in America the aforementioned words of Chekhov are not so widely known or as relevant as in Russia.

Looking back at these works, what you do think about them now?

VK: Today it seems to me that the most interesting thing about Sots-art was the initiation of a conceptual eclecticism. Long before postmodernism, we were beginning to connect multiple different styles and movements. But unlike Western postmodernists, we understood that it wasn’t to do with the end of modernism, but with the next revolutionary change of new concepts and avant-garde discoveries.

September 2015