The Irina Stolyarova Collection

Collections of Russian or Russian-born artists from the second half of the last century and the beginning of this one (and I had the pleasure to describe at least a dozen of such) have already developed a fully formed typology. There are several mega-collections which aim to embrace the entire range of important names and significant events. Here, advisers play an important role, although their advice is focused not so much on the art market, but rather on historical and cultural context; they do not help the collector to navigate through the world of auctions and collections, but rather direct their attention to the artistic process as such. There are more specialized collections that concentrate, say, on Sots Art or pre-war Socialist Realism. Then there are collections with still narrower focus: say, the Moscow scene of the 1960s (sometimes, they too, cannot do without consultants, as within each of these groups or movements there’s its own system of conventional tenets with a hierarchy of names that one is not allowed to violate). Finally, there are collections where their owner is a kind of an auteur: he or she is involved from the very outset, and the works are selected according to his or her personal taste and personal choice. As such, these collections intrinsically represent, among other things, the identity of the collector. Of course, every collection has its representational identity: after all, it is an expression of its time – “the time of the collector”, the “time of the artist”, – and of the global trends that influence both individual and shared creative directions; and, for certain, artistic identity – yes, one could adumbrate so much more… But it is the individual vision that makes the individual collector, and the focusing power of such a vision especially strong in the above-mentioned type of personal collection. Precisely as such – with a strong individual vision, relatively new, but fast-growing, and with huge potential for development – I see the collection of Irina Stolyarova. Many collectors evolve along with their collections, starting with names that can be said to be somewhat conventional and already well known in the world of art. Then they might move to forming their own vision of the collection, and even their own concept (although it is quite often the case that a collection does not evolve, but is built in a haphazard and casual way that can almost be changed at will).It seems to me that Irina Stolyarova, from the very outset, from her first steps as a collector, had fully formed ideas about what her collection would be: the items would not be chosen for their ‘importance’ or their conventional values, but because, more than anything, they appealed to her soul, they touched her aesthetic sense, and evoked an emotional response. Above all, and equally important, there was something else, a word that nowadays is not so popular – poetics. And therefore, the first works that laid the foundation of the collection remain very much in tune with the latest acquisitions. The circumstances and the opportunities might have changed, preferences and priorities stayed the same. So the Stolyarova collection has been focused on the work of Russian artists of several generations, living both in the home country and in the West; and the first émigrés generation associated with the School of Paris. The émigré artists in the collection include those who worked in the early post-war decades; many of them were then expressing their individuality in an entirely different way. Irina Stolyarova, however, and it is important to say, is completely indifferent to the political aspects of the artist’s residence. For her, an artist is ‘Russian’ in the broadest sense, to be viewed within a European cultural context. At least, in choosing her artists, she is referencing this European paradigm. I would further say that Irina Stolyarova is not concerned with a conceptual and even less so with a narrative content of a work. The primary object of her interest is painting as a material substance. She is in interested in painting as such, in its entire gamut: all the way from figurative representation to abstract. Her forte is navigating in this material substance of painting moving from “representational density” (the concept of art theorist Yury Tynyanov) to the free-spirited expressions of various forms of abstraction. This approach must have been present – albeit perhaps unconsciously – from those very first steps that Irina Stolyarova took as a collector. For example, she acquires a work by William Brui, from the mid-1970s series Unified Fields. It’s a great piece: through a field of black field (critic Grigory Kapelyan called it “black earth”), barely glimmers, then appears more actively, then opposes the black with equal force – white. This massive darkness forms certain structures – latticework and grids. The painting “keeps you at a distance” and forming as they do this mass of darkness, the latticework and grids interact in their own special way with the eye’s retina, creating their own, stable connections. The artist seems to be able to control the way in which we look at the picture, the distance he “keeps” is meaningful. The interpenetration and interplay of black and white is seen as the spontaneous metaphysical autogenesis of light. How apt then, that in recent years, after exhibitions at the Russian Museum and the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, Brui is coming back into fashion. As it happens, back in the Seventies, he was one of the first artists of his generation whose works could be found in the collections of MOMA in New York, and the Metropolitan, but then Brui, not overly anxious about self-publicity and PR, for quite some time rather dropped out of sight of the critics and gallery owners. It was Irina Stolyarova who drew attention to him during this period, thereby demonstrating both the need and the courage to go her own way. The School of Paris, within its strict chronological boundaries, is represented by the work of Jules Pascin, classical in its dreamlike voluptuousness. In actual fact, Pascin was born in Bulgaria. However, the logic of this collection has not been violated, for, as it has already been said, ‘Russianness’ of the collection is not a limiting factor, but rather an articulation of a kind of unifying artistic criteria guiding the collector’s choice. This work is a kind of tuning fork, tuning in to an emotional pictorial wave. Thanks to Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast” and Ilya Ehrenburg’s memoirs, the artist’s name, which in Soviet times was generally transcribed as Paskhin was, at least for my generation, absolutely familiar, a sort of a pass into the then forbidden world of free art. Serge Charchoune also belongs to the older generation of the School of Paris’ “Russian element”: he had been involved in the Moscow avant-garde of the early twentieth century. In his European period, he consistently pays tribute to Magical Realism and Purism, but, more importantly, he was almost the only Russian-born-artist who was a part of the Dadaism movement since its very outset. In the post-war decades, Charchoune, who had for a long time been engaged in literary activities, experiences a new creative upsurge. In fact, this is his deeply original individual version of a meditative, natural philosophical abstraction, in which there is still a place for artistic representation: motifs of running water and the externalization of a musical phrase. The collection has two very different works by Charchoune: one, with allusions to the experience of Magical Realism, is built on the magic lantern effect (reminding us of Akhmatova: “But the source of light is mysteriously hidden”). The second is an interesting example of Charchoune’s late philosophical intentions. The pictorial representation here alludes to a micro-world; the ambience of this painting is akin to protoplasm with some kinds of micro-bodies floating around. Charchoune’s interests are of course, far from cytology, he is creating a beautiful metaphor, the transience of an intermediate state of representation: no longer an abstraction, but not yet “objectified.” Léon Zak also has a Russian background, including in education; in Paris, he led an active exhibition life as a member of the Neo-humanists (crossing paths in gallery exhibitions with Pavel Tchelitchev). In the post-war years he turned to abstraction. The work represented in the Stolyarova collection, with its plant motif, chimes with the above-mentioned Charchoune canvas. This is not about stylistic analogies, but a shared approach (almost literally): Zak, we can see, of course, is not aiming for the optical analogue of a micro-zoom, but the maximum of tactility, as close as possible – in colour, form, body – to the epidermis of the leaf. It looks not so much an image of the plant, rather a navigation across its surface. Here too there is a balance of post-object and pre-abstract. At one time, Anatoly Efros rightly found direct links between abstract art and the emphasis on colour of the School of Paris: objective art was being reborn following on the period of non-objectivity. Let me say once more, perhaps her interest in art as something ever transitory, and endlessly changeable, is what motivated Irina Stolyarova as a collector. Her selection of works by the School of Paris reveals this guiding principle to have been quite consistent. Take André Lanskoy – a man with a biography full of upheaval: a student at the Imperial Corps des Pages, who fought in the Civil War, did not emigrate, and was evacuated with the remnants of the White Army. He was at the heart of all the new initiatives of Parisian artistic life, he was friends with Yury Annenkov; and exhibited works in the Fauvist manner, displaying Primitivist tendencies. He exhibited a great deal, working with the leading galleries and collectors. At the beginning of the 1940s, influenced by Vasily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, he turned to various forms of abstraction. The collection contains a very serious and complex work by this master: a dynamic abstraction with descending coloured spots. Its fragments materialize, thereby acquiring an independent “tactile life”, which literally dreams up objectivity seemingly long destroyed and left behind. And what an objectivity this is! It is not depicted, it’s tangibly felt, it’s anticipated and relished. What is this? Reminiscences of Synthetic Cubism, with its fondness of collage intrusions from the real world – pieces of wallpaper, texture, and even objects (fragments of musical instruments, etc)? Or a premonition of readymades (Jackson Pollock, that great classic of abstract art, experienced something similar in his work “Shadow”)? Pierre Dmitrienko belongs to the next generation of Russian Parisians. The collection has three of his works that I would classify as dramatic abstraction: they all represent complex states of consciousness. Particularly significant, in my opinion, is “La Route;” it has some connection with external reality, although somewhat indirect. As a result, despite the fact that the work is abstract, it is not without a narrative dimension. It creates an existential image of the dramatic path of life, of a road that has been cut through in both dimensions: in the rock formations of the outer world, as well as deep within of the subconscious. The Stolyarova collection contains a large body of works of the so-called “Sixties Generation”: Oleg Tselkov, Eduard Steinberg, Vladimir Nemukhin, Lev Kropivnitsky, Liliya Masterkova, Dmitry Plavinsky, Victor Pivovarov, Evgeny Rukhin, Yuri Kuper…. Historical and cultural circumstances, including the dichotomy between official and unofficial art, which existed until the late 1980s, mean that the concept of modern art in Russia extends over a large period of time. Not only collectors, but also museums in their exhibitions, use the work of this generation to demarcate the beginning of Russian ‘modern’ art. It is understandable: the Sixties generation is indeed still creatively active, but on the other hand, the very presence of ‘heavyweights’ who came out of the underground, whose merits are conventionally recognized, is validated by private and museum collections. Irina Stolyarova, however, is not interested in the underground heroics of these artists of the Sixties who spoke out against Soviet officialdom. Her choice of artists is her own: she is less interested in Conceptualists and Sots artists, than in artists focused on the material, painterly or plastic, expression. The collection includes a very significant work by Vladimir Yankilevsky “Composition” from his “Space and Experience” (1981) series. In his letter to the collector the artist described this work as one of his best. The artist at that time had already moved beyond those signature steps in his evolution that I would call his anthropomorphic and techno periods. In this particular work, there are still traces of the “techno”: signs, arrows, and symbols – the painter’s own transcript of global energies. There are also anthropomorphic reflections: all sorts of entrances and exits, and, most importantly, the proportionality of certain images of the human form. But especially important is his painterly realisation: exceptionally deep, harmoniously developing light brown and light green tones with fragments of dark ochre. The feeling of a plain surface however is preserved: the colours move or flow not in waves, but in sequences, frame by frame. Yankilevsky is always thinking in global terms. Therefore his articulation of an ‘aesthetic’ has quite a reflexive focus: the emotional state of the artist, the state of the matter and the matter of the painting are, if not harmonised, then, at least, they tend to be somewhat coordinated. There is a substantial body of works representing the Sixties generation. The poetics of Oleg Tselkov with the aggression of endlessly mutating anthropomorphic images is wonderfully expressed in his work within the collection. Since the times when the Soviet official art and underground were opposed to each other, there has been a tradition of seeing Tselkov’s works in a political context, as a result of a certain anthropological counter-revolution. Their grotesque ugliness was explained as a result of the negative selection that Russia had been going through since the October revolution. One could dig even deeper, to Gogol’s tradition of evil spirits reincarnation which in its turn was based on folk tales. And indeed, Tselkov’s mature works refer rather to Gogol’s bodily image (“God-stomach”) than to direct anti-Soviet implications. The artist himself in his interviews and in the many conversations I had with him always denied any social or even literary connotations. But when we look at his work in Stolyarova’s collection there’s no getting away from connotations, at least ontological. An amorphous body – a clot of biomass – is tied up with ropes as with a straitjacket. This must be the most transparent, the most obvious image in Tselkov’s work of the constrained, swathed but still resistant being. Oscar Rabin’s landscape with his painterly structures, growing dramatically from dark to glowing, and gradually regaining some symbolic self-sufficiency is quite recognizable. “The Trailblazer” – that’s how I once called my foreword to Dmytry Plavinsky’s album. And indeed, Plavinsky is an artist of the trail, a master of an incredible sensitivity to tactile, audio and visual manifestations of the erstwhile. This said, the artist explores the old trail not just for the sake of some archaeological, academic trophies. Alexander Pushkin in his famous poem “What’s in My Name to You?” talks about “a dead trace” which is like “someone’s epitaphic line/in some unfathomable tongue”. But that is followed with a remarkable emotional turn: in light of a lyrical feeling the “dead trace” turns out to be alive and cordial. Material trails in Plavinsky’s works have lyrical and metaphysical but by no means a documentary dimension. The artist developed a signature technique that represents a “trail poetics”: it’s a palimpsest wherein the pictorial power brings up to the surface traces of several objectified visual layers of mundane reality. Irina Stolyarova has managed to select a very characteristic work where the past has been materialised, or, in other words, represented as real printed ephemera (some page proofs or real newspaper clippings). The texture and the colours become a poetic prism that refracts concrete and general into individual and personal. The collection also reflects Stolyarova’s special interest in Lydia Masterkova and Nikolay Vechtomov who are represented here with a few objects. These respected artists of the Sixties Generation unfortunately very rarely attract collectors. Even though quite distant from each other in their creative intentions their works do seem to have something common. Or at least their juxtaposition within the collection gives a reason to reflect on this commonness. Both artists in their abstractions reveal certain architectural and structural images of our consciousness that is forever burdened with the weight of existential associations. Especially distinctive are political associations in Vechtomov’s early work (painting on silk) which reflect social feelings within certain groups of the underground. I would like to reiterate again that by far not all “unofficial artists” tried to express a political message. The late Soviet regime was suspicious not only of the themes and subjects that had within themselves a direct challenge. A “negative” political content could equally be found in purely formal, that is institutional or even communicative instances: the choice of style or a form of expression, alternative exhibition practices, Western connections, etc. Vechtomov’s “The Road” in this sense is a work of a very unambiguous political slant: typical for Vechtomov orange and black colour range, vertical lines stretching all the way towards and behind the horizon (what are they? some mysterious columns? Or prison camp poles for the barbed wire?), low-set sun, puddles (oil?). No wonder this work was used as a cover for the seminal dissident novel by philosopher and writer Alexander Zinoviev. Vechtomov, however, is better known as an artist “from another world” (not the Soviet one). He’s a fantasist, visualizer of the unknown and unthinkable, creator of the famous “black suns” and outer space constructions. Lev Kropivnitsky, Vechtomov’s fellow underground artist and his neighbour in Lianosovo outside Moscow, wrote once that Vechtomov was “not a naturalist who was reconstructing interplanetary travel. He gives a sentiment, the environment of the worlds, existing or non-existing, and he does it very convincingly”. Well, in this case he gives a “sentiment” of a world, existing and joyless. It is important, I believe, to stress how the collection manages to “draw” new subjects and new stories out of only too well-known and overfamiliar works equal in terms of representational art; a process described by the collector as “picturesque in its various forms.“ There is for instance a significant work by Victor Pivovarov, one of the fathers of Moscow Conceptualism. The work seems to be slightly out of place here, taking into account the collection’s general anti-conceptual, anti-cerebral orientation. But in the context of this collection we suddenly feel that the artist, with all his symbiosis of the metaphysical and the conceptual, is, in essence, showing a pictorial story. In the foreground we see huge pieces of cloth (they could be screens or theatre curtains, but most likely just hanging laundry); similar pieces of cloth, visually diminishing, fly off to the zenith. The ones in the foreground conceal (reveal?) some ordinary everyday life: the human figure, landscape. All the images have very clear outlines, the colours are laid on (looks like they were sprayed) with an almost mechanical evenness; the technique itself – nitro enamel paint – does not allow any subtlety or nuances. And yet this work, as I see it, with its melancholy and hidden narrative, is quite pictorial, even aesthetically picturesque in its austerity. I find it not only the most painterly in this mid-70s series but in Pivovarov’s entire output. Another interesting subplot of the collection is painterly-optical. The source of the story, I would say, is in the work of Edward Steinberg. Almost monochrome in that quite recognisable Steinberg pale yellow tone, this work is about a certain optical mirage-like fluidity; thanks to the finest nuances of colour and luminosity the geometric shape acquires objectivity and flesh, and then, thanks again to the broken colour planes, a three-dimensional quality; and, in the end, thanks to the drawn shade – weight. But mirage remains a mirage, objectivity fades away, and the image again gravitates towards flatness. In Yury Kuper’s works mirage refers not to the geometry but to the plant life: a colouristic setting in its foreign artlessness resembles a basement wall, it gradually “thickens,” showing exquisite colour-tonal nuances of the three images of flowers. Natasha Arendt, the artist of a different generation, continues this exquisite line of aestheticizing the profane. Maxim Kantor, who also emerged on the art scene in the mid-Eighties, and has grown today into a significant painter, is represented here with a work (white cloth on red), which shows an appetite for the beautifully textured, as objectified in the form and even in the gravity of the depicted. Most interesting colour-spatial subjects are offered by Vladimir Nemukhin in his work. The array of objects in his still-lives looks most common: playing cards, books, parcels, etc. Usually, Nemukhin suggests the possibility of several ways of looking at things. He is, so to speak, interested in positioning – active, “biographical,” implying actual interest in the “game” – hence the activation of an objective plane (texture and even stereotypical objectivity). Spatial travelling can be dynamized, when the viewer feels at the mercy of the diagonal, the wavy, the jet-propelled or any other type of kinetics that Nemukhin favours. The work from 1992 included into this collection demonstrates a rare for this artist objectivity. Nevertheless, it does possess a solid, if a little sparse, evenly luminous colouring: the feel of “an old optics powdered with the dust of time.” But, because of this forced objectivity, it reminds the good old genre of trompe l’oeil (this is where the ‘old optics’ work their effect). Thus, the pictorial and optical intrigue of this still-life has a tactile-navigational character. Boris Sveshnikov has over the last several years turned into one of the most sought after artists, but nevertheless he remains largely misunderstood. The collection has two of his most significant works. The first of them, “The Storm”, is a vision of dreams, breakages, and symbolic epiphanies. Ekaterina Bobrinskya in her book “The Aliens?” about the Soviet unofficial art found a very good definition for the art of several artists (pariahs, wanderers, bearers of romantic and modernist myths). She called their art “the ideology of the outcast”. In this context she described the phenomenon of the resonance between the outcast and the decadence: “the “decadent”, museum-centred, sometimes expressly theatrical concept of art turned out to be one of the first stylistic alternatives to the Soviet art”. Sveshnikov’s female image – a phantasm, not devoid of trashy overtones – is within the same tendency, it’s a challenge to prosaic savoir vivre precision not so much even of the moth-eaten officialdom but of the “cultured” traditionalist, liberal trend of the official art. His second work, in my opinion, lies a layer deeper than a purely aesthetic challenge. This characteristically Sveshnikov’s world is brittle, fragile, almost sickly, but at the same time it’s a world of wholeness and integrity. Here, everything is contradictory. A space behind the window, which by definition should be vibrantly alive (this vitality is emphasised by pulsating pointillist brushwork) is deadened by giant flies stuck to the glass surface. The other (our) side of the glass is dominated by clinical squalor of a hospital life: dull, dismal tiles on the floor, a figure in the distance. And next to it all a strange, broken, aestheticized, stylized gesture: thin fingers exaggeratingly clutching a flower. Perhaps this is an item, more than any other in the collection, full of literary associations. And at the same time the narrative and the optical, very much in the spirit of Sveshnikov’s poetics, coexist here in a most complex, surpassing the everyday logics relationship. As I have already mentioned, the core of the collection represents the tastes and interests of the collector: the life and the existence of the painterly, diverse, and existing in different contexts, from the purely colouristic to literary and associative. However, Irina Stolyarova is not going to limit herself. She understands that things objectively important, and at the same time close to her aesthetically, lend the collection with the desired stereoscopy of vision. Thus, Evgeny Rukhin is represented by serious, not accidental works. The St Petersburg pioneer of Pop Art, with all his legendary status, remained not only in mythology, but also has a place in the real history of our art. Or take Francisco Infante, whose iconic pieces fill the gap in our art of, for example, group ZERO with its reduction of the natural and its focus on elements such as pure light, monochrome and vibration. Irina Stolyarova’s collection keeps growing, it is full of promise of new discoveries, and new collecting stories. Alexander Borovsky

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