Private Collecting in the Third Millennium and Irina Stolyarova’s Collection

Irina Stolyarova’s collection is one of many, and it would be hard to understand its specifics by mere juxtaposition and comparison. The first thing that strikes you when looking at her paintings is what we call taste—you will find no derivative imitations or obvious failures here. Everything’s up to the highest possible criteria, even though those criteria themselves seem to have been long lost: major museums and galleries live in the corporate world; they abide by the rules we do not really know but strongly feel. One of the most obvious things here is the integral connection between taste and the art she has chosen to collect—the abstract art of the late 20th century. The other obvious thing is the artists themselves—most of them are of dual nationality and therefore belong equally to Russian and French cultures. But what can be said of all this? What is the logic behind the collection? The questions posed relate not only to this particular collection, not even to the stylistic similarity of its paintings, but to the general situation in the contemporary artistic and critical discourse. Distinguished art critic Boris Groys recently published a book throughout 400 pages of which we will hardly find an attempt to describe a work of art. Art for Groys is an object of innovative transformations influenced by radical changes in the infrastructure of contemporary culture: new media technologies, commercialised art and art criticism, development of a new vision, and a new system of ontological orientation for understanding and analysing art objects. With all these new media and new meanings around mid and late 20th century abstract paintings look confusingly classic and reverentially academic. What are we supposed to make of them in this new context? Groys’s book is dedicated to an area of art activity that could be defined as post-painting: conceptualism, installation, and various new media technologies. For this area, according to Groys, the process of selection and exhibition becomes especially important. Curators play increasingly significant roles, and their roles, Groys suggests, become as important (if not more important) as those of artists. I would agree with this suggestion, but I would enhance it with a notion of scale that makes the exhibiting environment significantly different. Groys focuses on a large scale where large galleries, museums, and major international events—like art fairs and festivals—become increasingly more important. For a century, since the mid 1800s, large museums remained academic institutions nurturing art history and art theory research. Intellectual level, as well as the historic and geographical scope of the research, turned museum curators and researchers into oracles of the art world and philosophical regulators of the art life. One of these oracles and opinion makers was Clement Grinberg, a passionate advocate of abstract painting that he saw as a quintessence of the art of painting. His influence is strongly felt in Irina Stolyarova’s collection. After World War II the emphasis has been shifting towards exhibitions. They became not only indicators but also trendsetters of the art world. Grinberg’s ideology as a result stayed behind and his favourite artists moved to art collections. Major exhibitions, like Moscow-Paris in 1979, with their huge scale and pomposity, felt like a Communist Party Congress. The works exhibited created a new framework for understanding art’s social and political role as well as new criteria for the art market. Large art museums and exhibitions were like industrial or natural history Expos where shining new cars and ancient mammoth skeletons told stories of a type of object—newest or fossil—rather than of a specific car or skeleton. This educational and to an extent market-orientated intellectualism introduced relativism into the art world, and since then a work of art has been looked at as a species of its class rather than an individual entity. I see at least three aspects that put a small private collection in an advantageous position vis-à-vis large scale projects and institutions. The first one concerns precisely the new critical numbness in front of a work of art. In different instances the reasons for this silence could be different, but the silence itself seems very symptomatic. In the case of private collections this silence is incongruous: We do not have here a deafening silence that accompanies portentous suggestiveness of major events; here we have individual voices that we want to listen to. The second aspect is a friendly party-like atmosphere that brings together people without any conceptual programme or ritual. Every painting is surrounded by others; they all seem to be close to each other in spirit, and the feeling is that people attracted by these paintings should also form a union of the like-minded rather than remain an accidental crowd. Browsing through these paintings I recalled a chance encounter I had with the artist Léon Zak in the house of the famous St. Petersburg organist Isiah Braudo, and endless conversations with the artist Edik (Edward) Steinberg, and friendly meetings with Francisco Infante, and visits to the studios of Ilya Kabakov, Viktor Pivovarov and Vladimir Veisberg and the legendary art collector Lyonya (Leonid) Talochkin. All these people suddenly surfaced in my memory as if they were all sitting around the table. A wonderful phenomenon, not unlike déjà vu. And the third aspect is about an institutional future of these seemingly accidental collections which become an increasingly significant element of contemporary art life and an increasingly significant counter-balance to major museums, galleries and festivals. In other words—I see them as sprouts of a new, relatively independent, and elitist art milieu. Silence of the critical community facing the art in Stolyarova’s collection is a special one. At a first glance these works need no comment. Boris Groys, in one of his articles, compared a painting with a naked woman whose nudity calls for a veil of critical commentary. This witty remark brings up a weird erotic analogy. Some bodies, or their photographs, are so good that they require no further commentary. There is a certain paradox in the whole idea of complementing a painting with words. It contradicts a well known maxim: A picture is worth a thousand words; even though contemporary art has long refuted the old truism. Abstract paintings in Irina Stolyarova’s collection are admiringly self-contained, and even though one can talk of them ad infinitum, there’s not really any need to. The works, nevertheless, provoke a conversation, a conversation that is very different from a museum guide’s explanation or a philosophical treatise; it’s a conversation where a painting is seen not in the context of a historic era, but in the context of the individual life of the artist as well as the viewer. At the same time you could say about every single work in the collection that abstraction here is expressed not through an alienated colour and shape logics, but through a concrete light and texture experience. But if we were to describe different concrete experiences of different artists we would drown in speculations about French and Russian still lives and landscapes, about the feel of the material world, and the uniqueness of lives behind and in front of every painting. Unlike a one-artist show, a critic at a group exhibition cannot get fully submerged into each artist’s individual world. There is a chance, however, to exchange a few words and understanding glances. The only thing one can say confidently is that this meeting, intentional or accidental but predetermined by the collector’s choice, is an event. And the meaning of this event, elusive as it is, is different for every viewer. A meeting of artists in a private collection is like a meeting of different people. Its unpredictability, its accidental nature, does not call for an academic treatise; it invokes quiet astonishment and indistinct murmur of thoughts and words, forever emerging, disappearing and re-emerging again. Now, nevertheless, we have to pay homage to theory and its universals: I mean the capability of paintings to be exhibited next to and together with each other—their friendly disposition to each other. In that sense painting is akin to architecture, sculpture, or graphics. There’s nothing of the kind in music, theatre, or cinema. You can’t listen to two symphonies at a time, or simultaneously watch two theatre productions evolving on two stages. Paintings not only allow this, even more so, sometimes they’re hung without any space between them, like tapestries. Private collections in this respect are close in their nature to the painting itself: its ability to hang next to another painting. And in this proximity lie the beauty and the charm of small galleries and private collections. Unlike museums where art works are placed next to each other in accordance with academic requirements of artistic periods and styles: Individual contacts between art objects are lost; they cannot maintain a conversation with each other. Private collections are good precisely because of this atmosphere of a private party, a friendly gathering, and the viewer is not an unfamiliar visitor from the outside; he belongs here. This friendly casualness, in contrast to the imperial etiquette of a palatial museum or blandness of a shopping mall or international airport, makes them so attractive. I have a feeling that private collections, temporarily removed from the epicentre of art life by their gigantic brethren, will soon gain revenge; they will leave the Louvre and the Hermitage to schoolchildren and tourists and will form a club society of connoisseurs and fans for whom an intimate meeting with an artist is the main condition of enjoying art. Irina Stolyarova’s collection is a painting community that demonstrates a new way of life for artworks. The 20th century was a time for imperial and state museums’ collections: The 21st century looks like the time for private collections. That is not to say that large collections will lose their significance and their value: no, they’ve got nothing to fear. But having acquired a dominant monopolistic role in the art world and the art market they necessarily enter the domain of mass culture and inevitably become trivialized. Their fate is akin to the fate of other large institutions—huge supermarkets, famous hotels, fashionable resorts, and the like. Universal fame and the accessibility of major museums make them by definition commonplace and trivial—in spite of all the unrivalled masterpieces within their walls. And on the contrary, small provincial museums, private collections, and little-known artists become new heroes; a new environment for sudden discoveries, hidden from media and advertising. These collections are even more interesting through the collector’s individual taste that reveals the individualities of the artists in the collection. The apparent incidental nature of these collections imparts them with the appeal of the unexpected (unlike in the Tate, MOMA, or the Russian Museum); the viewer here feels like a trailblazer. This feeling is hard to simulate or substitute with anything in a large museum. As a result small private collections become original contributors into the overall art life and atmosphere. Losing in numbers and sometimes even in the quality of their works they win over large museums in their own game on well-trodden paths. Great early 20th century collectors Schukin and Morozov proved that private collectors’ initiatives and enterprises can win over the initiatives of state and academic institutions. Of course the time of Morozovs, Schukins and Tretyakovs is well behind us, but small private collections of the 21st century do not even try to compete with the mighty rivals. The era of major discoveries is passé, and the level of individualism in art has risen significantly. Art in the 20th century has gone through a number of revolutions; their destructive impact eventually being much bigger than their creative potential. In this respect private collecting looks like a promising initiative. Art revolutions were started by individuals within small enthusiastic circles and rebelled against major institutions that had owned and dominated the art world. Within those circles there were artists, critics, art theorists, curators, and art patrons. But with recognition and legitimisation they moved closer and closer towards major academic and commercial institutions with their destructive impact. Now we’re entering a new millennium with the scale of radical changes most likely greatly exceeding anything we experienced in the last century. The range of extremes may however not be as drastic as previously. We already see symptoms of new life in small private institutions, initiatives and groups, heaved or washed away by revolutionary cataclysms. The World Wide Web has definitely been the biggest and most revolutionary change of the previous era. Local institutions of the new millennium are not as yet as visible. But private collections promise to become a significant, if not main, source of creative and critical activity. The collections and collectors become that middle layer of art enthusiasts that is set against the mass society with its tourist flows and indiscriminate tastes. Major museums live exclusively by historic epochs—they observe, sometimes initiate, new events—even revolutionary breakthroughs—but mostly reconstruct great phenomena of the past in our memory. Small circles of enthusiasts perceive art differently; here every work of art, with its individual life, often dissolved or even erased in a larger scale, is relished and treasured. The Bolshevik slogan, "Art belongs to people," implied eliminating individual contact between artist and viewer. The viewer in this social programme became the 'owner' of the art, but the artist was reduced to being a representative of a style. This relationship left no room for an individual contact between the viewer and the artwork. Especially ignored was the physical aspect of visual arts including painting. The physical image of the work was completely replaced by its symbolic function. The advantage of small collections, and the way they’re exhibited, is precisely in the space and time allowed for this physical contact. The whole gamut of the work’s meaning acquires individual charm. This is felt strongly in Irina Stolyarova’s collection because late abstract expressionism is interesting primarily for the force of its physical presence. This presence was receding in conceptualism, or, one could say, it was turning into a symbol rather than an area of meaningful expansion. In the late 20th century, installations reduced the phenomenon of individual physical presence even further: perception was subordinate to the dramatic score of the installation’s spatial environment. Erosion of physical presence in painting seemed irreversible, but in small collections like Irina Stolyarova’s it returns to the forefront. Corporality of a painting is almost fully erased when its image is transferred electronically. Therefore 'internet collecting,' close as it is to the real one in its individualised meaning, inevitably reduces this corporality. To really appreciate the collection one needs to be in direct physical contact with it, which raises the problem of travel: either the viewer or the collection need to move towards each other. Another important issue arises from the nature of the collection as a focal point—a centre of gravity for a group of people: connoisseurs, historians, writers, or just friends. They all bring life—a new corporal breath of life—into the system of aesthetic and philosophical categories replacing in fact the living presence of the artist. Taken all together they make what once used to be called ‘Salon.’ With time the term Salon acquired negative connotations as something snobbish and superficial as opposed to sincere and ingenuous. I believe that in the future the gala shows of London, Paris, Moscow, and New York will lose at least part of their significance, while Salon, shedding its snobbish image, will return to the times of Diderot and reinvent itself as a place for a positive and meaningful conversation amongst the initiated about life and art. By initiated I do not necessarily mean adherents of the same style, movement, or local art group, and not necessarily like-minded people, but people who are capable of communicating on the level of individual tastes and ideas—on the level of a physical presence and vibrant corporality. Much talked about ‘death of art’ is today caused by the exhaustion of this particular area of individual communication with and about a painting. The art world and the art market function within more general categories where the world is divided into zones with predetermined ideas and experiences to the detriment of an individual contact with an artwork. The object here, like it was with Plato, is reduced to a shadow of an idea, and no matter how post-structuralist philosophy struggles over the return to the object, the road to this coveted return is peppered with ever emerging new categorical and notional obstacles. These obstacles look like portals or triumphal arches, but they lead to something virtually inaccessible. Individual collections, like people, cannot deny themselves a right to use thinking, but they should not forget the remarkable words of Russian poet Evgeny Baratynsky:
Just thought and thought! Poor artist of the word! High priest of thought! You cannot flee; The word holds all: the world and man, Death, life, and ever-unveiled truth. Brush, chisel, organ! Lucky is the man Who's sensitive to them, and does not go beyond them! He may indulge himself in worldly feasts! Yet mortal life is pale beneath your cutting rays, Before your naked sword, O Thought!
The world of private collections becomes a part of the world of individual entities. Corporate institutions of the 20th century tried to subjugate this world into subordination and toeing the general line—common, partisan, rigid and… historically restricted. Irina Stolyarova’s is one of these collections. Aleksandr Rappaport Translated by Alexander Kan.

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