How times have changed — or not.
En route to the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick, the news on the radio causes agita. Reports of Russian hackers with potential connection to Putin stealing Democratic National Committee info on Donald Trump? That and other world worries makes on think back to the Cold War.
And indeed, a visit to the Zimmerli — and its vast collection of Russian and Soviet art — seems like a journey back in time to the “Duck and Cover” era, when American and Soviet scientists competed in the race for nuclear weapons and children hid under their school desks.
In “Dreamworlds and Catastrophes: Intersections of Art and Science in the Dodge Collection,” on view through Sunday, July 31, at the Zimmerli, we read on the wall about “one of the dominant concerns of Soviets during the Cold War: the consequences of innovations in science, technology, mathematics, communications, and design. This turbulent period was marked by the building of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a failed attempt at improving U.S.-Soviet relations.”
How far we’ve come — or not.
“Although created in the Cold War era of the 1960s to the 1980s, these works have a renewed relevance and immediacy as current global events have reignited American and Western European tensions with Russia,” say exhibition materials.
With subject matter reflecting the artists’ fascination with the space race and worldwide tensions around a nuclear arms deadlock, more than 20 artists from the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine, and Russia explore utopian fantasies and anxious realities of everyday Soviet life in the second half of the 20th century.
Making their case in documentary photography and surrealistic abstraction, hyperrealist painting and kinetic sculpture, these artists were operating in underground circles — their work was not sanctioned by the Soviet regime, and offer a range of political perspectives and artistic experimentations. Exhibition materials draw parallels to the work of Robert Rauschenberg, Martha Rosler, Andy Warhol, Richard Buckminster Fuller, and Richard Hamilton.
The artwork has been drawn from the Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art at the Zimmerli, developed by American economist Norton Dodge during frequent business trips to the Soviet Union. It is the foremost collection of art by Soviet artists working in opposition to government-mandated subjects, styles, and aesthetics.
“Norton began collecting Soviet ‘unofficial’ art during the Cold War, making his collection very much a product of that historical moment,” says curator Ksenia Nouril. “This exhibition is one way to tell the collection’s story, highlighting the role of its creator as a mediator between American capitalism and Soviet communism. At the same time, this subject is very timely. We see history repeating itself, as there is a connection between the ‘official’ behaviors of the Cold War and today’s ongoing wars and political conflicts, and technology is playing an ever-increasing role in our everyday lives.”
The exhibition is organized into three sections: The first focuses on the tensions between the superpowers in the race for nuclear arms and to space. The second looks at how artists used abstraction, surrealism, and even computer science to reimagine earthly landscapes as well as the worlds beyond. In the third, artists who created space-agey works of kinetic art are explored.
A noxious green dominates a canvas by Estonian artist Jaan Elken, depicting an anonymous chemist at work in his lab wearing a gas mask, rubber gloves, and protective suits. Nearby are hand-colored photographs by Boris Mikhailov of everyday Soviet existence from 1968 to 1986, in which human heads are transmogrified into alien creatures by gas masks.
Termed “Sots Art,” the social realism created irony and irreverence. We see two boys in school uniforms and neckties becoming absurd-looking creatures as they model gas masks for their teacher. Above them hangs a portrait of Vladimir Lenin — Big Brother is Watching You.
Among the artists who explore the space theme is Mikhail Borisov, whose lifelike portrait of Anatoly Berezovoy shows the challenges of peeling and slicing a lemon in zero gravity.
In a small pastel, Alexander Kosolapov creates an absurd juxtaposition of two Soviet icons of pride: a cosmonaut (wearing a cod piece atop his space suit) dances with a prima ballerina. “The cosmonaut represents the strength and endurance of the Soviet people, while the ballerina represents their sophistication and appreciation for culture and beauty,” says curator Nouril, a Dodge Fellow at the Zimmerli and Ph.D. candidate in art history at Rutgers. Behind the dancing figures are a red curtain, a symbol of the Communist Party, and a rising sun promising a bright future.
In the signature piece for this exhibit, “The Cosmonaut’s Dream” by Sergei Sherstiuk, a space traveler is seemingly asleep inside the glass bubble of his helmet. His dream is depicted behind him — a peaceful pastoral place on Planet Earth, with a farmhouse nestled under billowing clouds, the sun illuminating a riverbank. A hot air balloon, a pre-space age vehicle for exploring the heavens, rises into the brilliant blue sky. Nature is the dream, despite the attempts to obliterate it with war, and it takes a journey into space to realize that what we want — what we dream of — has been right here on Earth all along. There’s no place like home.
A photograph by Gennady Goushchin, from his “Alternative Museum” series, shows four young men planting a red flag atop a glacial rock, overlooking the hazy smog of a major metropolis below.
The Soviets sent the first human into space one month before the U.S. sent Alan Shepard. Yuri Gagarin, the son of a carpenter and milkmaid from a village east of Moscow, launched into space on April 12, 1961. In 1963 the Soviets sent the first woman into space — Valentina Tereshkova, a textile-factory assembly worker and amateur skydiver who went on to a career in politics, was selected from more than 400 applicants (and no, she did not have to smile). These celebrated space heroes became icons of popular culture: on a postage stamp, magazine covers, lapel pins, even chocolate bars.
Rock musician and non-conformist artist Victor Tsoi, from Leningrad, made a collage — using aluminum foil, news images, paper cutouts, and crayon — of a cosmonaut greeting the stars as his rocket ship soars across a block moon. By contrast, Leonid Lazarev, a state-sanctioned documentary photographer, made stark black-and-white images of Yuri Gagarin walking the tarmac, and other cosmonauts in brass buttoned coats, trudging through snow in a memorial park in northern Moscow, Cosmonauts Alley, dedicated to Soviet achievements in space.
And in fantastical colors, fiber artist Marina Printseva uses needlepoint in “Peace to All Planets” to show her countrymen and women in folkloric costumes, fishing and farming as spaceships float above in a black sky.
Well before space travel began, around the turn of the 20th century, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and others developed a philosophy known as cosmism, founded on the idea that humankind is meant to live in outer space, or the Kosmos. This philosophy, which included belief in reincarnation and rejection of material possessions, fit right in with the Communist Party’s ideas, rejecting capitalism and promoting atheism. But during the Cold War innovations in science and technology, programmable computers, radar rockets, and space probes changed how people saw the world, according to Nouril. “Soviet artists, who could not travel outside their country, and yet were inspired by the potential of life in space, used their imagination to see beyond the confines of their immediate surroundings.”
Lev Kropivnitsky, inspired by the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and others at the 1959 American Exhibition in Moscow’s Sokolniki Park, made “Outer Galactic Logic,” an abstract brush and drip work interpretation of the cosmos sphere.
Petr Belenok combines abstraction and realism for his paintings of figures in space. These works segue into other abstractions: Svetlana Kopystianky’s “Two Landscapes,” a diptych of sunset-colored canvases over which an inscrutable message is scrawled in infinitely tiny Cyrillic.
There are kinetic sculptures in a vitrine that evoke the world of tomorrow, as seen from yesterday. Kinetic artists in Russia and Latvia often formed groups to work collectively on immersive installations that offered visitors glimpses into unknown futures.
“While technological advancements gave great hope,” says Nouril, “they also came at a steep price, taking their toll on the Soviet economy, environment and quality of life. In search of improvement, artists embraced the new worlds opened to them, reimagining or even escaping their earthly environments.”
During the drive back to Princeton, I hear Anne Garrels on the radio, talking about her new book, “Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia,” where citizens, struggling with a shaky economy and widespread corruption are supportive of their controversial president. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, when industry was privatizing and we in the West saw Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin as democratizing influences, Russians felt everything they knew was destroyed. “They didn’t understand where their country was going,” says Garrels. “They saw themselves as dependent on aid from the West. All of a sudden Russia was a poor, begging nation. When Putin came in, [he] gradually began to talk about how great Russia is.”
How far we’ve come.
Dreamworlds and Catastrophes: Intersections of Art and Science in the Dodge Collection, Zimmerli Art Museum, 71 Hamilton Street, on the College Avenue campus of Rutgers University, New Brunswick. On view through Sunday, July 31, Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m., and the first Tuesday of each month (except August), 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Free. www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu or 848-932-7237.