Sometimes something seeming, at first, to be very different can be, at its root, so very familiar. “Odessa’s Second Avant-Garde: City and Myth,” on view at the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick through April 19, stands out as wholly different.

Here are artists whose work most of us have not seen before, nor can we even pronounce their names. They worked under cover, fearing the Soviet government would shut them down if they could see these pure expressions. Now their artwork opens our eyes to a new world.

Yet there is something familiar in what they were doing. Despite the differences between American and Soviet cultures, artists were expressing themselves with collage and abstraction, in conceptual ideas and playful ways, and inventing theories about the world, merging the mundane with the divine. Artists are the voice of what ails our society, and as such they are often muffled — whether in our own towns or halfway across the world.

Odessa — the third largest city in Ukraine — is located along the Black Sea. It has been a melting pot since it was founded by a decree of a Russian empress in 1794. Built on an ancient Greek settlement, its plan was laid out by a Dutch engineer. The Mediterranean and neo-baroque architecture has Italian influence, and the first two mayors were of French descent.

Odessa’s first avant-garde art movement was in the early part of the 20th century. The first international avant-garde exhibition in the Russian Empire, the Izdebsky Salon, took place in Odessa and introduced the influential ideas of abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky to the public.

Eastern Europeans from former Soviet bloc countries make up today’s residents. A large Jewish population was deported to concentration camps during World War II, and those Jews remaining emigrated to Israel and to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, a.k.a. “Little Odessa.” One of Odessa’s architectural highlights includes the Potemkin Steps, immortalized in film director Sergei Eisenstein’s silent classic, “Battleship Potemkin.”

In recent times Odessa has felt the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. There have been protests, bomb blasts, and numerous deaths as a result of the unrest. But during the time period explored in this exhibition — the early 1960s through the late 1980s — the fabled seaport city offered artists and writers inspiration. French Impressionist painters dreamed of Arcadia, and the Ukrainians had a dreamlike city in Odessa.

“Together with St. Petersburg and Moscow, Odessa is among the most mythologized cities in Russian literature, prompting artistic reveries about a past golden age and its possible return,” notes the exhibition catalog. Russian language journalist, playwright, literary translator, and short story writer Isaac Babel found that Odessa’s warm sunny climate, linguistic diversity, and democratizing impulses “was everything St. Petersburg was not: an elusive but beautiful dream to which the foggy and mysterious Russian capital could never compare.”

“As a cosmopolitan harbor at the far edge of the Russian Empire, Odessa embraced residents and transplants from distinct backgrounds and united them in their creative pursuits,” says curator Olena Martynyuk, a fellow at the Zimmerli and Ph.D. candidate in the department of art history at Rutgers.

Martynyuk grew up in Ukraine, spending her first 16 years in the region surrounding Odessa, and then moved to Kiev to study philosophy, history, and art. She earned her master’s degree in cultural studies from the National University of Kiev-Mohyla Academy, and then came to study in the U.S. under a Fulbright Fellowship. She began her doctoral work in 2009 with a concentration in Ukrainian and Russian nonconformist art. Her dissertation examines Ukrainian and Russian art made in Moscow during and after perestroika.

The Zimmerli has the largest collection of Soviet nonconformist art in the world, thanks to a 1991 donation from Norton and Nancy Dodge. Artwork in all media, from painting and photography to assemblage, video, installations, and artists’ books, reveal a culture that defied the politically imposed conventions of socialist realism. The work comes from the period 1956 to 1986, and includes art produced in the Soviet republics.

Norton Dodge (1927-2011) is credited with single-handedly saving contemporary Russian art from total oblivion. An American economist who was a professor at St. Mary’s College in Maryland, Dodge traveled to the Soviet Union in the 1950s, studying the role of women under Stalin’s regime. He became interested in dissident art, meeting clandestinely with artists and building a collection. “He was invited to unofficial openings. Artists were not allowed to exhibit in public places,” says Martynyuk. “These were homelike settings. There would be KGB members there, taking information.”

During the Cold War, Dodge smuggled 10,000 works of art to the U.S. John McPhee wrote about Dodge in “The Ransom of Russian Art” in 1994, and Dodge is the subject of several documentaries. “As an economist, he was also considering the market for this art, but he never sold it. He gave it as a gift,” says Martynyuk. The Zimmerli collection contains 20,000 works from Dodge.

Martynyuk had the opportunity to get to know Dodge before his death. In 2011 she traveled to the Odessa Museum of Modern Art to give a talk about the Dodge Collection. “It was very touching,” Martynyuk recounts. “Many of the artists, now in their 70s, came to hear the talk. They shared their experiences with students, telling them how they weren’t sure if their artwork would be interesting to anyone else. It was so important to them to have a collector who cares about their work and considers it important. Previously they had no audience for their artwork. The Odessan artists bought a bottle of cognac for Norton Dodge as a token of their appreciation, and he was delighted to receive it.”

Since art helps to tell the history of a culture, Dodge has helped preserve the history of Odessa from the 1950s to 1980s. He continued his collecting through emissaries, and even after artists emigrated from the region he continued his relationship with them, purchasing even more artwork, says Martynyuk.

“He was very enthusiastic about the Odessa exhibition,” she says. “I have fond memories of our conversations. One of the last conversations I had with him, he was asking, ‘What do you think of this artist, should I buy more?’ He was still interested in widening the collection, communicating with artists.”

During the late 1950s and early 1960s — in the post-Stalinist, more liberal era known as Khrushchev’s “thaw” — many artists from Odessa began to challenge the socialist realism that had dominated Soviet art institutions since 1932. Artists were inspired by the saturated colors and Mediterranean ambience, harking back to the city’s origins as an ancient Greek settlement. They also drew inspiration from the early 20th-century achievements of the radically innovative Russian avant-garde traditions, the Odessa school of Impressionism in depicting landscapes and portraits. Others turned to abstraction and conceptualism.

Conceptual artists in Odessa and Moscow regarded text and images not as simply complementary but interchangeable. These artists exhibited text as images and characterized their text as illustrations of ideas — similar to the early 20th century innovative French poet Apollinaire’s calligrammes (or shaped poetry).

“These artists experimented together, searching for a local identity that combined diverse ethnicities and cultures, as well as an understanding of their place in the broader context of art history,” says Martynyuk. “In contrast to the harsh social and political circumstances throughout the Soviet Union at the time, the sunny climate of Odessa became — and continues to be — a metaphor for autonomy and possibility.”

Far from the big cities — Kiev and Moscow — apartment exhibitions developed in the 1970s as underground galleries for sharing new work. Gallery-goers enjoyed this “deviant” art alongside prohibited jazz records and western art books, resurrecting the culture of the Odessa cafe-cabaret, which had flourished at the turn of the 20th century.

Liudmyla Yastreb, who lived to only 35 years of age, made charmingly endearing primitive portraits with text. Before her death in 1981, she developed a feminist approach to the body and organized other women artists in the city.

The apartment she shared with her husband, Viktor Mariniuk, became a central location for salons. The artists began to refer to themselves as “nonconformists,” venturing into abstraction and incorporating ready-made and found objects.

Sometimes political oppression, banishment, and repression induces an outpouring of creative expression — prisoners who fashion writing or drawing implements from whatever item they can find — proving that human expression is indomitable. These Odessan artists, who held day jobs to support themselves, formed a tightly knit artistic community, though there was no style or ideology that united them. They organized auctions to sell their work to each other and a small group of followers. The subversive atmosphere of the cafe-culture was resurrected in those apartment exhibitions.

Artists often develop their own philosophies. Twentieth-century German collage artist Kurt Schwitters invented Merz, a way of viewing the world; American artist Thomas Chimes adapted pataphysics, the science of imaginary solutions; and the Italian Futurists developed their manifesto. Odessan artists Yuri Leiderman and Sergei Anufriev founded the Inspection Medical Hermeneutics collective in 1987.

Inspection Medical Hermeneutics members interpreted ideological phenomena, such as fascism or communism, as private schizophrenic deliriums that could be treated through conversation, in a manner similar to Freudian psychoanalysis. Conceiving their artworks as illustrations to their texts, the collective’s artists commented on the correlation between image and word, a relationship important to conceptual art globally.

In the summer of 1967, when no alternative exhibition spaces existed beyond the official system of the Soviet Artists Union galleries, two young artists decided to stage an exhibition themselves — on the fence surrounding Odessa’s famous Opera Theater, which was undergoing reconstruction. Stanislav Sychev and Valentin Khrushch created their own independent exhibition on one of the most crowded streets in Odessa, ensuring that many people would see their art. The “Fence Exhibition” was the first nonconformist art event held in a public space in the Soviet Union.

“Although they had to hold jobs unrelated to art, this community was thriving,” says Martynyuk. “They didn’t let censorship stop them from voicing their message. Now we can show what was verboten. I wanted to introduce an audience to Odessa artists, to show how strong this art is, how audacious.”

Be prepared to spend lots of time viewing the exhibition. The artwork encompasses several large rooms, and the works themselves are modest in size but numerous in quantity — with detail, minutiae, and copious wall texts. You will want to spend time poring over the tomes in the reading room. You will also want to turn the bend and see the contemporary Russian art recently donated, rounding out the Zimmerli’s collection of Russian art, including the Peppers’ (artists Oleg Petrenko and Ludmila Skripkina) “Rauschenberg Gathers Dust,” (1988), an assemblage made of Russian vacuum cleaner bags.

Odessa’s Second Avant-Garde: City and Myth, Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, April 19, 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, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Free.

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