Art or Death Lives at MMOMA

MMOMATer-Oganyan, living in exile in the Czech Republic, painted УNudeФ in 1986.

In 1988, the Art or Death society’s avant-garde art show in one of Rostov-on-Don’s public toilets was closed down by the Soviet authorities just a few hours after its opening.

Twenty-one years later, the Moscow Museum of Modern Art and curator Olga Golovanova have put on a retrospective of the Art or Death society’s works as part of the Third Moscow Biennale.

“The association’s name, Art or Death, refers to the famous revolutionary motto ‘Patria o morte’ and signifies an uncompromising attitude toward art,” Golovanova said. “Only art and no hackwork or compromises — this was their life principle, which revolted against the late phase of conservative Soviet culture by returning art to the roots of the avant-garde.”

The birth of Art or Death coincided with the Russian audience’s introduction to previously banned Impressionism and Western Modernism, as Marc Chagall and Robert Rauschenberg were brought to Moscow for the first time.

The famous artists Avdei Ter-Oganyan, Yury Shabelnikov and Valery Koshlyakov were inspired by the newly discovered 20th-century genres of Pop-Art, Post-Impressionism, Dadaism, Futurism and Cubism.

Ter-Oganyan’s series of Neo-Expressionist remakes of iconic Western artworks, such as Johannes Vermeer’s “Milkmaid,” Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn” and Henri Matisse’s “Self-Portrait,” called “Museum Paintings,” shows the young provincial artist’s fascination with the classic artists, whose works he could then only see in a few Soviet art books and journals, but never in their original form.

“In our art, the ‘death’ rhetoric stems from the copies that we make with the feeling of an artist who abandons artistic individuality in self-expression,” Koshlyakov said in a recent interview with Golovanova. “ When Ter-Oganyan copies Matisse, he thus asks the questions multiple times, ‘Is this art or death?’ and ‘Where am I the author here?’”

 “Ter-Oganyan replicates original museum pieces, demonstrating that these copies have unlimited life opportunities, that masterpieces can be reborn an infinite number of times with each new copy,” Golovanova said.

In 1998, Ter-Oganyan’s art performance at Moscow’s Manezh Exhibition Hall, which involved smashing Christian icons with an axe, earned him a criminal case for “incitement of nationalistic, racial and religious animosity.”  By fleeing to the Czech Republic, he became the first post-Soviet artist to receive the status of a political emigre.

Koshlyakov’s early experiments with collages in “Flamingo,” “Woman with a Pattern” and “Chanel,” as well as artistic makeovers of retro photographs of famous actors in the “The Beautification of Beauty,” demonstrate a desperate search for individual technique. The show culminates in Koshlyakov’s signature large-scale paintings on cardboard canvas “Natasha Rostova’s Ball,” “Spanish Steps” and “Villa Adriana.”

“The uniting force for the artists of Art or Death was painting, because the society’s members didn’t know other artistic forms,” Golovanova said. “The love for painting united them, although it was also their only way of surviving in those times and circumstances.”

Shabelnikov’s style is marked by the application of additional pieces of canvas to the main painting, thus challenging the perspective and scope of the work. Considered to be Koshlyakov’s teacher, Shabelnikov masterfully uses the black color spectrum in his expressionist works, the ideas for which were inspired by classic artworks.

“The reason that the exhibit showcases very few paintings by other members of the Art or Death society is due to the virtual impossibility to locate their works 20 years later. At that time, the society’s artists would use the paintings to pay for their housing fees,” Golovanova said. “Over the past years I did everything to convince the artists not to sell the remaining works from their early period. I am deeply convinced that their place is in museums. Someday ‘Art of Death’ will be studied as part of the history of Russian contemporary art,”

The Art or Death retrospective runs till Oct. 25 at Moscow MOMA. 10 Gogolevsky Bulvar, Tel. (495) 694-6660,