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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ART Underground

In a bomb shelter beneath a housing block near Tsaritsino, Andrei Yerofeyev unlocks the door to a storeroom and switches on the light. He walks through cluttered stacks of paintings and sculptures; there is enough here to fill any major gallery in Moscow, yet the works sit beneath the city streets, visible only by appointment.


Yerofeyev walks down a narrow aisle and stops in front of a sculpture by Leonid Sokov called "Meeting of Two Sculptures: Lenin and Giacometti".


"Sokov likes to sculpt things that could not be sculpted", says Yerofeyev, the curator of the contemporary art section of the State Museum at Tsaritsino.


The piece, which depicts Lenin, hands in pockets, staring at a thin-limbed Giacometti figure, sits on a shelf with plastic packing bubbles and a marble map of Lake Baikal.


Yerofeyev lifts the 30-centimeter-tall sculpture and holds it up to the light. "This work made the voyage of an exile", he says. "It went to New York with the artist in 1978, and now it is back here in Moscow as part of the collection".


Over the last 10 years, Yerofeyev has amassed 1, 500 such works by famous underground artists such as Sokov, Mikhail Kabakov, Dmitry Prigov and Boris Orlov. On shelves, on tables, in boxes filled with styrofoam, there are paintings, sculptures and installations done by underground artists -- those who were not officially recognized by the state -- during the last three decades of Soviet rule.


Oleg Liganov, an art scholar who runs the Moscow Collection gallery in the Hermitage Garden, says that Yerofeyev's collection is a historically crucial assemblage of works.


"It is a very important style", Liganov said. "The collection represents the last phase of modernism, the last era of Soviet art".


Underground artists in the Soviet Union spent most of their lives making art for themselves and their friends, because the state viewed them as outlaws. In the late 1980s, with the world's euphoria about glasnost, their work became sought after internationally. Many artists took advantage of the new freedom and emigrated to the United States and Europe, taking their art with them. Since then, Yerofeyev's task has been to make sure that the creative material produced by the Soviet underground remains in the former Soviet capital as a reminder and as an inspiration to young artists.


Orlov, one of the underground artists who stayed, still works in his studio not far from Dinamo stadium in Moscow. In his studio, carved wooden airplanes hang by a thread from the high ceilings; the floor is covered with sawdust and scraps of wood.


He thinks that a contemporary art museum in Moscow is long overdue, and sums up the whole situation perfectly:


"Now, we have left the underground, and we have to accept the destiny of our works. But the fact that the paintings of the underground movement are now hidden underground is especially appropriate. Maybe the museum should stay where it is".


Orlov spent some time in America, but returned because he did not feel at home.


"All my art is inspired by a spirit that exists only here", said Orlov, an affable, prolific sculptor who likes to work with wood and bronze. His pieces are ironic; he depicts generals as bronze busts with huge chests filled with medals, and a tiny, almost indecipherable head.


"In America, I had some commercial success", Orlov said, "but I was scared to stay in the Western mentality". Yerofeyev began collecting the works in 1982, when he noticed the beginning of an exodus of underground art and artists to the West. If everyone left, he thought, these artists would never be recognized, so he began to purchase works and store them in his apartment. In 1989, the Culture Ministry appointed him head of the contemporary art collection at Tsaritsino.


The following year, a kind of art mafia run by Oleg Petrovich -- known in organized crime circles as "The Gypsy" -- sprouted up. He realized that underground art was a good source of hard currency, and compiled a list of artists who had sold works at Sotheby's. Members of Petrovich's organization began "convincing" artists to sell their paintings for a pittance. Then he would smuggle the canvases to Europe and sell them for a fortune.


When Yerofeyev heard about this, he rented a truck and drove around to all his artist friends, who entrusted him with their works. He brought several hundred canvases to Tsaritsino for safe keeping, and many of the works became a permanent part of his collection.


The collection officially belongs to the State Museum at Tsaritsino, which comprises an 18th century palace, its affiliated buildings, and the woods and lakes around it. This is a logical place for the art to be displayed, but 70 years of neglect under the Communists has left the palace in a dilapidated state, and now restoration work is underway. None of the buildings are ready to house a collection of contemporary art, although part of the palace compound is scheduled to open this summer.


Vsyevolod Anikovich, a retired Soviet Army general, directs the Tsaritsino Museum and has ultimate control over Yerofeyev's collection. Anikovich, who was given the post as a gift on his retirement, could not care less about contemporary art.


"Yes, we have a big collection of contemporary art", he said. "I dont really know anything about it. My taste is more classical, 18th and 19th century art".


Anikovich has big plans for Tsaritsino, but they do not include space for Yerofeyev's collection. He wants to create an architecture and history museum, and he plans to decorate the palace with antique furniture. This does not really bother Yerofeyev, who thinks that the city center would be a more appropriate site for a contemporary art museum.


As a result, Yerofeyev has started negotiating with Moscow's City Hall about moving the collection to a building on Bolshoi Sukharevsky Pereulok that is currently being used as a truck garage. What appeals to Yerofeyev about this property is that there is space on the two-hectare plot to build a new museum.


"There is not a lot of space, but it would be wonderful to construct a true contemporary art museum", he said, "to build something in a new architectural style".


The problem, of course, is money. The city does not have funds to buy new text books for its schools, let alone build a new contemporary art museum, so Yerofeyev is open to creative financing.


"If Coca Cola wants to sponsor it, I'm ready", he said. "I don't care. I'm even ready to put their name over the entrance".


The most important thing to Yerofeyev is that the collection be visible, but before that he says he must have a team of curators working with him who know Soviet underground art. If you have the most wonderful space in the world, Yerofeyev says, "it means nothing if you can't fill it with good art".


Yerofeyev sees the problem in terms of generational shifts.


"There are so many young artists who have never had contact with this generation of artists", he said. "They need to be able to see this work; it is history".