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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Art Pioneer Homesick for Underground Days

Needle sales are sharply down, says Jack Melkonian. On the walls of his office on Prospekt Mira, from which he outfits textile factories, are collages fashioned from knitting needles and latchhooks. He carries 20,000 varieties.

Talk to Melkonian, 58, about his vocation and the indicators are mostly bad, what with the Latvian needle monopoly and the dropoff in parachute production. But mention his avocation -- particularly A-Ya, the underground art magazine he published briefly in the early 1980s -- and Melkonian draws himself up.

"I wonder whether in those days we were not happier, in some way, than we are now," he says. "I don't know if we could recapture the quality we had then. There was a funny thing in those days. Money didn't mean anything. Time didn't mean anything."

Exposure meant a great deal, though, and in 1980 Melkonian was in a position to supply exposure. Along with the emigre artist Igor Shelkovsky, the Swiss businessman reproduced and distributed the works of artists like Ivan Chuikov, Erik Bulatov and Ilya Kabakov -- men who have since then cultivated market values beyond the reach of an art-loving needle entrepreneur. Melkonian himself has watched their progress with detachment.

"Everyone went his own way," he reflects. "I hardly have any contact with them. But the kind of friendship which developed in those days was for life." Still, the window of opportunity is unambiguously shut. Russia no longer transforms well-meaning foreigners into influential art figures, and as Melkonian flips through the pages of issue No. 2, nearly 15 years after press time, there is no mistaking his tone of nostalgia. "There's money now, of course," he says. "But then we were happier."

The circle of artists whose work first left Russia on the pages of A-Ya have scattered, mostly in the direction of overseas markets. Ivan Chuikov splits his time between Moscow and Germany, where sales of his paintings have bolstered his international standing. "I still consider myself a Russian artist," he says, with resignation. "But if you want to keep your reputation here you have to work abroad."

Chuikov learned about the market in a hurry, in the mid-80s, after art connoisseurs began trickling in from Paris' Pompidou Center and Sotheby's auction house. "Foreigners began coming out of the blue, ready to buy anything," he says. But when A-Ya began its seven-issue print-run in 1987, the magazine represented hope for everyone. "It was very important here. There was no magazine here, no infrastructure," says Chuikov. "It is the only documentation of that time."

When the magazine went to press, Melkonian and Shelkovsky were hardly aiming to document an artistic moment. Instead, A-Ya was a step in the direction of the market. When Melkonian stumbled upon the circle of underground artists, even apartment exhibitions were risky, and artists were working in a vacuum, he says. "There was no commercial interest. They just did not think about selling them," he says. "Every one of them was convinced that their art sooner or later would be destroyed."

The lack of a consistent public meant artists did not consider their work as a body, so they never developed a consistent style, Melkonian says. "The thing that stunned me when I walking into these artists' houses was that you would see five paintings, every one different from the others," he says. "They told me, 'Look, we have no art market. Once we have done one painting, we have achieved what we wanted to achieve.' They painted for themselves."

The few collectors buying Russian art at the time jealously guarded their contacts with artists, and "would be very mysterious about where they lived." A printed catalogue of contemporary art -- with the artistic legitimacy it implied -- was a distant and unlikely prospect. "It was very difficult to find out who did what," he says."There were no phone books. There were no galleries. There was absolutely nothing. You had to know somebody."

Moreover, contemporary artists were fascinated by the publication process itself. "For us, it was vital to see how our work survived reproduction," says Andrei Abramov, whose work appeared in A-Ya's third issue. It was the first time he had seen his own painting in black and white. "The entire culture of the 20th century depended on seeing your art somewhere other than your own wall," he said.

As word of the magazine spread, Russian artists began to smuggle their work into the Paris-based editorial offices of the magazine, "whatever material it was, and whatever the cost for them," Melkonian says. The non-konformisty were so eager to see their paintings in print that the magazine sparked "jealousy, intrigues, blackmail," he says. "They would even go to jail to get their work out," he says. And although gathering material had been a challenge at first, works began flowing across the border one by one. "Suddenly these things would turn up in Igor Shelkovsky's apartment in Paris." When the editors accumulated a critical mass of new material, they published.

A-Ya went to press seven times between 1979 and 1987, when the money ran out and Shelkovsky got tired. Another element, Melkonian says, was increasingly vicious competition between artists for inclusion in the magazine -- desperate for exposure, artists resorted to blackmail, or reported one another to the KGB, he says.

For the artists themselves, the magazine's era was the beginning of the end of the underground. Abramov stopped painting years ago, and observes the art scene now with a distinct skepticism. "Art was much purer then," he says. "We treated our art like a woman carrying a child."

If Chuikov feels nostalgia, it is "for the time, not for the system," he says. Today's gallery politics and nouveau riche art speculators are a step in the right direction, but the burgeoning market "is not like in the West. There is no infrastructure," he adds. "At the same time, it's not like it was in our time, in the underground." "That's lost now," he says. "There was something to push against."

Melkonian himself does not consider A-Ya to be any part of a fall from grace -- outmoded, maybe, but ultimately useful. He flips through back issues now and their value is mainly documentary. "We had grand ideas," Melkonian says. "Of course we were all 20 years younger in those days."