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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

an ascetic aesthete has his day in the sun

Paint brushes, their bristles ensconced in a sort of waxed paper, stand upright in a clear glass vase upon a table adjacent to a piano, dormant for years. Books and candelabras cover the instrument's dark surface.

Dried flowers from past guests lend to the subtle, faded colors predominant among the disparate images -- on burlap, on paper -- that saturate the walls of this dank, first-floor studio apartment near Sokolniki Park.

A lone window casts gray light onto the heavily-blanketed bed in which the Russian avant-garde artist, whom critics have characterized both as a master and a virtual unknown, rests since suffering a stroke in 1994.

"It is the dream of an idiot to have an exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery," says Marlen Spindler of the opening Tuesday of a display of his paintings and graphics at one of Russia's most prestigious museums.

Such an exhibition had been, indeed, an absurd fantasy for Spindler: He railed against the ideology and corresponding demands of the former Soviet Union, and he was imprisoned three times during the course of his 65 years.

But in the wake of perestroika he has been effectively discovered by an audience that has congealed to lift his art from the underground and into the halls of some of the world's great museums.

Today he lives with his wife, Lydia, and daughter, Maria, in an unkempt sanctuary surrounded by more than 1,000 paintings stacked on the floors and makeshift shelves -- even up against the ceilings -- in a manner that might incite a curator to bloodletting.

"All my paintings," said Spindler, gesturing around the room in a recent interview, "they are like children to me."

He has opted to live in poverty rather than sell his art. "You can't give your children to people you don't know," Spindler said.

The sincerity of such a statement cannot be questioned after speaking at length with Spindler, for whom his paintings -- primarily abstract images and landscapes -- must embody a sort of Holy Trinity: "The unity of soul, head and heart."

He describes his creative process as evolving from a sketch, which he said is "usually born unexpectedly, like a sound or a verse." He then looks at the drawing for hours in what is tantamount to a period of gestation.

"My head begins to work fervently, but it is very important that I do not interfere with this process," Spindler said. "The picture should be born itself, from the depth of my subconsciousness."

Such responses are elusive in Spindler, who deflects questions with a swift, self-deprecating wit that is deceptive in light of his appearance.

He has a fop of white hair, frizzy at the top with tight silver and yellow curls around the neck, and a full beard. His eyes are moist. His left arm is now crippled. And his body is soft from being bedridden since the stroke.

It is difficult to envision him accommodating the bold, reckless spirit that is so easily provoked by others -- and resulted in his incarceration under a Soviet system that was intolerant of public outbursts.

Spindler was first imprisoned for one month in 1967 at Butyrskaya prison and, in 1976, was sentenced to three years of forced labor in Vologda. In 1986 he was sentenced to four years at a prison in Uglitch, from where he was released early in 1989.

Despite what he described as emasculating conditions, he painted or sketched daily -- although most of his works were destroyed by the prison administrations.

Galina Elshevskaya, of the International Association of Art Critics, said Spindler has been characterized by some as a "grown-up enfant terrible" who undercut his prospects for exhibitions and world renown.

He acknowledges this reputation in part, saying: "All the best qualities I had were devoted to painting. Perhaps that was the reason why I was so imperfect in relation to other aspects of life."

Still, his wife, Lydia, subjugated her life to his -- smuggling paintings out of Uglitch under the threat of both their deaths. "It is very interesting to live with Marlen," she said "Sometimes I thought, `I should divorce my husband.' But if I didn't stay with him, I couldn't see these paintings."

In lieu of canvas, Spindler often painted upon burlap sacks he washed, sewed together and stretched over wooden frames. He made his own paint in the manner of ancient Russian icon-makers -- by grinding stones into powder, then mixing them with egg yolks.

Natalya Alexandrova, of the Tretyakov Gallery, said that her encounter with Spindler's works was "one of the most striking impressions" of her life.

"I think it is possible," she said, "to put Marlen's works in a row with such giants of the Russian avant-garde as Marc Chagall, Vassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich."

Yet, despite a series of small personal exhibitions, Spindler has simply not become known, according to Yury Tamoyko of the Association of Art Critics, Moscow.On one level, Spindler views the Tretyakov exhibition in the same vein as that from which he painted -- without regard to viewers. He is also clearly excited about the first extensive display of his work, which will span two weeks under the sponsorship of Credit Suisse (Moscow) Ltd.

Such optimism contrasts with the forlorn environs of his apartment, the mood of which is unmitigated by the light from an ornate chandelier affixed to the ceiling. "I was in a hurry to live," said Spindler. "I was in a hurry to feel."

The show runs from Tuesday through Dec. 17 at the Tretyakov Gallery, Lavrushinsky Per. 12. Tel. 233-5223.