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Interview with Avdey Ter-Oganyan

Interview with Avdey Ter-Oganyan, curator of For Abstractionism exhibition, a reconstruction of which, by Vladimir Logutov, is presented as part of Toward the Source.

Vladimir Logutov: Isn’t it strange that an exhibition of painting is photographed in black-and-white?

Avdei Ter-Oganyan: Well, at the time this was standard practice. All exhibitions were documented like that.

VL: With black-and-white photographs?

AT: Yes. Normally, exhibitions were documented using slides. But slides were more expensive.

VL: Color slides?

AT: Paintings would be shot on color slides. People thought it was enough to capture the installation view. Those who valued their work shot each separately on slides, but generally the exhibition would be documented in black-and-white. You know, black-and-white was the standard then.

VL: Can you remember whose works are which?

AT: Well, let’s see. This one is [Alexander] Sigutin’s. This large one is by [Dmitry] Gutov, I reckon, or [Konstantin] Bokhorov. I’m not sure now, to be honest. These ones are mine.

VL: These identical ones?

AT: These black-and-white copies. That was the point. I was copying them from a black-and-white book, so my series was also in black and white. Bokhorov or Gutov copied them from a candy wrapper. This is Sasha Kharchenko. This photo was for making masks. You know, there were these iron things on stands. Very pretty—circles, squares, triangles, stars.

VL: Was that for a photo project?

AT: He exhibited them as objects. Yes, there the edges were rounded, or it was some kind of half moon.

VL: Are they attached to the canvas?

AT: They stand like targets, on wooden boards. This must be Vitya Kasyanov. His work has this craquelure, these cracks. He used enamel or oil as a base layer and sprayed it with acrylic. Acrylic dries almost instantly, so it cracked. Depending on how thick the layer was, you’d get, say, a black painting with bright red showing through the cracks. I don’t remember what [Mikhail] Mindlin was showing. Can’t remember what was in this small frame here either.

VL: Looks like they are by the same artist?

AT: This is [Ilya] Kitup. Looks like Kitup. In fact Sigutin did a similar thing—I can’t say whether it was in this series or not—where everything was black and then certain things in color. Two strokes: one black, another in color. Here, they were all black and white, but he did a different thing: a triangle, a square, a blot, a stroke, a scribble. Geometry. And so he went on infinitely painting new combinations. Two circles, a circle and a blot. Comparing two elements. 

It was a huge series, a table, some sort of a pseudo research—although I guess those were all mathematically possible combinations. That was happening in Moscow at the time of Collective Actions and Inspection Medical Hermeneutics, when conceptualism was at its peak. Sots Art was apparently over, but still ruling the day as it was exhibited everywhere. In the 1990s, our background comprised Ilya Kabakov and Erik Bulatov. They were everywhere, in magazines—the triumph of Moscow underground art. And then conceptualist artists came onto the scene, who could not draw. The older generation could, of course, but the younger could not. So abstraction seemed a possible alternative. Unpretentious abstraction that was kind of defiant, yet ironic. Despite all its irony, Moscow Conceptualism was very serious. It was all based on simple jokes or objects, which intellectuals—or pseudo-intellectuals, as the artists thought—would read things into, when in fact there wasn’t anything to read. We were against such seriousness and did not want to trick the audience. There was a kind of absence of art—a Warhol-type approach. It was completely obvious that we were fooling around, having fun, and that we—the serious grown-ups that we were—were doing this on purpose so that nobody could make head or tail of it. In fact, it was all very clear. Abstraction was secondary and it was over. Ours was ironic abstraction with no hidden meaning. It was a kind of alternative. It was transparent and did not look like art. We wanted to make art popular—an easy entertainment for school kids. We were serious about it, even if were useless drunks. We were having fun. Our art was clear and obvious. There was this idea to “return to abstraction,” which seemed out of place at the time. We didn’t see how anyone could be serious about abstraction. I saw no potential in it. And I still don’t. You can find a crack, perhaps, but to be honest all the problems have been solved. I was copying other works, so it was already a kind of “post” abstraction. I made exact copies. Others had different ideas. Shurik [Kharchenko] said he had no abstract works, and then at the last moment he came to me and said, “Here you are! Will this work? It’s abstract, right?’ At that time he was making paintings.

VL: Figurative?

AT: Postmodernist. He had a gang in Kiev (although he’s from Nikolaev)—Konstantin Reunov, Oleg Tistol—all of whom were making postmodernist paintings. Shurik had painted something very intricate. He had studied photography. I said, “You’re a genius!” That was my favorite work. I thought we could have exhibited it on its own. It’s a bit lost here—such an elegant work. Perhaps we should have put it on a plinth.

VL: But if we look at this exhibition as an example of what was going on at Tryokhprudny Lane Studios, is it representative?

AT: Yes, it’s representative enough. But we had all sorts of exhibitions, very varied. Why did we need that space? If you make paintings, you make art. But if you make something else, you need a space and you need an audience. How do you do certain things, how do you organize a performance and get people to see it without a space? It’s difficult. So, it was primarily a space for experiments that went beyond painting, for installations and performances. That was its main function. In Rostov-on-Don, exhibitions were rare. They only started giving us exhibition spaces towards the end. There was no way you could get an audience for a performance, and so performance as an art form did not exist there. And since there was no scene, we didn’t feel like making performances for ourselves, the three of us. And then we got this space, where people actually came. So we could show something non-material with Tryokhprudny itself as the frame.

VL: That’s also art.

AT: If people came, it was art. We had a proper gallery, with booklets, people came to see things. Exhibitions were just part of that. We did not just show paintings, but projects. We also had paintings sometimes, but it was never the main thing. We wanted to make a gesture, to show all sorts of things. “Return to abstraction!” We couldn’t have organized a big exhibition like that elsewhere, as everything had to be done very quickly. We didn’t have any large works. The idea worked out on a small scale. Because the works were all small, the display looked more elegant. It was five or six meters, I don’t remember.

VL: Was this the main wall?

AT: Yes, the low one. It came up to the top of the stove. Or maybe lower, like the height of a chair. The maximum height was 2.2 meters. We had very low ceilings, so everything seemed bigger. The space was perfect for those works. Our exhibitions were all about irony, as a kind of alternative to the mainstream. 

VL: To conceptualism?

AT: We did not fit in, you see. They were already professionals, they were going to other countries, had their books everywhere. They were the masters. They were in albums. From Kabakov to [Konstantin] Zvezdochotov. That was the Moscow crowd. Inspection Medical Hermeneutics and Pavel Pepperstein were even younger than me. We were provincial artists and not part of the crowd. We are different people, too. I am, at least. A different generation. It’s not like I tried to be in opposition to them. I generally had a different perspective. 

VL: On the avant-garde?

AT: On art in general. When I came to Moscow, I did not understand certain things about Moscow Conceptualism. Gradually, I began to understand. We offered a natural alternative as we came from a different environment.

VL: Who’s we? The Tryokhprudny artists?

AT: Yes. People from Rostov, plus [Vladimir] Dubossarsky, [Pavel] Aksenov, [Ilya] Kitup, and people from Kiev, who had their own thing going on. Dima Topolsky was from Moscow, but not from the Conceptualist crowd.

VL: When you look back at Tryokhprudny and the pace it had—weekly exhibitions, all that—could the young artists of today recreate this, do you think?

AT: Well, first, we were really excited about this opportunity, and second, we had a lot of unrealized ideas from before—I had.

VL: So you had reserves?

AT: You see, I couldn’t just lay everything out for the audience straight away. It took time to get those ideas out. I considered myself a mature artist. I felt like I had been stuck for far too long and I didn’t know where to go. When perestroika began, I discovered artists that nobody knew about. I started going to Moscow, to Malaya Gruzinskaya, only to find some second-rate surrealism there.

VL: In 1987? Or when? 1988?

AT: No, that was the late 1970s and early 1980s. At Tryokhprudny, we had an exhibition a week, three artists every time. We often developed the concept together, made installations and projects together. There were quite a few of us, and for us this was the only space. I don’t think it’s possible to recreate this now, because everyone has scattered. When we got the space we were nobodies. Tryokhprudny was created by the energies and the coming together of different people, and by my wise management. I was managing it, because it was chaos. 

VL: There were studios too, right?

AT: There were studios downstairs. The space upstairs that we got we didn’t feel comfortable in, but it had a toilet, so we decided to turn it into a common space with a separate entrance.

VL: And that’s where all the energy was concentrated for the two years that followed?

AT: Because we were not accepted anywhere else. What happened later? Later, people dispersed and it was impossible to do anything together. Even later, when we all shared a flat at Baumanskaya, you couldn’t get everyone together. We remained friends, but no matter how much we said “Let’s do something together,” we never did. But at Tryokhprudny we were young and that was the only way to show your work.

VL: Was there a new exhibition every week?

AT: There were a lot of us. Originally, we thought of exhibiting monthly. But there were fifteen of us and twelve months in the year, so we wouldn’t even have one exhibition each. We decided on weekly exhibitions, and then we started collaborating on them, doing things together. Which is very valuable and important.

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