Overview of Publications for the Exhibition Bidding for Glasnost: Sotheby’s 1988 Auction in Moscow

The selection was prepared by Ilmira Bolotyan, Maryana Karysheva, Valerij Ledenev, Maria Litovchenko, and Maria Shmatko.

Sotheby’s. Russian Avant-Garde and Soviet Contemporary Art. Moscow, Thursday, 7th July 1988

Sotheby’s S. A., 1988

Sotheby’s auction sale, that took place in Moscow on July 7, 1988, didn’t only go down in history as the first and the only international art auction in the USSR, but also a turning point in the history of Soviet art—its scene, previously quite isolated from the rest of the world, encountered Western art market for the first time. Existing hierarchies and segregation between the domains of official and unofficial art ceased to function. The widely accepted—in other words Soviet—value system met its Western counterpart. It turned out that the tastes of visiting collectors were strikingly resonating with the artistic preferences of the Soviet officials.

Garage Library stocks a catalogue from the famous auction sale. It seems that its contribution to history was already evident to its initiators at the time. Lord Gowrie, the-then Chairman of Sotheby’s writes in the foreword to the catalogue: "Scholars and collectors both inside and outside the Soviet Union, have recognized the stirrings of a remarkable new period in Soviet art. Too diffuse to constitute a movement, the painters represented here have some qualities in common. They are mostly young. They are sophisticated, in that they are well aware of what is going on in painting in the West. They are Soviet, in the sense that they reject both imitation and the asocial content of the most contemporary Western art. <…> They are, as painters should be, eye-openers. They say a great deal about this exciting period of Soviet history". The catalogue presents an eloquent historical document, that shows which works, that went under the hammer on that day, stirred so much admiration and controversy. V. L.

Exhibit Russia: The New International Decade 1986–1996

Art Guide, 2016

Exhibit Russia: The New International Decade 1986–1996 , a book released as part of Garage's publishing program, tells the story of the creation of the Russian art scene as we know it today, through the days of perestroika and the first years after the collapse of the USSR. Sotheby’s auction in Moscow was one of the stages of this evolution, marked by a aspiration to integrate with the Western art world. One of the book’s chapters is entirely devoted to this event.

Simon de Pury—head of Sotheby’s European department in 1988—recalls the political background to the auction and agreements that were made, almost in passing, during his conversation with an unnamed Soviet official on his way to the hotel. While organizing the auction de Pury, in his own words, wanted to show the Western world what was hiding behind the Iron Curtain. For that reason, a special tour to the USSR for collectors from the USA and Europe was organized. It also included studio visits (of course only seeing artists approved by the USSR Ministry of Culture).

Extracts from the article by Suzanne Muchnic, published in the Los Angeles Times, inform readers about the context of the sale. She cites her conversations with artist Vadim Zakharov, whose works were included in the auction, and collectors, also mentioning the conflict, stirred by the auction, between the Union of Artists and The Ministry of Culture.

The closing part of the publication features extracts from the book The Irony Tower written by journalist Andrew Solomon, who sought to grasp the value ‘Russian Sotheby’s’ had to its participants. He describes the boat cruise organized for artists, journalists, and art theorists the day after the sale. "The presence of journalists made the already tense atmosphere even more tense"—wrote Solomon. Viktor Misiano (who at the time worked at The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts) was one of the initiators of the cruise and his efforts to "introduce people to the artists, who took part in the auction" completely failed. All eyes were on the sale superstars and even a "press conference" spontaneously organized by critic and curator Joseph Backstein left many questions unanswered. Yet there was something that united everyone on board that day—the feeling that "the auction itself happened to be a work of art in itself". M. S.

Andrew Solomon. The Irony Tower: Soviet Artists in a Time of Glasnost

Ad Marginem, 2013

In July 1988 many Western collectors, philanthropists, journalists, and art lovers came to Moscow on the invitation of Sotheby’s auction house. Among them was American journalist Andrew Solomon, for whom that journey turned out to be the first of the many recurring visits to the USSR and later to Russia. It was then that he got his first introduction to the artists of the Soviet underground, many of whom later became his friends.

Accounts by a foreigner, getting his first insight into the Soviet context with its official and also unofficial art scenes, are incredibly important. These accounts give an idea of innumerable complications and frequent misunderstandings that sparked when the cultures of the two rivalling countries collided.

The book mentions almost every single important name of the Moscow and Leningrad unofficial art scenes and gives details of their everyday lives, including many historical documents. However, witnesses to the events described by Solomon note that the author wasn’t always accurate in his recollections. Artist Konstantin Zvezdochetov made a friendly commentary for the current publication, clarifying on memory errors and misunderstandings provoked by language and culture barriers. The book gives a detailed description of the Sotheby’s auction, that became a turning point in the lives of many artists. M.K.

Grisha Bruskin. Past Imperfect

Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2007

Grisha Bruskin's book contains short stories from the life of the artist and his close circle. This is the second edition of the book, the first one published in 2001 opened a series of Bruskin’s memoirs and diaries (his other writings may also be found at Garage Library).

Many of Bruskin’s stories are illustrated by photographs from his private archive, turning this book from a simple memoir into a real "family" album. With a precision of documentarist, the author reveals the mentality of those years and the regime that he grew up in. Phone conversations were monitored, some citizens were being followed, certain literature was being banned and a word ‘Jew’ had an obscene connotation. The book includes many reflections of a philosophical and religious nature, yet its main subject is the life of unofficial artists and Sotheby’s auction as one of its most important events.

The auction featured six works by Grisha Bruskin, one of which titled Fundamental Lexicon was sold for the incredible sum of $416 000 (Grisha Bruskin gives a price in dollars, while the auction currency was the British Pound. (According to Sotheby’s documentation the work was sold for £242 000.—M. L.). Six months before the auction, in 1987, the first part of Fundamental Lexicon was acquired by internationally acclaimed film director Milos Forman for 2000 rubles—a price assigned by the art council of The USSR Ministry of Culture.

The book is full of stories about artist’s friends and the close circle: Swiss television producer Erik Peshler, who later became a collector of Bruskin’s work; poets Dmitry Aleksandrovich Prigov and Lev Rubinstein, artists Erik Bulatov, Vladimir Yankilevsky, and Ilya Kabakov. Bruskin also mentions Mikhail Schwartzman and refers to him as a genius. M. L.

‘Molodezhny’ Issue of ‘Iskusstvo’ Magazine

1988, # 10

Sotheby’s auction in Moscow changed the ways of Russian contemporary art history by showing that a new generation of artists existed in the USSR and wasn’t linked to established artistic institutions. The tenth issue of Iskusstvo magazine completed entirely by young art theorists attempted to draw a portrait of this generation.

In the issue’s preface the magazine’s editorial team points out that the young generation’s alienation from the public life of the years of stagnation, manifested in a slogan on the absence of a ‘fathers and sons’ problem, influenced independent youth culture. Acknowledging the link between the USSR and the world of international contemporary art was re-established thanks to this very culture. The magazine’s editorial team are literally justifying their decision to release this issue (by referring to the CPSU congress that claimed each generation must leave their trace in history). Their main thesis is even typeset in capital letters: ‘… THIS IS THE RIGHT OF THE YOUTH TO VOICE WHATEVER THEY FEEL IS NECESSARY, THOSE ARE THEIR IDEAS, THEIR LIFE EXPERIENCE, THAT IS DIFFERENT FROM OURS, THIS IS THE ART THAT THEY CREATE, THIS IS TO THEM, TO WHOM THE NOT TOO DISTANT FUTURE BELONGS’.

Young art theorists, among them Ekaterina Degot, Andrei Kovalev, Vladimir Levashov, Georgy Nikich, and Natalia Tamruchi commissioned a graphic artist and made an issue on "another art" and new criticism, paying special attention to analysis of Soviet art of the preceding decades and Sots Art. The cover featured a photograph of artists Timur Novikov and Inal Savchenkov, posing in front of the painting by the latter, also the practice of the "new artists" was examined in the article by Mikhail Trofimenkov.

Artist Sven Gundlakh wrote an article on the "Furmanny artists" (he was also part of this group), who lived and worked in squatted studios in Moscow’s Furmanny pereulok. "Our produce—wrote Gundlakh, giving a strikingly precise account of postmodernist tendencies—are driven from the mind of a man of the pluralist and relativist era that sees the Universe exceptionally expanded".

Avdotya Smirnova wrote an article on dilettantism, linking this notion to criticism of unofficial artists, who were accused of unprofessionalism. "The frequent disturbance caused in the audience by an experimenting artist is the same type of disturbance an idle tourist feels towards his guide who also appeared to be a tourist". Valery Koziev came up with an accurate definition of "the new art" by describing it as "reflexive".

A section on Sots Art includes a broad overview by Dmitry Aleksandrovich Prigov, an article by Vladimir Levashov studying the relationships between Sots Art, social realism, conceptualism, and pop art, reflections by Georgy Puzenkov on what it means to be "an artist, on the path of Sots Art" in conditions of restricted freedom.

Mikhail Allenov and Ekaterina Andreeva devoted their articles to analysis of "socialist realism", its structure, imagery, themes, and traditions, while Ekaterina Degot talked to Andrey Erofeev, Konstantin Zvezdochetov, Natalia Tamruchi, Aleksei Grigoriev, and others on unofficial and Soviet art "over a cup of tea".

The issue is completed with "Chronicle of Artistic Life", featuring many curious remarks. A section "USSR—USA: What They Think on Perestroika in Our Art" includes a review of opinions that Western art theorists expressed towards the current state of Soviet art. American critic Sylvia Hochfield was struggling to resolve a phenomenon of the artist Glazunov (whether he delivers kitsch or expresses the true Russian soul), and the Italian press were pleasantly surprised there now was "less red" in Soviet paintings.

This remarkable magazine issue doesn’t only help to restore the context in which artists and critics worked at the time, but to see that many of the issues exist in contemporary Russian art nowadays and still haven’t been resolved. In particular, in one of his notes Sven Gundlakh described a state that, as we can see today, hasn’t changed since 1988: "How large is our country and how little it contains… There are more genres, types and streams in contemporary art than there are actual people involved. That’s why anyone can choose themselves some type of ‘art’ to make and be a genius in it, in the sense of being the only one… Instead of contemporary art we have ‘The Red Book’ and ‘Blind Spots’’. I.B.

Nikita Alekseev. Memory Rows

Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2008

Although Nikita Alekseev left the USSR in 1987 and didn’t take part in the Sotheby’s auction, his autobiographical book Memory Rows presents a curious document. It allows readers to understand and, through the prism of subjective vision of its author, get into the context that consequently saw crucial events in the life of unofficial Soviet art.

"What was happening to art in those years?"—he asks in a chapter on the eighties period.—"I think, a lot, and not necessarily all was positive <...>. Artists of my circle... turned out to shape something of a generation. <...> We found ourselves amongst postmodernists, realizing neither the responsibility that this position entails nor even the meaning of postmodernism”. These words perfectly illustrate the great variety of individual artistic types represented at the Sovincenter in Moscow on the July 7, 1988.

In a chapter on the Detsky Sad (Kindergarten) art-squat (active in 1985–1986, founded by German Vinogradov, Andrei Roiter, and Nikolai Filatov), Alekseev writes on some of the artists whose works were featured in the sale. One of them is Nikolai Filatov, "a blond handsome man with a cold meaningless gaze who came from Lviv... he arrived with a strong belief that we all need to work with photorealism of a Polish type. Yet luckily, he soon switched to semi-figurative painting that came out as impressive, not any worse than Rainer Fetting and other German ‘Junge Wilde’ artists". Two of Filatov’s neo-expressionist works went under the hummer on the auction day for a price considerably exceeding their estimate.

"Thanks to Detsky Sad Sergey Volkov realized his artistic potential, he was one of the most remarkable in Moscow",—writes Alekseev.—"Earlier he used to be a great photographer, his first trials in painting happened almost accidentally after he visited friends at Detsky Sad… I take a personal credit for noticing something important in his early primitivist works". Auction guests admired Volkov's conceptual minimalism: all his works featured in the sale were also sold above the estimate.

The events described in Alekseev's books include apartment and street exhibitions of unofficial art in the 1980s, meetings with collectors (that even if indirectly, still influenced promotion of Soviet art in the West) ... Yet his attitude seems to be generally disillusioned. That period appears as full of hopelessness, time being spent "waiting on suitcases", waiting for immigration that didn't mean a possibility to ever return back into the country. Sotheby's auction that Alekseev didn't see, on the contrary, appears as the event that put everything in its place, breaking the wall of hopelessness and cutting a window to the era of glasnost, the bids for which were high and serious. V. L.