Ekaterina Andreeva

The New Artists.

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The teachers of the New Artists, Koshelokhov and Rossin (it matters little whether their instruction was direct or “remote”), also subscribed to this notion of art making as the realization of explosive bodily energy. (Koshelokhov has been known to say that painting a picture is practically the same thing as bumping your head against a sharp object: the main thing is that your head ends up bloodied.)

Bob Koshelokhov • Боб Кошелохов Три красавици • Three Beauties Oil, canvas, 320 x 540 cm, 1992. “Collection 2 x 3m“ Evgenij Kozlov

Bob Koshelokhov • Боб Кошелохов
Три красавици • Three Beauties
Oil, canvas, 320 x 540 cm, 1992
“Collection 2 x 3m“ Evgenij Kozlov more >>
Neither Koshelokhov nor Rossin, however, ever let go of his own image—that of an artist producing a picture. This approach—the long-term accumulation of energy via artistic mastery and its expenditure on the creation of a masterpiece (or, as Ilya Kabakov has put it, “Madame Painting”)—did not work for the New Artists. Their approach was rather more akin to the notion of “passionarity” as elaborated by Lev Gumilev. Acting at a moment when social hierarchies are fracturing, they (unlike the Moscow artists, who preferred to catalogue and observe, and unlike artists who work on masterpieces that that they hope will be preserved for all posterity) chose the active role of “new barbarians,” wild “passionaries” who conquer the lands of a moribund empire in order both to pillage them and prolong this dying life. The creative philosophy of the New Artists was brilliantly captured in the lyrics of Viktor Tsoi’s song “The Star We Call the Sun”:


      The city is two thousand years old / [Years] lived under the light of a star / We call the Sun. / Two thousand years of war / War without no particular cause. / War is an affair of the young / A cure for wrinkles. / Red, red blood / Is just plain earth an hour later. / Two hours later there are flowers and grass [growing] on it. / Three hours later, it is alive again, / Warmed by the rays of the star we call the Sun.


This question—about the differences between the Moscow and Leningrad schools—was also of course asked by the first interpreters of the New Artists, in particular, Andrei Khlobystin and Alla Mitrofanova. In a 1989 article about the Mayakovsky Friends Club, they argue that


      in Leningrad, which has never really known either Sots Art or conceptualism, we see more trust in life, in the material aspect of the world. We see more unprincipled openness both to traditions and to the culture flowing around us.
      Timur Novikov and Oleg Kotelnikov Photo by Evgenij Kozlov, 1984, from the series Fashion Show, inv. no. AZ33. Rolling Stone, May 2011, Russian edition

      Timur Novikov and Oleg Kotelnikov
      Photo by Evgenij Kozlov, 1984
      from the series
      Fashion Show, inv. no. AZ33
      Rolling Stone, May 2011, Russian edition

      The brutal, the formal, the random, and the profoundly personal are not taboo. In this sense, the work of the club’s members might be traced to the Russian tradition of “futurists of life,” “nothingists” [nichevoki], and the OBERIU, which in many ways paralleled western Dadaism. For us, Dadaism is not mockery of life, but, on the contrary, acceptance and affirmation of all its forms and aspects. The use of the clichés of Soviet symbolism is not so much an appeal to the conceptual criticism of Sots Art, as it is an aesthetic mirroring of everyday life’s ornamental aspect. It can be traced to Vadim Ovchinnikov’s “Chukchi principle”—“I sing what I see.” That is, in certain cases we may speak of “pseudo-Sots Art.” In Leningrad, people have come to realize that the totalitarian problematic is a landscape, a gigantic baroque stage set in which a play is being performed. You can keep your distance from it, but you cannot do away with it. Life does not solve its own problems. It just withdraws them and replaces them with new ones.[1]


Mitrofanova and Khlobystin note that the creative principle declared by the New Artists—“the idea of goodness”—is antithetical to the struggle for the lofty and sublime, that is, to the normative Soviet art both of modernism and socialist realism.
Alla Mitrofanova and Andrei Khlobystin Film frame from a video by Evgenij Kozlov on Hannelore Fobo's photo exhibition at the Planetarium, St. Petersburg, 1991

Alla Mitrofanova and Andrei Khlobystin
Film frame from a video by Evgenij Kozlov
on Hannelore Fobo's photo exhibition
at the Planetarium, St. Petersburg, 1991

It is also the antithesis, however, of the unmasking of shabbiness and inauthenticity that characterized the anti-modernism of the Moscow school. The New Artists—for example, Vadim Ovchinnikov, who created his own myth of Chukotka—established the equal worth of all points on the cultural landscape as its moral compass.[2] Thus, unlike the Moscow school, which dedicated its work to critiquing truths and exposing untruths, the New Artists used their art to promote trustfulness and the kind of truth that discovers itself only in borderline situations, in moments when life and death visibly converge and reveal themselves in full. In the article “The Charms of Gibberish: The New Artists in Leningrad and Moscow Post-Structuralist Conceptualism” (1988), Mitrofanova and Khlobystin offer the following assessment of the relative chances of the Moscow and Leningrad positions:


      The trauma and shock experienced by the individual when he attempted to enter the womb of totalitarianism were so great that any promise of harmony and certainty, any ideology, provokes mistrust and even an instinctive protest and a defensive reflex.
      Evgenij Kozlov untitled (Andrey Krisanov) painted photo on cardboard 15 x 10 on 20.2. x 14.4, 1986. collection Kozlov & Fobo

      Evgenij Kozlov
      untitled (Andrey Krisanov)
      painted photo on cardboard
      15 x 10 on 20.2. x 14.4, 1986
      Collection Kozlov & Fobo

      An inversion of various ideological levels is under way, and the desire for hard structure and strict meanings has begun to be associated with the concretely historical totalitarian ideology. At the same time, this “flip side of the birth trauma” cannot alter man’s natural desire to move from multiplicity to definition; it cannot change the essence of art, which is to impart form to formlessness. In artistic practice, a battle is being waged against the philosophy of essences, which strive towards themselves, towards their own triumphal identity. As they struggle to grasp any essence whatsoever, artists have taken to tormenting themselves; in this way, they come to resemble airplanes that, instead of landing, bomb the runway. […] In Leningrad […] we see a greater trust in the material aspect of the world. In connection with the New Artists, this is outwardly manifested in tendencies that have been called neo-Dadaist or neo-pop art. We might surmise that here we see the effects of a more secure and conservative tradition that we could trace to the Ginkhuk [State Institute of Artistic Culture]. At the same time, what we see accentuated is not a positivistic attitude to the thing, but an emotional attitude, which is recorded at the moment of the thing’s destruction or the loss of its basic functions and context—that is, during a borderline situation that is almost death. In this case, truth, however foggy, is also recognized as something that exists outside the artist.[3]


Continuing this argument, we might conclude that the New Artists chose as their own the transitional historical period in which they lived, and they saw it for what it was as it completed its work in Leningrad and other Russian cities during the era of Gorbachev’s reforms. The artists of the Moscow school, on the contrary, viewed this period and this same geographical space from a distance, like foreign observers, or, as they said themselves, like “Livingstones in Africa.” Whereas Ilya Kabakov has quite fairly compared the Soviet world to a fire-breathing, flaming trash heap, New Artist teacher Boris Koshelokhov headed straight to a gigantic city trash dump, in 2007, in order to show a group of filmmakers who were shooting a documentary about him that this was just the place for finding coloristic inspiration for a painting—in the form of a plastic bag that had already been “abstracted” for the art of painting by life itself.


Insofar as it manifests itself in the desire to find the energy of beauty even in life at its shabbiest, “folk conceptualism” is the basis of an ethical understanding of aesthetics. The New Artists saw in pan-culturalism (a word that Novikov sometimes used himself)—that is, in manifestations of the aesthetic instinct on all levels of existence, including the humblest—a guarantee of the very possibility of life. In their case (that is, of young people, not all of whom, like Novikov, had the opportunity to attend art history classes at museums in early childhood), the aesthetic instinct guides the spontaneous self-organization of culture’s vital forces. Novikov made a similar assessment of Gorbachev’s perestroika: he saw it as the spontaneous self-organization of society’s vital forces. He argued that perestroika happened not thanks to the actions of Gorbachev himself, but in spite of them, because its beginning was the Chernobyl disaster, which the Soviet government was unable to cover up. In essence, Soviet society in the mid-eighties stepped back from the brink of an even greater disaster thanks not to a political program, but to its embrace of anarchy.


The work of the New Artists can be seen as a successful experiment in anarchic sociocultural therapy. It was precisely in this context that it made sense for them and their apologists to speak of a movement of “new wilds” in the west.

Evgenij Kozlov: Selfportrait in his “Galaxy Gallery" painted photo on cardboard, 16 x 10.2 cm on 18 x 12.8, 1987. Collection Kozlov and Fobo

Evgenij Kozlov
Selfportrait in his “Galaxy Gallery"
painted photo on cardboard,
16 x 10.2 cm on 18 x 12.8, 1987
Collection Kozlov and Fobo

There was in fact a common basis for this comparison. In Leningrad, Berlin, New York, and Italy, the spirit of anarchy suffused the postmodernist art of neo-expressionism, the Neue Wilde, the new wave, and the Transavanguardia, and this enabled them to alter the state of contemporary culture. This art did not advance a unified aesthetic doctrine in opposition to the art of the sixties and seventies. The paradox was that it merely rehabilitated the practice of the fine arts, of subject-based painting, which had long been pushed to the margins of the cultural mainstream. Postmodernism did not revoke the further existence and activeness of two tendencies in modernist art that had alternately joined forces or battled it out over the decades: the formal tendency, exemplified by the world-structuring, technogenic culture of engineers and other managers, and the socially critical tendency, as exemplified by the political agitators. In the eighties, a new art began to sprout up more and more intensely over this new twentieth-century civilization and through its crevices, as in a tropical forest. This art rebroadcast multifarious stories, fantasies, and new myths composed from the mosaic-like fragments of all the narratives that had ever been told on the various continents. Caught in the vise-grip of rationalism, society found compensation in the space of imagination.


Inal Savchenkov in the studio of his group "School of the Engineers of Art" explaining his painting "I Guard My Dream Myself", 1988. Film frame from the video "Artists from St. Petersburg" by Evgenij Kozlov and Hannelore Fobo, 1993

Inal Savchenkov in the studio of his group "School of the Engineers of Art"
explaining his painting
I Guard My Dream Myself, 1988.
Film frame from the video "Artists from St. Petersburg"
by Evgenij Kozlov and Hannelore Fobo, 1993

Like their brothers and sisters in the west, the New Artists were pioneers of this process. After their heyday, a culture industry arose to satisfy mass demand for fantasy literature, cinema, and computer animation, which became the main products of art in the nineties and the decade that is now ending. Kotelnikov’s dark comic strips on canvas (Schism, School Years), Ovchinnikov’s symbolic riddle pictures (What Is Killing Us?), Gutsevich’s epic Wizard, Krisanov’s Toadstool, Novikov’s and Sotnikov’s versions of the Aurora, and Kozin and Maslov’s Head can easily be imagined in the form of posters, covers, screensavers, and other visual decor for the products of the digitalized fantasy style that has dominated the thirty-year reign of postmodernism. The stories of Inal Savchenkov’s characters (Mozart and I Guard My Dream Myself) might serve as the plots of computer games and animated films.


What is curious is that in all the cities (and countries) where this variation on postmodernist painting emerged, there was a problem with history. For various sociopolitical reasons, history was either fully or partly forbidden and inaccessible to society; entire historical periods were taboo. Such preeminent new wave painters as Basquiat, Clemente, and Baselitz returned this history to the public, not in documentary form, however, but packaged in a cocoon of personal fantasy and mythology that was sustained by the heterogeneous informational flows generated both by cinema and television.


The therapeutic effect of early postmodernist painting lies in the fact that it really does rescue culture from the fatal iconoclasm of twentieth-century art’s mainstreams (abstractionism, minimalism, conceptualism) by returning to the world its artistic image and its essential natural integrity. It is this absolute integrity of vision that amazes us in the visual idiom of the New Artists, rendering it simultaneously universal and elitist. While their individual techniques differ, in their best works the results are similar in that they evoke a planetary unity of images. We see this whether we look at Novikov’s paintings and Horizons, or at Kotelnikov’s The Two (Artist and Model). In this picture, we see a certain artist—the first artist on Earth, naked and suntanned, as in Rubens’s painting, and wearing dark glasses, of course—relaxing alongside his light-skinned model and the masterpiece he has just finished. He holds what is either a brush or a hand-rolled cigarette. We immediately understand that his painting is the principal work of world painting, and within this life-as-painting he is like Adam. We know all this without asking because the figures have been quickly sketched on fiberboard with the barest palette of basic, unmixed colors (white, black, red, blue, yellow, and green). The figures hover lightly and divinely on a paraplane of bluish crimson, the color of icons, a color they inhabit as their birthright. They thus demonstrate the most essential thing about the art of painting from the Renaissance to Les Demoiselles d’Avignon: when we look at such paintings we get the chance (a chance already used by the artist himself, who experienced the emergence of his image with every fiber of his body and brain) to inhabit another state of consciousness, to step into another (powerful and absolute) space and time.


Or we gaze at Vadim Ovchinnikov’s strange composition Symbols—a musical score of the signals emitted by the universe. They descend from the sun’s golden rays into the ocean’s ultramarine night. They penetrate into the blue-green living world of plants and the ocher, sandy swelter of the deserts. They set alight the crimson, pyramidal campfires of human history (now blazing up, now dying down), before finally submerging into the colored darkness of nonbeing, a realm that lies alongside the realm of being.


Or we examine Sotnikov’s To the South. As we have already seen, it is just one second’s worth of a TV news report transferred to a painting. This second, however, has impressed itself on the minds of millions of people with the same force that miracles and other unusual events had lodged themselves in the memory during earlier ages. And so Sotnikov has depicted it with a palette of beautifully radiant blues and whites. He has saturated it with a multitude of details that are essential for a chronicle: helicopters whirling round the sky, cars racing around on the ground, fir trees and all manner of beasts. Without them, the cosmos is not a cosmos, but chaos. Finally, Sotnikov has outfitted his painting with the golden symbols of the eternally happy trail, the perennial way of goodness.


Or we scrutinize Inal Savchenkov’s Flight Control Center, a strange and humorous composition. Here we feel as if we are seated in an alien movie theater where they are showing a thriller about the voyage of a spaceship that is about to be swallowed by a monstrous unknown galaxy, which Savchenkov has energetically encircled in a field of dark blue. All the details of this spectacle are as flagrantly schematic as cheap plastic toys, but Savchenkov’s compositional talents and imagination are such that the four red silhouettes in the dark-green spacecraft (observed by rows of yellow silhouettes seated in bluish black chairs) are rocketed away from the cosmic predator, carrying us along with them into an endless saga of star wars.


From top to bottom Georgy Gurianov, Evgenij Kozlov, Timur Novikov, Oleg Kotelnikov, unkown, Vadim Ovchinnikov. Timur Novikov's studio / Gallery ASSA, approx. 1985 archive of Evgenij Kozlov, inv. no. AI43

From top to bottom
Georgy Gurianov, Evgenij Kozlov, Timur Novikov
Oleg Kotelnikov, unkown, Vadim Ovchinnikov
Timur Novikov's studio / Gallery ASSA, approx. 1985
archive of Evgenij Kozlov, inv. no. AI43

In the Soviet Union, rationalism exerted its pressure alongside a normative thematics that rendered as unfit for circulation entire worlds and layers of culture that usually are natural parts of human life. This form of coercion operated for much longer than it did in Italy or Germany. When the New Artists took up the practice of art, the avant-garde artists were regarded as distant classics of the twentieth century, and the 1979 exhibition Moscow–Paris did much to canonize this perception within Russia itself. The New Artists were not only motivated to violate ideological taboos; they were also interested in specific artistic traditions. Hence the numerous references in Novikov’s texts to the fact the New Artists were traditionalists, not iconoclasts. We should take his words seriously, especially because in his late essays Novikov always stressed that Petersburg’s avant-garde artists were builders of systems, not anti-systems. The art of Novikov himself, many pictures by Kotelnikov and Sotnikov (despite their natural-born Dadaism), and Ovchinnikov’s visionary dissonance-based painting are not inimical to harmony, but quite obviously belong to it.


This is something that distinguishes all the major artists of the Leningrad avant-garde. Even the expressionists among them—Filonov, Arefiev, and the abstract painter Yevgeny Mikhnov-Voitenko—were classical in the same way that (as we understand with time) certain works of the destructive avant-garde are classical—at very least, such surrealist works as Picasso’s Guernica.

Georgy Gurianov painting on Timur Novikov's shirt. Left: Vadim Ovchinnikov. Timur Novikov's studio / Gallery ASSA. photo by Evgenij Kozlov, inv no. AI51, approx. 1985

Georgy Gurianov painting on Timur Novikov's shirt
Left: Vadim Ovchinnikov
Timur Novikov's studio / Gallery ASSA
photo by Evgenij Kozlov, inv no. AI31, approx. 1985
Whereas in Picasso’s case it is a matter of his individual, absolute classical “pitch,” the Leningrad artists who achieved this clarity and power of vision were undoubtedly influenced not only by their inner natures and the image of the avant-garde as something classical, but also by the proportions of their urban environment itself. Until quite recently, the Petersburg cityscape trained the eyes of its artists from childhood or the moment they arrived in the city by developing a sensitivity to the potentially universal harmony of art’s languages. Aside from this particular local traditionalism, the second thing that distinguished the New Artists from typologically kindred movements in western art was the supreme degree to which they developed everythingism. Universalism is in general a characteristic of the art of young people and the cultures based on it. Like the New Artists in Leningrad, the artists of the New York new wave—for example, Basquiat—were closely connected to the city’s musical groups. Thanks to the second birth of the avant-garde’s ideas, Novikov, however, was able to transform this commonality of youthful enthusiasms into a philosophical program of life-creation that embraced all areas of human communal existence independently of the individual styles or ages of its adherents.


This program is still in effect today as well. Anyone who spends time with the New Artists (no matter what they are up to these days) can feel its power. The New Artists have their own aura, an aura that has survived since the eighties, when together they experienced daily miracles or (as Novikov put it) “the continual self-emergence of art.”[4] The paintings, drawings, watercolors, films, letters, and sayings of the New Artists are the batteries where this amazing creative energy has been stored. An avant-garde in their own right, they function autonomously—that is, they have no expiration date.



Translated, from the Russian, by Thomas Campbell

About the author : Ekaterina Andreeva is a curator and critic writing on contemporary art. She works at the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Together with V. Dobrovolski she curated the exhibition "Brushstroke. New Artists and Necrorealists. 1982 - 1991" (Удар кисти. Новые художники и некрореалисты 1982 - 1991/ Udar kisti) at the Russian Museum in 2010. The catalogue, where this article first appeared, was published in a Russian and an English edition. The selection of pictures for this internet publication is largely based on material from Evgenij Kozlov's archive.

Other articles by E. Andreeva on Evgenij Kozlov's homepage
Timur Novikov and Ilya Kabakov: Everything and Nothing English >>
Timur Novikov
German >> Russian >> Ivan Sotnikov German >> Russian >> Oleg Kotelnikov Russian / German >>
Yevgeny Yufit German >> Russian >> Andrey Khlobystin German >> Russian >>

Related articles
Evgenij Kozlov on the Leningrad Eighties and the “New Artists” English >> German >> Russian >>
and on "E-E" The Style of the Leningrad Eighties >>

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[1] DNKh-89-84(10), pp. 2–3.

[2] Cf. “The New Avant-Garde: The Sequence of Its Theoretical Self-Identifications,” DNKh-00-81(4) (in Russian).

[3] DNKh-88-83(16), pp. 12, 13–14.


[4] Novye khudozhniki, p. 87.