AT THE TSUKANOVS
In December just as the festive mood was gathering apace, I got an invitation to speak at a special art soiree organised for young patrons of the V&A at the London house of collectors Igor and Natasha Tsukanov. I have watched this collection grow over the past two decades since I met Igor in the early 2000s when he was exploring Russian modernist art. He made the leap to post-war Russian art and never looked back. Their home in Kensington, is the perfect backdrop, with wide vistas and airy ceiling heights. Igor and I talked together about how Ilya Kabakov’s studio was on the top floor of an apartment in central Moscow where there was no lift: larger paintings were sent down on the outside through a window using a makeshift pulley, such was life then. Many of the guests had arrived from a tour of the Faberge exhibition at the V&A, I could not think of a more polarised cultural offering in one evening, yet there was common ground: the Soviets. Their dislike of the aristocracy was reflected in Faberge (several, now priceless, Faberge eggs were sold off by the Soviets in the 1930s) and the art on the walls around us was created by artists who existed outside the official system, people who thought differently were considered a threat to the status quo and their art was banned.
NEW PAINTINGS, 1,2,3,4,5. 2021
The role of chance in Yoffe’s work moves to the centre of her preoccupations in her latest project called ‘Sluchai’ (Chance). Holed up in a small apartment in isolation for several weeks, Yoffe conceived this new project for a specific site at Fabrika in Moscow. In it she makes a clear break with the figurative work of past years, it is an exciting departure. Four large scale canvasses are hung opposite each other in the space (the fifth is displayed at the end of an adjoining corridor). The titles are numbers between 1-5, emphasising their interrelatedness, although she says they can exist individually too. She insists on a rapport between them and the architecture of the building. Their monumentality contrasts with the spontaneity of their execution. The images were created with her finger on the screen of her phone, it seems with quick swipe gestures. At close proximity you can see shards of black on the white surface which were created, she says, quite by chance and which are suggestive of forms typically seen in constructivist and suprematist paintings. They are small, hardly perceptible, little references to the past.
GES-2 FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Imagine for a minute Tate Modern in London without its art collection. Just a place withclassrooms, a library, cavernous spaces for temporary exhibitions in which you could actually fit probably more than one gigantic turbine. What would people do there, would they even go? Certainly not in their millions.GES-2 is not an art gallery or museum. It is a cultural space, modelled as a concept on Soviet Houses of Culture. These were places where the workers could learn about art and culture, an edited cut of art aligned with the socio-political values of the Soviet Union. It was part of the propaganda machine.Tate is not a governmental institution, and it still bears the name of its founder the great sugar magnate Henry Tate, however Tate’s main sponsor today is the UK government, and it houses part of the British art collection, so national cultural policy is a part of its fabric. GES-2 is entirely privately funded.One thing is clear at GES-2, art education lies at its heart. When I visited on Saturday morning there were several classes in progress in dedicated rooms with glass walls, there is ahive of activity, I imagine utopian plans being hatched. The classes are advertised on a digital billboard close to the entrance. There are open auditoria which have state of the art sound proofing so that if a concert is going on it can not be heard anywhere else in the building.The building may be gigantic, yet it is friendly. I enjoy walking around, exploring it from top to bottom, finding interesting vistas from different platforms to take in the view and expanse of the building and the landscape which surrounds it. At this time Moscow is covered in snow, the light is reflecting off it too, it’s beautiful. Echoes from an industrial past aretransformed simply with the white colouring of the metal structures supporting the glass; and atop, huge pipes and chimney painted in an iconic blue colour described as after ‘Matisse’, not as deep as an Yves Klein blue, much brighter.
Applause For the Contemporary Russian Art!
All of the Russian sales were back in London, live for the first time since the pandemic started. The market only took a brief tumble at the very outset of the virus in June 2020 and has performed steadily throughout the past few seasons. A clear trend of rising demand over several years for Russian contemporary art (in particular by non-conformist artists) brought unprecedented bidding in this segment. At Sotheby’s, a private collection assembled over 2-3 years during the boom of the noughties fetched close to £6million. Works flew off the shelf making records, such as for Eli Belyutin an artist hitherto hardly seen at auction previously. My speculation earlier this autumn that 2021 would see the Russian contemporary art market cross the $10million threshold bore out, a considerable achievement, to be applauded.
A Hero of His Time
A highlight of Russian Art week is Valentin Serov’s Portrait of a Colonel painted in 1911. It was one of the last portraits he ever painted before his untimely death at the age of 46. Fascinating is how the sitter chose to be painted in a khaki shirt, which is mostly associated with lower ranking military. However, during the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905) higher ranking officers in action adopted this colour for camouflage. The portrait has an illustrious provenance, having formerly been in the collection of Vasily Pushkarev the director of the State Russian Museum. It was last exhibited in public at the State Tretyakov Gallery in 2015 marking the 150th Anniversary of the artist’s birth where there was much debate among experts about the sitter whose identity remains a mystery. However, as an image of a decorated man of action who served in the Imperial Russian army it is an alluring portrait of military achievement, a character sketch and document from the very end of the Russian Empire.
Just back from Moscow. I was in town to select the winners for this year’s Kandinsky Prize and attend the award ceremony, which for the second time took place at MMOMA. The standard was particularly high this time. Art celebrities Anatoly Osmolovsky (the first ever Kandinsky Prize laureate) and Grisha Bruskin as well as Olga Sviblova handed out the prizes in a pared back ceremony due to covid restrictions but broadcast live on the internet for those not able to attend, and the mood at the venue was celebratory.Andrey Kuzkin won the Project of the Year prize for his installation ‘Prayers and Heros’ made out of bread and his own blood; everyone was absolutely in awe of the installation which took several years to complete. Albina Mohryakova won the Young Artist Project of the Year. History repeated itself, both had won already previously and neither thus expected (or were expecting) to win. The Turner prize has never been given to the same artist twice although nominees have been repeated, such as Richard Long who was nominated three times before he won in 1989. (Lucian Freud was nominated twice in the 1980s losing out over sculptors Tony Cragg and Richard Long, and never won, undoubtedly because at that time painting was perceived as rather old fashioned).Can the Kandinsky Prize be seen as a barometer of the mood of the nation? If so, we can say that in Russia there is an almost all-consuming obsession with the past. The theme was picked up by Irina Gorlova, head of contemporary art at the Tretyakov Gallery, in her introductory essay about the nominees as so many works were about things that happened in the past. This created a challenge which the organisers also posed to the shortlisted artists, who were asked: ‘How to live in the present?’Artist Ekaterina Muromtseva sent it straight back: ‘It should be about how to live the past and not the present’ commenting on how many works were about this in the exhibition and that ‘it is hard to be present if you have not properly experienced the past’. Prize-winner Andrey Kuzkin sought wisdom from his young son who apparently had replied: ‘To live in the present you need to live the past’. Most roads led to this same ancient Rome, except for Osmolovsky who said: ‘You need to love yourself’ (quite agree) and something about developing a meaningful professional life (quite agree).I do not understand these preoccupations with the past as a collective nostalgia, but I wonder are people seeing parallels in the present, which they are in turn exploring in the past. The present fitted into the glove of the past. Maybe this strange process heals on some level: we all probably know how to look for answers and truth in our personal memories and how this can set us free from past traumas, how forgiveness helps us feel lighter, more alive, so individually as collectively. But it also raises very tough questions about the present which require change, as Kuzkin, dressed down in khaki and black with a combative demeanour said ‘I am tired of things repeating themselves’. Most of the works in the exhibition were created in the years leading up to the pandemic; I wonder if the life we have been living over the past year and a half might even deepen this preoccupation with the past further in Russia. Opportunities to connect in the present have resulted in everyone retreating into caves; more time for reflection and living in memories.
On Cosmocow, China and Russia
Cosmoscow, Russia’s premiere contemporary art fair is still in many ways a domestic one, despite its international ambitions. The local galleries far outweigh international participants, even if that probably has helped it continue with some semblance of normality during these covid times. The fair has grown in stature since it started up nearly a decade ago and is now becoming something like the art event everyone is talking about. One day I would like to see a Cosmoscow Masters edition, like Frieze in London, that time has not come yet, probably still Russian art collecting has not reached that level of eclecticism, in which collectors embrace equally art from different epochs and are looking for the crème de la crème be it an 18th century Russian imperial portrait or an assemblage by a Moscow conceptual artist. I know some Russian collectors who have such broad tastes, but there are not many, art collecting it seems is a divisive activity where taste puts you in one camp or the other.I was invited by the Association of Galleries to moderate a talk at the fair for gallerists on how to enter the international market. It was energising to sit among such art world movers and shakers as Pearl Lam founder of the successful Pearl Lam Galleries, and Polina Askeri who is fast making a name for herself in the Russian art world, promoting Russian contemporary artists at home and abroad. Their examples are inspirational.We talked a lot of the Chinese art market and the Russian art market, contemporary national art markets which could not be more different: China that darling horse that wins the race every time, and Russia whose contemporary art continues to challenge and provoke finds no place in the stable of the international market. Lam talked about a game changing auction in 2006 in New York where Chinese contemporary art was sold in a run-away sale which sparked off the market. I cannot help but think of 1988 in Moscow, and with a sigh I realise it came too early to have much of an effect as a global catalyst: the contemporary international market as we know it today barely existed in the late 1980s; it was not really until the 2000s that globalisation really took hold. By then, no-one was talking about Russia, the honeymoon period finished long before the end of the nineties. In Asia while the Chinese were buying up Imperial treasures in the West it was western collectors driving the market for contemporary artists; later the Chinese joined them. Today it is mainly only Russian collectors buying Russian contemporary art, a situation which with some cautious optimism I hope will change one day.However, meantime there is a lot to be done. If Russian galleries do not take part in the international art market, the great fairs, the big auctions; if Russian artists are not represented either by them or international galleries, they will simply be written out of art history. The great international collectors of our time will not buy them, they will not have access, they are and will continue to be invisible.
The new art season has got moving and Vickery Art was in Vienna for the annual contemporary art fair which has always shown strong ties with Russian and Central and Eastern European art. In Vienna, the first Russian Art Focus Prize winner’s ceremony took place - I helped to assemble the shortlist over the Summer - and it felt exciting to be a part of this new prize to recognise writing on Russian contemporary art. The winners of this inaugural edition were Telegraph journalist Theo Merz for his article ‘Back to Black’ and a new research group called AGITATSIA writing on the art collective The Party of the Dead and their performances and actions during the pandemic. It could not have been more topical. We had an Oscars style panel chat before the winners were announced with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Anna Somers Cocks, Nic Iljine and Ekaterina Chuchalina, all board members of RAF.The owners of Russian Art Focus had wanted to celebrate it in a special way, so I curated an NFT project for them with the Prigov Foundation which we presented in Vienna as something of a surprise. I had been thinking about Dmitry Prigov’s love of the word in art and this shared resonance with the values of the prize itself. The late artist’s Foundation were immediately responsive and put forward seven short recordings he had made on his mobile phone in 2004 and we all felt that they captured something of the moment and would be suited to the NFT medium. These recorded messages were a re-enactment of a performance the artist did 35 years ago, called Citizens’ Addresses, where he wrote 1,000 short messages on pieces of paper which he posted on trees and lampposts around Moscow and gave out at art gatherings, readings and apartment exhibitions to friends and art lovers. The foundation minted 49 in total, an edition of seven of each, and they were given to everyone taking part in the Prize ceremony, including shortlisted nominees and random guests who attended in Vienna. I received my own red envelope and following the instructions inside managed to not only access a crypto wallet, but eventually was able to view my little video on Opensea. I got the one about love which says ‘Citizens! I love you, and that’s why I’m strict, a bit too much sometimes’.
Oleg Tselkov (1934-2021) Force of Nature
On the painter Oleg Tselkov’s recent passing. Tselkov taught me to think less about the symbolic properties of colour and more about its raw power and energy, the lifeforce that colours have all of their own. To think less about how colours react with other colours and produce certain effects or moods. He reminded me it is all about how a colour has the power to hit you between the eyeballs just because it does. That is a simple truth, however, his use of colour is anything but obvious. There is a distinctive Tselkovean palette of red, green, purple; yellow and blue. His colours seem just that bit stronger, sharper, and mysterious than normal.During an interview with Tselkov in Paris ten years ago, he wanted to talk less about his art and more about his faith and worldview. His voice was as loud as the colour in his paintings: he walked the walk; the artist was the man. He was already by then in his late 70s, his energy and force of nature were still extraordinary. ‘I sometimes say that when I am painting, I’m standing in front of God, and he judges me: ‘Hmm, Average!’. I ask: ‘Average? I’m sorry, I used everything you gave me, I tried my best and if it’s average it’s your fault. Leave me alone, I did everything I could’.
Kandinsky in Paris
Russian Contemporary Art on the Up
The sale of Kandinsky’s 1937 work Tensions Calmees at Sotheby’s in London this week showed that there is strong demand for his late works painted in Paris and has led me to revisit some of my own strongly held beliefs about his art. I’ve always naturally been more drawn into his discoveries in the field of abstract art around 1911 as one of the pioneering triumvirate of abstraction: Malevich, Kandinsky and Mondrian. His 1913 work ‘Bild Mit Weissen Linien’ dating to that early period, brimming with urgency and originality is the world record currently at auction. If not entirely as embryonic as works he painted over the previous two years, it nevertheless predates Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ by two years.Fast forward through the Bauhaus years, its closure under the Nazis and the artist’s displacement in his late 60s to Paris. I have come to view Kandinsky’s late works with different eyes. They have shaken off much of the geometry of the Bauhaus; they are freer, incorporating some semi-figurative imagery from his early years as small cyphers and I see in them something that we associate more with the contemporary period, a sense of repetition and rhythm, borrowing of images, a graphic quality. They point forwards as well as back. I believe he was still learning, still creating with authenticity and openness. I have come to like the Parisian tail at the bottom of his coat.
Russian Contemporary Art on the Up
The big story of Russian auction week in London, in the wake of the ‘pandemic year’ was surely the upswing in the performance of the Russian contemporary art market. Combined sales of this segment accounted for $4.7M which, to put into context, is over 90% of the entire annual total of Russian contemporary art sales for the Spring and Autumn seasons of 2020 over all four London auction houses combined. This growth is unprecedented for the sector. The top slots of the week were taken by Ilya Kabakov and Erik Bulatov for ‘Empty Painting’ (1985) and ‘Vault of Heaven’ (2007) reasserting their place in the hallowed halls of Russia’s greatest artists. Tastes are evolving among Russian collectors and this change and growth is being driven almost exclusively by collectors based inside Russia.
Last weekend, with my hat on as Editor of RAF, I took part in a panel discussion on NFT art with bigwigs from the cryptotech world as well as Marat Guelman and Inna Bazhenova. It was a special initiative during SPIEF week in St Petersburg and I think very topical not only because NFTs hit the headlines in March after Beeple’s sale at Christie’s. It was the first time in over two decades that creative businesses were given the floor at SPIEF perhaps because there really is a new renaissance in creative activity in Russia. It might be something to do with the times. 10% of Moscow’s GDP is accounted for by creative industries, an extraordinary figure. Should we be surprised? Russia has always been a cultural behemoth. Even during the pandemic there have been new gallery spaces boldly opening in Moscow, and contemporary Russian art sales have continued to enjoy a buoyancy which we have not seen in years. Now with Russian crypto pioneers at the forefront of new frontiers, we ought to expect more development from the East to come in future years. I reflect on how our St Petersburg discussion would have been inconceivable even six months ago. The Times They Are a Changin’…
One of the great things about NFT art is that provenance is assured. On the traditional art market, this is one area which can make the difference between a work of art being accepted as genuine or not. A less than clear provenance can cast a shadow over an otherwise perfectly good and authentic painting. Works considered exemplary are more often in Museum collections, not privately owned, for the most part because museum provenance is usually considered more reliable. In Christie’s first ever dedicated various owner NFT auction this month called ‘Proof of Sovereinty’ the sale comes with a footnote that the auction house itself does not provide any certificates of authenticity – and so it does not need to. Everything is sealed potentially forever on the blockchain by way of a number. I wrote an article about Russian NFTs for the June issue of Russian Art Focus and am taking part in a conference on the subject as part of the St Petersburg Economic Forum this weekend. Supported by The Art Exchange, it will be broadcast by Akesnov Family Foundation. Lots of interesting speakers, do listen in to the discussion.
THE FIRST 100 DAYS
'To my mind one does not put oneself in place of the past, one only adds a new link’ Paul Cezanne.
We are approaching a small milestone, the first 100 days since we started Vickery Art. Setting up our own art business was a pipe dream. We had talked about it over many years but it was always out of reach on the shelf for some uncertain time in the future. That day came and here we are now, three months later having made our first steps. We are grateful to all of you who have supported us in some way on this new journey so far, for believing in us and what we have to offer. We are proud to be a small family business, to bring our own unique combination of experiences and skills together to build something that we hope will last. One of our goals is to support the field of Russian contemporary art and working with the on-line periodical Russian Art Focus means a lot to me personally. It is an amazing team and I find it continually rewarding to contribute to this wonderful initiative. I have learnt a lot and endeavour to give back as much as I can, and also to grow with it. One of the high points over the past three months has been my involvement with the launch of Russian Art Focus’ new art writing prize, which will reward academics and independent writers at any level of experience in a field which has long been overlooked. I hope to make a difference in this. In May, partnering with the Courtauld, I chaired a panel discussion with several distinctive voices drawn from the field in London, Paris and Moscow, to talk about how writing on the subject has changed over the past few decades. There was agreement that things are changing but that there is a lot that needs to be done.As part of our activities in the primary market, we have been honoured to work with Alisa Yoffe, and David Breuer-Weil, two great talents, and we hope we can bring new opportunities to both and new acquisitions to our collectors. We also sold our first work from the digital wall, a piece by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, now that’s a wrap!
JACKS OF ALL TRADES: THE SEMENIKHINS
There’s that thing Paul Mellon once wrote about collecting art, about how it ‘creeps up on you’. Talking to Vladimir and Ekaterina Semenikhin there is a sense that this creeping up is turbo-charged. Their initial forays into collecting classical Russian art in the middle of the 1990s moved on many times since through so many different genres, all reflected in their collection. I enjoyed writing about them for this month’s edition of Russian Art Focus, in part because their journey is also so intimately connected with the social and political changes in Russia over the past three decades, they truly are collectors of our times. I am curious as to how their legacy will continue to grow over the next decade, in the post-pandemic era and beyond.
Vickery Art is delighted to be working with British painter and sculptor David Breuer-Weil (b.1965). Perhaps best-known today for his powerful, dark yet often amusing sculptures, we are offering for sale two monumental outdoor works, Visitor 5 (2020) and Emergence 2. His Visitor series, of which there have only been three editions created in large-scale, can be found in important private and institutional collections throughout Asia, Europe and North America. Closer to home, his monumental sculptural works and installations have become a recurring and much-loved element of London’s landscape, it is hard not to encounter one in a leafy Georgian square in Mayfair; the first cast of Emergence 2 is now permanently installed at Harbour Central, Canary Wharf, London. Breuer-Weil is one of the leading contemporary British Sculptors of his generation, building on a national tradition with strong roots. His works have been shown on numerous occasions at Sotheby’s Beyond Limits exhibition at Chatsworth, and at Christie’s in a dedicated solo private selling exhibition dedicated to his sculpture in 2017.
Inventing New ScriptsThe Ins and Outs of Russian Contemporary Art WritingWith my hat on as Editor-in-Chief of Russian Art Focus, I am moderating a talk on Tuesday 11th May to celebrate RAF’s new prize for writing on Russian contemporary art, The Russian Art Focus Prize. I was delighted when Maria Mileeva arranged for the Courtauld to become a partner of this event, which promises to be an hour of interesting chat.The launch of the prize gave me pause to think about this subject as a whole with Russia this year entering its 3rd decade since the break-up of the Soviet Union. As someone who closely follows the art market I am often curious about the infrastructure which underpins how art buyers see value in what they collect. I wonder to what extent the lack of writing on this subject impacts negatively on how it is viewed both on the market and by the public at large.With the creation of a new prize, the Russian Art Focus Prize, to recognise writing on Russian contemporary art, aimed primarily at journalists and writers outside Russia, it is a good time to think about the ways in which Russian contemporary art has been documented and critically received abroad. At the same time, what challenges are there for writers today within Russia to present new pluralistic perspectives and alternative scripts to bring this subject to a better understanding within both the public at large as well as the expert community.Do zoom in on Tuesday to join our discussion.Meantime, my latest article about the Semenikhins as private and institutional collectors and art philanthropists has just been published in our most recent edition of Russian Art Focus which is out now. Do take a look and subscribe for more via the RAF website www.russianartfocus.com.
Yoffe. The constant drawing, on the walls of her Moscow studio (painted today and gone tomorrow) or on the screen of her iphone, saved somewhere in a digital file. What lies behind this, when her works are made tangible, set down onto canvas or paper? When a moment in time is captured, a look, expression, or emotion.She has a minimalist aesthetic, her best works are of bold recognisable images in which she eliminates anything that might distract. There is minimalism also in her choice of working exclusively in black and white. I think of Bridget Riley who spent the best part of the 1960s working in monochrome, a decade which in Britain has partly come to be defined in culture and fashion by Riley’s striking black and white patterns. I like to think that Yoffe’s monochrome drawings belong to the contemporary fabric of their own times. A generation since since the global crisis, we find ourselves in an ever more protectionist world in the grip of a pandemic.
We are delighted to announce our collaboration with Alisa Yoffe. She is one of the most promising young artists in Russia today and we are excited to be supporting her during this important period in her career. Her works are already in many important private and institutional collections throughout Russia and Europe’.
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