Moscow Conceptualism, or, The Visual Logic of Late Socialism Victor Tupitsyn. The Museological Unconscious; Communal (Post) Modernism in Russia. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009. 544 pp., 90 b/w ills. 134.95
Boris Groys. History Becomes Form: Moscow Conceptualism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010. 224 pp.. 92 b/w ills. $27.95
Matthew Jesse Jackson. The Experimenta) Group: Ilya Kabakov, Moscow Conceptualism, Soviet Avant-Cardes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. 356 pp., 54 color ills., 86 b/w.55
The Soviel Union occupies, a curious plane in die history of twentiedi-century art. Prominent in standard accounts of prewar modernism, die Russian-cum-Soviet avantgarde of tlie 19105 and 19205 also plays a pivotal role in both the history and the historiography of postwar art. During ie 1960s, Russia's avant-garde was an important touchstone for artists such as CarlAndre and Dan Flavin, who saw in the constructions of Vladimir Tadin and Aleksandr Rodchenko a welcome alternative to the then-dominant model of high modernism. Later, beginning with the 1974 publication (and 1984 English translation) of Peter Burger's Theory of the ¿yam-Garde, Russian Constructivism and Productivism became common reference points in discussions of the relationship between die historical and neo-avant-gardes. During the late 19705 and 19805, as die Soviet Union spun toward its demise, meditations on tie historical significance of the Soviet avant-garde cropped up repeatedly in the pages of Western art publications - including, of course, October, named after the October Revolution. In short, the Soviet Union was a constant presence in the story of modern art as it unfolded and came to be understood in Western Europe and the United States - constant but spectral, however, since references to Soviet art invariably invoked the historical avant-garde rather than any more recent developments. The cultural landscape of the contemporary USSR - viewed dismissively as a land of misunderstood Marxism, "bureaucratic socialism."
pervasive censorsliip, and bland, state-sponsored art - was little known, its visual production of little apparent interest.
We find ourselves today at a dislance of twenty years from the Soviel collapse. Widi the twentieth century also receding into history, now is perhaps an appropriate time to ask what was happening artistically in Russia during just those years - from the 19605 through the 19805 - when Western artists and commentators were developing a deep, critical engagement with the Soviet past. Fortunately, three new books on iatetwentieth -century Russian art provide the beginnings of an answer: a study of Ilya KabaJfov and his milieu by (he art historian Matthew Jesse Jackson; a collection of critical essays on Moscow Conceptualism and related practices by the philosopher, curator, and critic Boris Groys; and a compilation of historical writings, critical commentary, and personal reflections on Soviet and postSoviet Russian art by the independent scholar and critic Victor Tupitsyn.
That each of the three authors is of a radically different critical bent is a boon rather than a hindrance to our understanding of the common terrain they chart. Those familiar with the theoretical verve of Groys 's writings - especially Tk Total Art ofStalinism. which draws a straight line between the avant-garde's desire to reshape society and Stalin s accomplishment of this "artistic" feat - will not be stunned to hear that his is the roost provocative account. The fourteen essays of his book advance strong, often surprising theses about Soviet and Russian art, framed in terms culled from fields ranging from economics (the Western market economy versus the Soviet "symbolic economy") to religion ("blasphemous" uses of official imagery) Io anthropology (Conceptualism s relation to the Polynesian gift practices studied by Marcel Mauss and Claude Lévi-Strauss). Tupitsyn 's approach, while also unorthodox, is more eclectic and wide-ranging, deploying a dizzying array of interpretive models across a broader and more diverse selection of Works. …