The Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers features the world’s largest collection of art created during the Cold War era by Russian artists willing to risk life and limb to defy Soviet repression.
Extended through Dec. 31, “Leonid Sokov: Ironic Objects” is the first museum exhibition in the U.S. devoted to the career of Leonid Sokov, one of the most distinctive of these “nonconformist” artists. The exhibition includes 80 works by Sokov, many on view for the first time, ranging from sculptures created in the early 1960s to work created in 2000, more than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Forty works drawn from the Zimmerli’s Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Soviet Nonconformist Art are accompanied by an equal number of loans from private collectors in the United States and the artist himself.
Unlike many of his fellow dissidents who overtly adopted the strategies of the American and European vanguard, in the 1970s and 1980s Sokov preferred to assume the stance of the “simple man” in his art making. In so doing, he won widespread acclaim for roughly hewn and seemingly improvised sculptures and kinetic toy-like figures inspired by Russian folk art. Today Sokov, who is 72 years old and has lived and worked in the New York area since 1980, is widely credited as one of the originators of the Sots Art movement—a Soviet version of Pop Art that emerged in the early 1970s.
“Over the years, Leonid Sokov has employed the forms of naïve art to create a layered and sophisticated body of work,” says Suzanne Delehanty, director of the Zimmerli. “We are proud to present this overview of his career at the Zimmerli, the only museum in the country where it is possible to consider his achievement within the larger context of Soviet nonconformist art. The museum’s Dodge Wing, featuring works by Bulatov, Kabakov, Komar, Melamid, and other leading artists of the Cold War movement, are just steps away from ‘Leonid Sokov: Ironic Objects.’“
Julia Tulovsky, Associate Curator for Russian and Soviet Nonconformist Art at the Zimmerli, has organized “Leonid Sokov: Ironic Objects” at a time of increased interest in the artist’s work. In 2012, the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA) presented a major retrospective, to which the Zimmerli was a significant lender, and published a comprehensive accompanying catalogue, to which Tulovsky contributed an essay on Sokov’s art in relation to popular culture.
“Lenin, Stalin, Mickey Mouse, and Marilyn Monroe—Sokov spared no iconic figure as he portrayed the absurdities of 20th-century history, politics, and culture,” says Tulovsky. “Sokov is notable for how he embraced the broadest of cultural contexts, both high and low, and Soviet and American.”
The tension between the prescribed style of Socialist Realism and Western modernism is a recurring theme in Sokov’s sculpture, one to which he has often returned. The theme is seen in a highlight of the exhibition, an eloquently simple bronze sculpture from 1990 in which Sokov situates two figures facing each other: Lenin on one side and Alberto Giacometti’s existential “Walking Man” on the other. This juxtaposition is also the subject of the centerpiece of the exhibition, the room installation “Shadows of Twentieth-Century Sculptures,” which Sokov created for the Russian Pavilion at the 2001 Venice Biennale. Here 100 miniature replicas of iconic sculptures by such modern masters as Alexander Calder and Constantin Brancusi are placed on a well-lit stand in the center of a 625-square-foot space. As the stand rotates, the tiny sculptures project large moving shadows on the surrounding walls. This poetic tribute to the disproportionate power of art and ideas has never before been seen in the U.S., and only once in Europe after its debut in Venice.
Many of the other works featured in “Ironic Objects” illustrate Sokov’s sly humor. These include “Project to Construct Glasses for Every Soviet Person” (1976), a play on the cliché, “the Soviet way of seeing.” Created at a time when the Soviet regime was touting progress, but most citizens were experiencing severe deprivations, Sokov’s rustic and crudely rendered glasses suggested the poor quality of Soviet industrial production that obscured the view into the “bright Soviet future.” Sokov’s waggish and oversized eyeglasses would have evoked not just smiles, but outright laughter.
Two other objects in the exhibition also suggest that Sots Art, while sharing affinities with American Pop Art, requires a different reading that takes into account its historical context. While Pop Art commented on the overabundance of products in a consumer society, Sots Art satirized the overabundance of ideology produced by the communist regime. In the early 1980s, Sokov created a number of sculptures reflecting back on political leaders. Viewers are invited to consider how Nikita Khrushchev, the head of the country from 1958 to 1964, is turned into a roly-poly doll, alluding in a humorous way to Khruschchev’s ability to withstand the political struggles and intrigues that occurred after Stalin's death. The brightly colored papier-mâché and wood sculpture, “Problem” (1976), addresses the tension that occurred between nationalities within the multinational Soviet state, which comprised 15 republics stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Here, Sokov offered absurd, yet humorous and witty, commentary on internal Soviet politics simply by illustrating that most characteristic part of the human face—the nose.
In 1986, a groundbreaking exhibition entitled “Sots Art,” curated by Margarita Tupitsyn at The New Museum, drew widespread attention to Sokov and other Soviet nonconformist artists. Since that time, Sokov’s work has been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world and acquired by many major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Guggenheim Museum, and the Centre Georges Pompidou. Sokov was born in 1941 in the village of Mikjaliovo, Kalinin (now Tver) region. He moved to Moscow at the age of six and studied at the Moscow Secondary Art School under the auspices of the Russian Academy of Arts where he made lifelong friends who would later form the core of the nonconformist movement: Erik Bulatov, Ivan Chuikov, Ilya Kabakov, Alexander Kosolapov, and Oleg Vassiliev. In 1969, Sokov graduated from the Moscow School of Art and Industry (former Stroganov School), one of the leading art universities in the country, established in 1825 by Count Sergei Stroganov. In 1980, Sokov immigrated to the United States and settled in New York where he reconnected with many the artists he had known since his childhood in Russia.
The exhibition is curated by Julia Tulovsky, Ph.D., Associate Curator for Russian and Soviet Nonconformist Art, Zimmerli Art Museum. She is a specialist in modern and contemporary Russian art and received her Ph.D. from Moscow State University. Before joining the staff of the Zimmerli in 2007, Tulovsky served as Assistant Curator at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and later as Executive Director of the Malevich Society in New York. She has published extensively on Russian art history and contemporary art, both in Russian and English. Tulovsky co-edited a special Russian-American issue of the “Pinakotheke” journal focusing on interrelations and cultural parallels between Russian and American art and architecture. She was general editor of the Zimmerli publication “The Claude and Nina Gruen Collection of Contemporary Russian Art” (2008), as well as a contributor to its major book on Russian contemporary art, “Moscow Conceptualism in Context” (2011), co-published by Prestel, a member of Verlagsgruppe Random House GmbH.
NORTON AND NANCY DODGE COLLECTION OF NONCONFORMIST ART FROM THE SOVIET UNION
Through the generosity of the late Norton T. Dodge and his wife Nancy Ruyle Dodge, some 20,000 works created between 1956 and 1986 by nearly 1,000 artists from Moscow, Leningrad, and the former Soviet republics entered the permanent collection of the Zimmerli in 1991. Among 80 works by Sokov in the Dodge Collection, 40 have been selected for “Leonid Sokov: Ironic Objects.”
Refurbished in 2012, the Upper Level of the Dodge Wing at the Zimmerli features 126 works of art by such leading nonconformist artists as Grisha Bruskin, Eric Bulatov, Ilya Kabakov, Vitaly Komar, Alexander Melamid, Irina Nakhova, and Oleg Vassiliev, among others, in a range of media, from paintings and sculpture to assemblages and installations.
The Zimmerli has issued a number of publications exploring different aspects of the Dodge Collection, including the definitive study “Moscow Conceptualism in Context” by Alla Rosenfeld, published by the Zimmerli Art Museum and Prestel (Munich/Berlin/London/New York 2011).
The exhibition and related programs are supported by the Avenir Foundation Endowment Fund. Additional support has been provided by the Thickman Family Foundation and donors to the Zimmerli’s Annual Exhibition Fund: Sustainer/Voorhees Family Endowment; Supporter/Charles and Caryl Sills and Jerome A. Yavitz Charitable Foundation, Inc.— Stephen Cypen, President.
ZIMMERLI ART MUSEUM|RUTGERS
The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum houses more than 60,000 works of art, ranging from ancient to contemporary art. The permanent collection features particularly rich holdings in 19th-century French art; Russian art from icons to the avant-garde; Soviet nonconformist art from the Dodge Collection; and American art with notable holdings of prints. In addition, small groups of antiquities, old master paintings, as well as art inspired by Japan and original illustrations for children’s books, provide representative examples of the museum’s research and teaching message at Rutgers. One of the largest and most distinguished university-based art museums in the nation, the Zimmerli is located on the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Established in 1766, Rutgers is America’s eighth oldest institution of higher learning and a premier public research university.
The Zimmerli’s operations, exhibitions, and program are funded in part by Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and income from the Avenir Foundation Endowment, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Endowment, and the Voorhees Family Endowment, among others. Additional support comes from the New Jersey State Council of the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; the Estate of Victoria J. Mastrobuono; and donors, members, and friends of the museum.
The Zimmerli Art Museum is located at 71 Hamilton Street at George Street on the College Avenue campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick. The Zimmerli is a short walk from the NJ Transit train station in New Brunswick, midway between New York City and Philadelphia.
MUSEUM AND Z CAFÉ HOURS
Hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., and the first Wednesday of each month (except August), 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Z Café featuring the Food Architects is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with a variety of breakfast, lunch, and snack items. The museum is closed Mondays, major holidays, and the month of August.
Admission is $6 for adults; $5 for 65 and over; and free for museum members, children under 18, and Rutgers students, faculty, and staff (with ID). Admission is free on the first Sunday of every month. For more information, call 848.932.7237 or visit the museum’s website: www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu