NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ –A major exhibition of significant works, many of which are from the Zimmerli’s Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, comprise the first museum exhibition of the art of this seminal global figure since his death in 2013. The 83 works in the exhibition include loans from private collections in the United States that have only rarely been publically exhibited. Oleg Vassiliev: Space and Light will be on view at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers through December 31, 2014 and is accompanied by a major catalogue, which will be released in November. The show has been organized by Julia Tulovsky, Ph.D., Associate Curator of Russian and Nonconformist Art, at the Zimmerli, who also served as general editor of the publication. It contains essays by Tulovsky, Molly Brunson, Andrew Solomon, and Robert Storr, as well as documentation on the artist’s career, a chronology, and full-color illustrations of all the works in the exhibition.
The exhibition examines Vassiliev’s ability to evoke ethereal space—a place seemingly beyond our physical world that is saturated with light and transformed into a landscape of other worldly consciousness and memory. The exhibition takes visitors on a journey through the development of Vassiliev’s work through drawings and paintings dating from the 1950s until his death.
“Although Vassiliev’s art is highly esteemed by scholars and knowledgeable collectors and is now represented in major museums, the artist and his work did not achieve widespread, international recognition during his lifetime,” said Tulovsky. “Space is the central protagonist of Vassiliev’s paintings: a pictorial space that is formed by light. He used light to represent the ‘light of consciousness’ and his work seems to enter our eyes and mind at a place related to perception and memory, giving his art a universal appeal to viewers regardless of their own cultural experience.”
The exhibition opens with Landscape with Space (1988), a painting that illustrates Vassiliev’s ability to imbue the physical world with contemplative depth, inviting viewers to enter and explore a metaphysical world. The work’s mysterious, almost blinding, light seems to emanate from a forest. Yet, because this wooded area is deliberately non-specific, it appears familiar to all of us.
Like other Russian nonconformist artists of his generation, Vassiliev renounced socialist realism and developed his own aesthetic alternative to the propaganda-imbued official Soviet art. Unlike many of his peers, Vassiliev never openly confronted the government, and his art was largely apolitical. He was employed as a children’s book illustrator, which allowed him to devote his free time to his own art.
Vassiliev graduated with a degree in graphic arts from Moscow’s Surikov Art Institute in 1958. While there, he became lifelong friends with classmates Erik Bulatov and Ilya Kabakov. All three were dissatisfied with the school’s training based on the “official” style that propagated communist ideology. They sought out teachers who offered another approach, among them, Robert Falk, Vladimir Favorsky, and Artur Fonvizin. Often referred to as “the three Fs,” these artists had been active in the pre-WWII avant-garde and inspired many nonconformist artists of the postwar generation.
Favorsky, considered by many to be the most influential book design and woodcut print artist in the Soviet Union, had a significant impact on the young Vassiliev, who visited his mentor regularly from 1957 to 1959. Vassiliev’s early work demonstrates Favorsky’s lessons, which are particularly evident in Metro, a series of skillful linocuts that Vassiliev produced between 1961 and 1962. The energy of these scenes captures commuters and city dwellers in a fast-paced rhythm that would be familiar in any cosmopolitan city.
Vassiliev experimented with the perception of space beginning early in his career and his style was fully evolved by the time of the 1965 painting A House on the Island Anzer. The artist often stated that, with this work, he first found his own voice in art and as he continued to focus on the interaction of surface, space, and light, he developed artistic strategies that would reappear throughout his career. Early examples in the exhibition include paintings from the series Spaces (1968). These works showcase Vassiliev’s space, a pictorial plane formed by the spectral dissolution of light, revealing the artist’s principles of a special construction that allowed him to transform the painterly plane. Works from this series are shown alongside paintings from the 1990s and early 2000s, a time when he returned to the spatial experiments of his early career.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, Vassiliev began to incorporate figures into his specially constructed spaces. His first large-scale painting, Diagonal (Self-Portrait) from 1977, shows the artist at the center of the canvas, facing the viewer with outstretched arms, standing at the symbolic intersection of contrasting spaces. Black diagonal planes represent the darkness that obscures the details of life; like wings, they radiate from his shoulders, to the left and the right, expanding infinitely beyond the edges of the canvas. Above and below the figure, white space embodies endless energy; it becomes a light that elicits glimpses of consciousness or impressions from the past.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Vassiliev continued to combine this “spectral space” from his earlier works with elements of reality. The realist images seem to form a semi-translucent film on the surface of these works, in Vassiliev’s words, “like a leaf on a surface of water.” The figures in By the River (1972–75), Kira II (1975), and Autumn Portrait (1981), for example, inhabit common, rural landscapes. However, these scenes seem to exist in the murky world that emerges between dreaming and waking; a world that everyone has experienced at some, but is not easily described.
In 1990, Vassiliev left Moscow for New York and his interest in using space and light to convey his most treasured memories became more imperative after his immigration. The spectral space of his paintings was transformed into a foggy white light that envelops houses, roads and fields; friends and family members. Vassiliev often interpreted it as the “light of consciousness,” which reveals fragments of the past.
Two works at the end of the exhibition express Vassiliev’s personal experiences that evoke the universality of nostalgia. With a title that consciously refers to Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past (1993) shows the artist contemplatively sitting at the front of a painting – a drink in his hand, the bottle and a newspaper at his feet. In the distance behind him, a building becomes a composite of ancient ruins and an architectural rendering for something in the future. In Memory of Kira (2011) his wife, who had died in 2010, walks away from the shore (as well as the viewer and the artist) into the ocean. But before she disappears, she pauses in the center of the ethereal light that her husband spent more than 50 years portraying.
Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union:
Over the last two decades, 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 began entering the Zimmerli’s holdings. The recently refurbished 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 edited by Alla Rosenfeld, published by the Zimmerli Art Museum and Prestel (Munich/Berlin/London/New York, 2011).
The exhibition is made possible by the Avenir Foundation Endowment Fund, with additional support from the Thickman Family Foundation and donors to the Zimmerli’s Annual Exhibition Fund: Voorhees Family Endowment; Alvin and Joyce Glasgold; Keith E. McDermott, RC’ 66; Charles and Caryl Sills; and the 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.
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The Zimmerli’s operations, exhibitions, and programs are funded in part by Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and income from the Avenir Foundation Endowment and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation 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.