Closing March 29: Odessa's Second Avant-Garde Focuses on Nonconformist Artists, 1960s to 1980s

February 19, 2015 (updated)


Odessa: Myth – and Reality – in Art from the Dodge Collection  at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers


New Brunswick, NJ – The first exhibition at the Zimmerli devoted to artists from Ukraine, “Odessa's Second Avant-Garde: City and Myth,” focuses on nonconformist artists who worked in this fabled seaport on the Black Sea from the 1960s through the late 1980s. On view at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers through March 29, 2015, these paintings, works on paper, and collages express the independent spirit of this Ukrainian city. Artists and writers have gravitated to Odessa for more than two centuries, finding inspiration in the dreamlike city. They disregarded politics and artistic conventions, cultivating an atmosphere that has captivated people around the world. Even in light of current events in Ukraine, Odessa stands as an example of a city capable of uniting citizens whose cultures, languages, and opinions differ, but who share the humor and lightheartedness attributed to this seaside town.


“As a cosmopolitan harbor at the far edge of the Russian Empire, Odessa embraced residents and transplants from distinct backgrounds – Jewish, Ukrainian, Greek, Russian – and united them in their creative pursuits,” observes Olena Martynyuk, a Dodge Fellow at the Zimmerli and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Art History at Rutgers, who organized the exhibition. “These artists experimented together, searching for a local identity that combined diverse ethnicities and cultures, as well as an understanding of their place in the broader context of art history. In contrast to the harsh social and political circumstances throughout the Soviet Union at the time, the sunny climate of Odessa became – and continues to be – a metaphor for autonomy and possibility.”


During the late 1950s and early 1960s – in the post-Stalinist, more liberal era known as Khrushchev’s Thaw – many artists from Odessa began to challenge the petrified style of Socialist Realism that had dominated Soviet art institutions since 1932. Artists were inspired by the saturated colors and Mediterranean ambiance, which was enhanced by the city’s origins as an ancient Greek settlement. They also drew inspiration from the early 20th-century achievements of the radically innovative Russian avant-garde and rediscovered local avant-garde traditions.


Yuri Egorov was the recognized leader of this early generation. He had studied painting in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia, then returned to teach art in Odessa. While maintaining his official position, Egorov encouraged his students to experiment outside the confines of academic realism, as they sought to depict the very essence of Odessa. One of his students, Aleksandr Freidin, captures a contemplative mood in his 1978 painting “At the Window.” In it, a featureless figure stands in a sun-filled room, with a clear blue sky and seemingly endless horizon outside the portal, apparently lost in thought. Another painting from the same year, “Reflection of the City” by Lucien Dulfan, embodies the city’s mythic reputation. Though reflected in the Black Sea, this distant, otherworldly cityscape seems to float in space, a world apart from its surrounding homeland and neighboring Soviet republics.


Distanced from the capitals of Kiev and Moscow, artists in Odessa enjoyed a tightly knit community, yet were not confined to a singular ideology or style. During the 1970s, apartment exhibitions became an underground outlet for sharing new work, as many artists in Odessa resisted any association with official affiliations. In addition to experiencing these “deviant” works of art, participants and guests enjoyed the prohibited diversions of jazz records and western art books. This briefly resurrected culture of the Odessa café-cabaret (which had flourished at the turn of the 20th century) even attracted official artists as visitors, who risked their jobs to be part of such fashionable happenings.   


The apartment of painter Liudmyla Yastreb and her husband Viktor Mariniuk became one of the central locations for these artistic salons. Encouraged by the reception of Yastreb’s 1979 triptych “NON,” these artists began to refer to themselves as “nonconformists,” venturing into the forbidden territory of abstraction, as well as incorporating ready-made and found objects. Yastreb experimented with light and transformation of the form in the paintings “Old Bottles” (dated 1971) and “Big Pyramid” (1978), which burst with bold colors and dynamic compositions. Before her death in 1981, she also developed a feminist approach to the body and organized other women artists in the city.


The last generation of nonconformist artists in Odessa focused on conceptual art throughout the 1980s. Because conceptual art bypasses traditional media techniques and does not strive to solve classic painterly problems, it was a natural progression for Odessa’s artistic milieu, already familiar with non-standard media. Sergei Anufriev, who had grown up among the apartment salons of his parents Aleksandr Anufriev and Margarita Zharkova, carried on the legacy. In addition to five of Anufriev’s solo works on paper (and one painting by his father), the exhibition includes several of his mixed media pieces as part of the collective Inspection Medical Hermeneutics, which he formed with Yuri Leiderman and Pavel Pepperstein. The group treated ideological phenomena – such as fascism or communism – as private schizophrenic deliriums that could be “treated” through conversation, in a manner similar to Freudian psychoanalysis. They conceived their artwork as illustrations to their texts, and vice versa, commenting on the correlation between image and word, a relationship important to conceptual art globally.


These artists continued their artistic resistance to official Socialist Realist dogma even as many began migrating to other cities. Many of them became integrated into Moscow’s unofficial art world, sharing display practices and theoretical interests. Inspection Medical Hermeneutics is now considered part of the Moscow Conceptualist canon. Still, Odessa’s version of conceptualism exhibited unique traits and maintained an independent spirit. It was considered more playful and surreal, with Odessa’s vitality juxtaposed against Moscow’s cool intellectualism. And this pervasive image of the exotic, sunny city further reinforced the myth of Odessa.


“The Zimmerli is very fortunate to house and develop exhibitions from the acclaimed Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art. These works represent not only a pivotal period in the 20th century, but remain relevant as visitors try to make sense of complex relationships among nations around the world,” states Marti Mayo, the Zimmerli’s interim director.


“Odessa's Second Avant-Garde: City and Myth” was organized by Olena Martynyuk, Dodge Fellow at the Zimmerli and Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Art History at Rutgers. The exhibition and related programs are made possible by the Avenir Foundation Endowment Fund, with additional support from Arts Trend Company.


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 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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