Faces Behind the Art: Photos of Soviet Nonconformist Artists from the Dodge Collection

November 4, 2013

The Faces Behind the Art: Photos of Soviet Nonconformist Artists

from the Dodge Collection at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers


New Brunswick, NJ – A new photography exhibition at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University provides a rare opportunity to see the personal side of Soviet nonconformist artists who risked social, political, and economic repercussions in their quests for freedom of expression during the Cold War period. “Artists’ Portraits: Putting a Face to the Name,” on view through April 6, 2014, invites viewers to peer into the eyes of these artists, as well as glimpse at the people and places in their lives. More than 30 works are drawn from the Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, spotlighting artists whose works are on view at the Zimmerli.

Taken by photographers who were close friends of the artists, the portraits in this exhibition provide insight into the subjects' personalities and friendships, often featuring the artists in their studios. “Most of these portraits were taken by Igor Palmin and Lev Melikhov, presenting perspectives from two different generations,” explains Julia Tulovsky, Associate Curator of Russian and Soviet Nonconformist Art at the Zimmerli, who organized the exhibition. She continues, “Palmin’s images capture an interior view of his subjects who worked against the restrictions on art imposed by the Communist regime. Melikhov’s photographs tend to serve as historical documents more than a decade later, as the Soviet Union began to dissolve in the 1980s.”

Involved in nonconformist circles since the 1960s, Igor Palmin (born 1933) is now considered one of the key Russian photographers who reflected on an era that often is unfamiliar to younger generations. His close ups and large format prints give monumental scale to even the most mundane activities, testaments to his sitters’ perseverance through restrictive times.

Palmin’s 1972 photograph of Evgenii Rukhin (1943-1976), the influential painter and activist in Leningrad’s alternative art scene, shows the artist kneeling over art materials, seemingly contemplating his next step. Known for his abilities to organize other underground artists and illegally befriend foreigners who helped bring nonconformist art to the rest of the world, Rukhin’s defiant artwork and activities took tolls on his mind and body. Palmin compares this photograph of the artist to earlier ones: “Here, I see again the Rukhin I met in 1968, the person he used to conceal later behind a demonstration of happiness and stick-on smile.” Rukhin met an untimely death not much later, during a studio fire in 1976.

In the late 1970s, when Soviet emigration was at a peak, Palmin made it an unofficial tradition to photograph his nonconformist artist friends – including Lydia Masterkova, Oscar Rabin, and Ernst Neizvestny – the night before their departures. His 1975 photograph of Masterkova (1929-2008), one of the most significant women artists of Soviet nonconformism, shows her with downcast eyes, looking away from the camera. She appears to be already emotionally and physically drained from her daunting journey – a contrast from his earlier photographs of her, which captured a “strong and independent artist, who knew what she wanted.”

Lev Melikhov (born 1951) belongs to a younger generation and his images have become unique documents of the Soviet Union’s final years. For him, the nonconformist artists of the 1960s and 1970s were mentors and living legends. He began his series of artist portraits in the late 1980s, when many of the nonconformists were immigrating to Western Europe, Israel, and the United States. Melikhov often represented the artists in ways that resembled their artworks or in the intimate spaces of their studios and homes.

Melikhov’s straightforward photograph of Eduard Gorokhovsky (1980s) is particularly poignant because the tradition of portraiture was very important to the latter artist. Beginning in the 1970s, Gorokhovsky appropriated and montaged disparate photographs into his paintings and prints, which critically comment upon the conflicting social, political, and economic forces that shaped the Soviet Union. He was particularly interested in 19th-century studio portraits of individuals and families. Symbolic of a pre-Revolutionary Russian bourgeois society, these portraits were the starting point for a revolution that culminated in brutal Stalinism and the broader quality of life crises. Gorokhovsky often altered his photo-based images, disturbing compositional unity and evoking reactions from viewers.

In Melikhov’s photograph of Vladimir Yankilevsky (1987), the artist is pictured against the backdrop of his well-known work “Pentaptych No. 2: Adam and Eve” (1980), which currently overlooks both levels of the Zimmerli’s Dodge Wing. This eight-foot-long, five-panel, multi-media installation combines authentic Soviet doors, doorbells, mailboxes, and clothing salvaged from communal apartments. Yankilevsky also incorporated what he has termed “cosmic landscapes,” or abstract color fields dotted by futuristic, machine parts. This juxtaposition of two opposing worlds characterizes many of the artist’s works and comments about the alienation of individuals and the distortion of reality in Soviet society.

“We are very fortunate to house the acclaimed Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection, with its diverse array of artists, which allows visitors and students to examine a pivotal period in the 20th century through rich, visual resources and personal accounts that are not found in text books,” states Suzanne Delehanty, the Zimmerli’s director.

“Artists’ Portraits: Putting a Face to the Name” complements “Striking Resemblance: The Changing Art of Portraiture,” opening January 25, 2014, at the Zimmerli. Spanning two centuries and surveying 130 works by approximately 80 artists from around the world, this upcoming exhibition presents an innovative exploration about the enduring subject of portraiture.

“Artists’ Portraits: Putting a Face to the Name” and related programs are supported by the Avenir Foundation Endowment Fund.

The Curator

The exhibition is curated by Julia Tulovsky, Ph.D., Associate Curator for Russian and Soviet Nonconformist Art, Zimmerli Art Museum. She also curated the major exhibition “Leonid Sokov: Ironic Objects,” on view at the Zimmerli through December 31, 2013, and contributed the essay “Catharsis through Laughter: Popular Culture and the Art of Leonid Sokov” to the 2013 book “Leonid Sokov: Sculpture, Painting, Objects, Installations, Documents, Articles.” Tulovsky is a specialist in modern and contemporary Russian art, with a Ph.D. from Moscow State University. Before joining the staff of the Zimmerli in 2007, she 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), which the Zimmerli co-published with Prestel, a member Verlagsgruppe Random House GmbH.

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. Founded in 1966 to serve the campus and community, the Zimmerli is now one of the nation’s largest and most distinguished university-based art museums, located in a 70,000-square-foot building 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 programs 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 on 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.


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