Odessa's Second Avant-Garde: City and Myth Opens April 30

April 7, 2014

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 from April 30 to October 19, 2014, 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.”

On April 30, the opening reception begins at 4:30 p.m. Olena Martynyuk leads a tour through the exhibition for which she selected more than 50 works – many on view for the first time in the United States – from the Zimmerli’s Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union. At 6 p.m., Myroslava Mudrak, Professor Emeritus from Ohio State University, presents a lecture on the art of Odessa titled “From Lucidity to Freedom: On Color and Light in the Intrepid Art of Modernist Odessa.” A renowned specialist in Russian and Ukrainian avant-garde art, Mudrak’s studies of unofficial art began during the final years of the Soviet era, which allowed her to witness significant late 20th-century cultural events in Odessa. She is author of “The New Generation and Artistic Modernism in the Ukraine” and “Contemporary Art from the Ukraine: An Exhibition of Paintings, Drawings, Sculpture,” among others. Visitors to the events on April 30 also have an opportunity to meet several of the artists featured in the exhibition.

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.


The Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers invites the public to a program at the Zimmerli on Sunday, September 14. A guided tour of the exhibition “Odessa's Second Avant-Garde: City and Myth” is followed by the lecture "Inventing Odessa: Jewish Culture on the Edge of the Russian Empire" with Olga Litvak, a leading scholar of Jewish Eastern Europe. She explores the powerful connection between the city air of Odessa and the Jewish revival that it inspired. Through the eyes of some of its most famous Jewish residents – both the city’s admirers and detractors – we see how the temptations of Odessa changed the course of Russian-Jewish life. Professor Litvak currently holds the Leffell Chair in Modern Jewish History at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her recent books include “Conscription and the Search for Modern Russian Jewry” (Indiana University Press, 2006) and “Haskalah: The Romantic Movement in Judaism” (Rutgers University Press, 2012).

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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