Russia's Underground Art Finds A Home In The U.S.

Jan 13, 2018
Originally published on January 13, 2018 3:12 pm
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The world's largest collection of Soviet underground art has found a permanent home in New Jersey. A museum at Rutgers has acquired more than 20,000 pieces of art assembled over the course of half a century by a trench coat-wearing American economics professor. Rick Karr reports on the art and the man who collected it.

RICK KARR, BYLINE: The late 1950s was an exciting time for art in the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin was dead and denounced. The thaw was on. And for the first time in decades, artists could openly flout the country's official aesthetic, socialist realism - you know, chiseled proletarians facing a bright socialist future under the protective gaze of Uncle Joe. But according to curator Julia Tulovsky, they couldn't break the rules too openly.

JULIA TULOVSKY: They would organize apartment exhibitions because they were not allowed to exhibit publicly. So they would exhibit in each other's apartment and invite their crowd.

KARR: Most of the art in those apartment shows was abstract, strongly influenced by American abstract expressionism. The critics at the KGB tolerated it, but they didn't like it very much.

TULOVSKY: And there are even rumors that abstract expressionism as a movement in the West was supported, in part, by CIA as a style that would be completely opposite to socialist realism.

KARR: There were also figurative painters. Some got political. There were sculptors and installation artists. The scene produced a Soviet version of pop art. The thing that united all of these artists was that they worked without the blessing of the official Soviet art bureaucracy.

TULOVSKY: They weren't necessarily openly objecting the state or fighting with it. They just wanted to express themselves in the way they wanted to express themselves.

KARR: The artists came to be known as the nonconformists. Americans first learned about them in 1960 when they were the subject of a 12-page feature in Life magazine. It caught the attention of a Harvard Ph.D. candidate in economics named Norton Dodge, whose research focused on labor in the Soviet Union.

CHARLES FICK: Norton felt that the artists were kind of hammering away at the system and creating cracks.

KARR: Charles Fick was Norton Dodge's longtime assistant.

FICK: You know, these cracks would eventually bring down the Soviet Union.

KARR: By the time Norton Dodge passed away, he'd collected nearly 25,000 pieces of Soviet nonconformist art by around 2,000 artists. Dodge could afford all of that art on a college professor salary because his father had been one of Warren Buffett's earliest investors. One of Norton Dodge's favorite nonconformist artists was Evgeny Rukhin, who created brooding abstract compositions with figurative elements - chessboards, playing cards, sewing machines. Charles Fick says Dodge was disturbed by what happened to the artist.

FICK: He liked his art. He liked his story. He liked his personality. And Rukhin perished in a fire. And Norton felt that that was, you know, a deliberate fire and that it was because of his activities in the arts.

KARR: After that, Dodge stopped visiting the Soviet Union. But he didn't stop acquiring art. His widow, Nancy, has now donated the entire collection to Rutgers University's Zimmerli Art Museum. Curator Julia Tulovsky, who oversees the collection there, says Dodge almost singlehandedly saved nearly 50 years of art from the Soviet republics.

TULOVSKY: And I think that this is a real heroic deed in front of Russian culture because why would American professor of economics would be on such a mission? And that's kind of amazing.

KARR: You can find out more about cloak-and-dagger art collector Norton Dodge in the 1994 bestseller "The Ransom Of Russian Art" by John McPhee.

For NPR News, I'm Rick Karr in New Brunswick, N.J. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.