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Hannelore Fobo

Timur Novikov's New Artists Lists

October 2018

page 3The New Artists as an artists collective

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page 3 • The New Artists as an artists collective

Artists production collectives were a typical phenomenon of the early Soviet period. An example is the “Prokoll” (Проколл — Производственный коллектив студентов-композиторов Московской консерватории / The Production Collective of Students of Composition at the Moscow conservatory), which existed from 1925 to 1929. This doesn’t necessarily mean that works as such were produced collectively – it simply means that a number of individuals sharing similar ideas or a similar ideology join to create more favourable conditions for their work. In socio-economic terms, they provide each other with means of production, while the product as such may remain individual.

In the case of the New Artists, collective works actually did reflect collective authorship: “The New Artists work collectively in practically all fields of art, including collaboratively produced pictures, books, conceptual pieces, theatre and music and literature. This collective work involves not only members, but also other artists, musicians, strangers and passersby.” (New Artists, p. 107; text no 2). It seems that we simply need to know who produced those collective works in order to compile a lineup that is more exact than Novikov’s notes or recollections.

As long as such works are signed, this shouldn’t be a problem, because artists never signed their collective works with the group’s name New Artists, but always with their individual signatures. Yet a signature doesn’t reveal a specific person’s contribution to the whole. The larger the number of contributors, the higher the chances that some might have contributed with a quantité négligeable, a negligible amount. For instance, in 2011, the painting “Beach”, dated “1980s”, was exhibited at Moscow based gallery Panoptikum Inutero as a collective work by Viktor Tsoy, Oleg Kotelnikov and Andrey Medvedev. A picture from the exhibition shows the front of the painting bearing the signatures of all three artists. In 2013, the same painting was exhibited in Saint Petersburg at the exhibition “ASSA”, dedicated to the New Artists. The painting now displayed some new features: a signature “Afrika”, Sergei Bugaev’s artist name, and an inscription “ASSA” on top of an earlier inscription placed on a little flag more >>. New artist Sergei Bugaev organised this exhibition. In all likelihood, he found it appropriate to stress his contribution to the group by adding his name and logo to a collective work by three prominent New artists – almost thirty years after it had been executed.

The problem gains another aspect with those collective works remaining unsigned – e.g. theatre performances or musical improvisations. By their very nature, the performing genres are related to collective actions, and because of personal relations between the New artists, a certain degree of collaboration with each other established itself naturally and spontaneously. Still, how should we distinguish a simple gathering of friends horsing around from a “real” performance?

In some instances, like with an “unnamed” meeting of Novikov, Kozlov, Alakhov, Verichev and the young Dutchman Yohann in the spring of 1985, the difference lies in that Kozlov documented the meeting with his camera, printed and painted several pictures and used them as sketches for his paintings (“Timur on Horseback”, “When you Start Feeling Muscles”, and “Terror to the Enemy”) more >>. This upgraded the encounter to the rank of a performance with four New artists and one “other artist”.

However we look at it, we must recognise the fact that New artists “created” a collective action not every time they did something together, and further, that they participated in collective actions sometimes, but not all the time – more exactly, if they did, only some did, but not all. Finally, we must “somehow” decide whether or not everyone else participating in such a collective action would become a New artist, as well, or whether they remained “other artists, musicians, strangers and passersby”.

This brings us back to the circular argument from the previous chapter: we need to know who the New Artists were in order to define a collective work, and we need to know which were their collective works in order to define the New Artists.

Suppose we find a definition, then immediately the next question arises: just how many members of the group were needed to call a collective action not simply a performance, but a New Artists’ performance?

The answer is: it all depends. In case of doubts, Novikov (and those speaking in his name) possessed the power of naming. With respect to the zero object, we have seen that two out of five were enough. It was actually produced by the smallest collective conceivable – a collective made up by two members, Novikov and Sotnikov. “Two” allows us to speak of the zero object as a collective work and thus infer from it the birth of the New Artists, whether as an association, group or movement – in the context of a collective, such a distinction becomes redundant. If either Novikov or Sotnikov alone had claimed authorship for “the hole in the wall”, this wouldn’t have worked. But “two” worked, although Novikov later spoke of five founding members, and three of them were not involved in the action.

At the New Theatre performances, their number was certainly larger. I already quoted Novikov: “The entire New Artists collective worked on the performance, which is indeed a collective work.” (New Artists, p. 107; text no 2). In the light of Novikov’s stylistic idiosyncrasies, this should not be taken too literally. “The entire” may be understood as “quite a few”. To be a member of the New Artists “collective” didn’t necessarily mean showing oneself on stage. Kirill Khazanovich, for instance, is not documented with any of the performances from 1984-1986.

Valery Cherkasov, who died in 1984 was even made a New artist posthumously. Novikov included Cherkassov’s works into the “Happy New Year” exhibition in December 1985, the group’s first public solo show. In his text from 1985 ”New Trends in the Contemporary Painting of the New Artists“, Novikov writes “Valery Cherkasov was not a member of the New Artists, but he did much for the new art both theoretically and practically”(New Artists, p. 34; text no 1).

The degree of New artists’ involvement in collective actions was not only highly varying, but as we see, participating in a collective action was not always a prerequisite for this artist to become a New artist – unless we call an exhibition a collective action. As a matter of fact, Novikov explained that collective work “contributed to the creation of the association” (New Artists, 2012, p. 35; text 1). As a contribution, it wasn’t the sole criterion for the creation of the association.

In view of Novikov’s enthusiasm for collective art, should we establish the priority collective art over individual art for the New artists?

In my opinion, their individually created works are receiving much more attention than their collective works, whether from art-critics, public, or collectors – not only because such works surpass collective works in numbers, but because artists are first and foremost appreciated for their individual contribution to the world of art. Once we know their individual art, we take pleasure in rediscovering it in a collective work, but not vice versa. It might be different with an artists collective made up of one prominent figure and several newcomers, but this was definitely not the case with the New Artists. I would therefore call their collective work a “side-line job” and their individual work the “main job”.

Strictly speaking, Novikov confronts us with two different approaches. One represents the imitation of an institutional approach “framing” an artists collective. It is different from a typical artists collective in that Novikov alone took the initiative to define it and to name artists. His position can be compared to that of a theatre director engaging actors on the basis of their individual merits – once they sign a contract, they have become lifetime members of the collective, regardless of whether they actually appear on stage or not (although the audience would expect to see them at regular intervals).

The second approach is anti-institutional, spontaneous. It defines the collective afresh with each collective event or exhibition, admitting accidental contributors, for instance at a New Theatre performance: the lineup is fickle.

Novikov blended both approaches together, which allowed him to keep the lineup growing, albeit diffuse. In fact, the lineup had to possess an unlimited potential; this was part of the Novikov’s ambition to challenge the authorities.   

On the other hand, the principle of merit is an elitist concept. Not everybody is an eligible candidate according to the requirements of a revolution. It was not enough to be named by Novikov. To achieve some kind of group identity, just as important was acceptance of one’s professional qualities by fellow artists. Members needed to be recognised as members by other members. Novikov’s statement “This collective work involves not only members, but also other artists, musicians, strangers and passersby” expresses the concept of members as opposed to non-members.

It therefore proved to be impossible to keep the lineup growing without releasing centrifugal forces: if everybody is a New artist, then no one is a New Artist. Towards the end of the 1980s, the “collective” – group / association / movement – might have fallen apart just the same, either because it had reached its natural lifespan, or because Novikov grew tired of it. But because the institutional approach was a fake, there was nothing to stop this process, especially after Novikov decided to create a “real” fake institution, the “New Academy of Fine Arts”. Interestingly, two late exhibitions (1989 and 1990) of the New Artists were organised by New York art dealer Paul Judelson under the label “Club of Friends of Mayakovsky”. Pop culture demands strong labels, and “Mayakovsky” was a more suitable brand to bring Soviet art to the market than “New Artists”.

On the following pages, I will examine the New Artists from the point of view of the institutional and the anti-institutional approach. With the help of Novikov’s articles, texts and speeches, I will establish a narrower category for the New Artists as a group and proceed from group to the less defined movement. In other words, I will substitute the term “collective” with either “group” or “movement”. Thus, the institutional approach can be linked to the group, and the anti-institutional one to the movement. The third category, “association” (and, likewise, “society”), plays a minor role. It is impracticable to distinguish between all three categories with mathematical exactness, but at least group and movement stand at the opposite sides of a scale representing various degrees of inner cohesion. Such a differentiation enables us to partly dissolve the ambiguities regarding the New Artists’ structure.

We can now attempt a periodization, anticipating the conclusions of the following chapters:

1982-1984 – The emergence of the New Artists as a group

1984-1986 – The group’s growth and consolidation through a number of collective actions including  “other artists, musicians, strangers and passersby”

1986-1987 – Novikov’s creation of institutional-like organisations with multiple sections reflects the expansion of the group into a movement. (Whether these institutions had any identity of their own needs to be discussed separately.)

1987-1989 – Having established themselves as a brand, the New Artists are having their first large national and international exhibitions, and at the height of recognition, cease to exist as a group and movement. 

1989-1991 – A late period producing a few new group activities – in the main, “Pirate Television”. Kozlov’s “Collection 2x3m” (starting 1990) is another project in the spirit of New Artists collective works, but it had a broader approach.

Although Novikov produced contradictory statements throughout his texts and speeches, my thesis is that, taken together, these texts suggest that only visual artists should be ascribed to the narrower category of the New Artists group, and that the New Artists group reflects the New Artists proper. My second thesis is that the New Artists had consolidated as a group of visual artists by 1985/1986, and that its lineup of visual artists was still very much in effect towards the end of the 1980s, shortly before its break-up.

These theses stand in obvious contrast to the sentence from the flyer quoted above “The New Artists are more a movement than a group.” (Новые художники — скорее движение, чем группа, Brushstroke, p. 33). But this sentence was written no earlier than 1988, at a time when, in Novikov’s view, the movement had engulfed the group.

After presenting a general outline of the Leningrad subculture of the 1980s, followed by a classification of the texts used, I will expound why I have come to this conclusion.

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© Hannelore Fobo, uploaded 29 October 2018
Last updated 28 May 2020