‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying, and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’ Gramsci’s famous dictum, written in his prison notebook in 1930,footnote1 seems to describe two apparently disparate situations—the Soviet Union, plunged into its long succession crisis, which began after the death of Stalin, and now entering an unpredictable and chaotic new phase; and (in the West) the succession crisis of a dying modernism, whose ‘great variety of morbid symptoms’ have been given the provisional name of ‘post-modernism’. The two are intimately linked, however, in the trajectory of Komar & Melamid, two Soviet artists, formed in the post-Stalin epoch, who arrived in New York just in time to find themselves potential ‘postmodernists’. In fact, their artistic careers are now more or less evenly divided in extent between the Soviet Union and the United States. They date their first collaborative work from 1965, when they were both students at the Stroganov Institute of Art and Design in Moscow; they left the Soviet Union twelve years later, in 1977, and (after a year in Israel) arrived in New York in 1978.footnote2

In the Soviet Union, modernism was brutally expunged by Stalin. However, it would be misleading to see the Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s as simply an extension of the Western avant-gardes of the same period. As I have argued elsewhere,footnote3 modernism must itself be seen in the context of cultural ‘Americanism’ (or its underlying substrate, ‘Fordism’, the reorganization of factory labour by Henry Ford which made modern mass production possible and thus fuelled the upsurge of a more productive us capitalism). The emblematic imagery of the assembly line, the power house, the chronometer and the robot all reflect this fascination. But the fantastic prospect of ‘Americanism’ was naturally more pronounced the further a nation was, practically and historically, from its real possibility; the more recent its own industrialization. In England, home of the first industrial revolution, the avant-garde hardly existed. In France, alongside Le Corbusier and Léger, we find an anti-Fordist avant-garde led by Breton; in Germany, the expressionists were ousted from their prewar dominance by the impact of the ‘Fordist’ Bauhaus. In the Soviet Union, the avant-garde was the most militant of all, dominated by the imagery of construction, production, engineering, the machine and the factory, to the extent, in many cases, of abandoning art altogether for industrial design or publicity. This was the avant-garde of Mayakovsky, Tatlin, Vertov, Rodchenko and others, which Stalin so ruthlessly suppressed.

The irony, of course, was that Stalin himself was committed to his own brand of Fordism, as a model for the industrialization of the Soviet Union and his project of ‘catching up with the West’. Indeed, he revered Henry Ford, invited his engineers, his management specialists and his architects to the Soviet Union, and commissioned them to build no less than 521 factories, beginning with a tractor plant in Stalingrad in 1930. This mammoth task of ‘Fordization’, led by Albert Kahn and his brother Moritz, lasted just over two years, concluding triumphantly in 1933 with the completion of the giant works at Cheliabinsk.footnote4 However, Stalin was not interested in ‘Americanizing’ art. Though he could make use of phrases defining artists as ‘engineers of the human soul’, he wanted a realist form of art, fully integrated with the ideological apparatus of the Party. The trinity of ‘Party, Ideology and People’ was proclaimed, simply transposing the tsarist model of ‘Autocracy, Orthodoxy and Nation’, just as the academic institutions, styles and shibboleths of absolutism were also revived.footnote5

Thus, by a strange paradox, Stalin’s project was to combine a Fordist industrial revolution in the base with a neo-tsarist cultural counter-revolution in the superstructure, freezing Soviet culture in the nineteenth century, while trying to force Soviet industry into the twenty-first. This dual imperative of accelerating towards the future while reversing towards the past, naturally caused havoc with the Soviet sense of history. Moreover, by a strange by-product of this time warp, modernism in its Soviet form (constructivism, futurism, and so forth) began to recede into the distant past until, by the end of the Stalinist period of super-industrialization, it had become little more than a memory, almost a phantasm. However, because Stalinist industry was simply self-reproducing, building machines to build machines, and factories to build factories, and also increasingly inefficient compared to its Western model, it completely failed to improve the quality of life of its labour force (or even of its managing elite).footnote6 Consequently, the Fordist and futurist vision of the twenties avant-garde also appeared as mythic and even deluded, a kind of messianic utopianism.

After Stalin’s death, there was a gallant attempt by some survivors to reconnect with the twenties. Ilya Ehrenburg, for instance, organized a Picasso exhibition and published his pointed and polemical memoirs. But this attempt to pick up the threads and begin again da capo could not dissolve the effect of the decades of intervening history, the experience of Stalinism and the cultural impoverishment and dislocation it had caused. The years of the ‘thaw’ were marked by cautious and prudent ‘pluralization’ of styles and approaches still under the rubric of ‘Socialist Realism’. The field of permitted subject matter was ‘bravely’ expanded: ‘One only has to recall what a stir [Plastov’s] painting Spring at the Bathhouse (The Old Village) (1954) caused. The new pharisees were shocked by the nude motif.’footnote7 On the other hand, ‘unofficial’ artists began to experiment with expressionist, cubist, and abstract styles, cautiously hopeful about reform as they began to surface publicly in the 1960s, even imagining the possiblity of some future convergence with ‘official’ art. These somewhat superficial hopes were, of course, crushed by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Komar & Melamid, along with Bulatov and Kabakov, belong to the next artistic generation. More pessimistic about reform, the problem that faced them was how to relocate themselves within a non-convergent Soviet history, how best to extricate themselves from the false dilemma of a choice between official art and dehistoricized neo-modernism. It was plain by then, after the post-’68 crackdown, that the prolonged succession crisis was much deeper than the reformist generation of the ‘thaw’ had imagined. It was necessary to move beyond Yevtushenko and Neizvestny, to confront the stabilized crisis in more radical terms, to re-engage with everyday life, which was equally remote both from the rhetoric of official art and from a neo-modernism irreparably robbed of its original utopian energy.

‘We are children of Sots-realism [Socialist Realism] and grandchildren of the avant-garde.’footnote8 Thus Komar & Melamid later encapsulated their heritage. They wanted to confront Socialist Realism, the art in which they had been trained and which still surrounded them, not as a mere style but as an all-embracing ideological presence; not merely ‘high art’ but the pervasive public representation of the Soviet state itself; using, as their inheritance from the avant-garde, not the style of constructivism or suprematism but the stance of rejection and refusal, of alienation. Necessarily, this double acceptance and rejection of Socialist Realism led them towards an art of contradiction, juxtaposition and irony. The same paradoxical juxtaposition exists in different ways in the art of Bulatov and Kabakov: the project of using a false language against itself, in seeking to expose its gaps and elisions, in probing its limits, making it transparent. To a Western eye, this often seems like parody, but if so, it is parody of a serious kind, making ‘virtue of necessity’, as a Soviet friend of mine observed.