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Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid Photo

Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid

Russian Painters, Sculptors, and Conceptual Artists

Started: Vitaly Komar: September 11, 1943; Alexander Melamid: December 8, 1945 - Moscow, Russia - Moscow, Russia
Movements and Styles:
Socialist Realism
,
Dada
,
Conceptual Art
,
Pop Art
"No one would ask of life, "Is it all serious or all a joke?" because tragedy and comedy coexist in one life. You cannot separate and say it is all one or all the other. It is same with this work, with all our work: it is serious and humorous at the same time."
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Joint Statement
"I think a chronology is the only context for understanding art."
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Vitaly Komar
"The original idea of socialism was to create friendship between nations, very close to early Christianity. But in the end it became war."
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Vitaly Komar
"You know irony can be spiritual."
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Vitaly Komar
"Having lived half a lifetime in Moscow and half a lifetime in New York, I can refer to mass culture in the Soviet Union as the 'advertising of ideology', while in the West it is the 'propaganda of consumerism'."
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Vitaly Komar
"Now we paint differently. You know the propaganda cliche: we emigrate and become free, and now we can paint all week, without interruption, without weekends. Every day became Sunday, but you're working every day. No free time, that's because you're free."
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Joint Statement
"Perhaps every artist secretly and unconsciously dreams that his/her work will be destroyed at the hands of its viewers."
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Vitaly Komar
"Through Stalin art we could recreate our childhood."
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Vitaly Komar

Summary of Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid

Dubbed by one American critic, "exasperating expatriates", Komar and Melamid gained their first taste of success - or notoriety - as underground artists who subverted the political and cultural systems of their native Soviet Union. They were founders of the Sots Art movement, a blend of Socialist Realism, Dada, Conceptualism and Pop Art, that parodied the propagandist culture of Stalinist communism. Having fully tested the patience of the Soviet authorities - "We have deconstructed Socialist Realism as an ideology and discovered it as an art," declared Melamid - they were driven into exile in the United States where, to much initial acclaim, they retuned the dials of Sots Art to examine the delicacies of American art and society. Thought of firstly as cultural dissenters, their work allowed for a further layer of meaning to emerge through both men's fascination with the vagaries of childhood memory.

Accomplishments

  • Sots Art took the visual and thematic traits of Socialist Realism and treated these with an ironic distortion. The pair candidly ridiculed the Soviet State in a way that exposed the false utopianism that was the defining feature of its ideology. Komar summed up the goals of Sots Art when he stated: "If Pop Art was born by the overproduction of things and their advertising, then Sots Art was born of the overproduction of ideology and its propaganda, including visual propaganda".
  • The work of Komar and Melamid often evokes the theme of childhood memory. However, their Sots Art pieces do little more than allude to the red banners and Socialist symbols that provided the visual backdrop to their youth. This premise elevated the work above the sphere of irony and parody by invoking the philosophical enigma that is the elusiveness of capturing an authentic memory.
  • Arguably the pair's most famous work was a project entitled "The People's Choice" that they produced having emigrated to the United States. Tackling the idea that modern art was elitist and failed to cater to popular tastes, they commissioned a survey that polled Americans on their artistic preferences. Based on these findings they executed a series of "most wanted" and "least wanted" paintings. The resultant works were somewhat absurdist and thereby parodied what they saw as America's obsession with polling.
  • A recurrent theme to emerge in the work was that of the surrogate, or symbolic, father. This showed itself in the idea of the "cult of personality" and in this respect they lampooned, not only Stalin, but their newly adopted father, George Washington, too. Through their American Dreams project, for instance, they presented a range of portraits, readymades and collectables that deconstructed the myth of America's founding father ("stepfather George" as the Russian duo referred to him) just as they had deconstructed the myth of the former Soviet dictator.

Biography of Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid

Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid Life and Legacy

Speaking of the logic of working collaboratively, Komar and Melamid maintained that even the "artist who imagines himself to be like God [is] working in collaboration with his teachers, his predecessors, craftsmen who created his canvas and paints - just as God created the world with the help of angels".

Important Art by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid

Quotation (1972)

This composition features 166 white cubes on a red canvas background. It represents text arranged in 14 superimposed horizontal lines and encased in double quotation marks. At the bottom right of the 166 cubes, there are a further 8 smaller white cubes where one would normally expect to find the signature of the author of a quoted text. Although the painting is formally quite simple, it carries strong connotative meanings.

Quotation is an early example of Sots-Art, a term coined by Komar and Melamid in 1972 to describe a movement that critiqued the propagandist art of the Soviet Union (Sots being an abbreviation of Socialism). With this piece the artists evoke the slogan banners that were abundant in the Soviet Union during their childhoods. While the red background and the use of white for the written message remain faithful to many Soviet banners, Komar and Melamid have replaced actual letters with meaningless geometric forms, thereby neutralizing the propogandist potency of such slogans. By deconstructing the banner in this way, Komar and Melamid are attempting to lay bare the insidious mechanism of the propagandist poster art and its "blank" ideology. As the author Juan Carlos Betancourt argues, the painting "deconstructs the void over which the Soviet political rhetoric hovered", namely a rhetoric which espoused triumphant slogans meant to inspire a vision of a future utopia. The white abstract cubes also recalls the work of avant-gardists such as Kazimir Malevich who produced the type of abstractions that the Stalin administration took such exception to in the first place.

It has also been noted that the work evokes the idea of childhood memory. As Professor and Art Historian Allison Leigh-Perlman observed, the white cubes only evoke the "impression of a red banner" and thus point to "the vagueness of memory itself".

A Catalogue of Superobjects: Supercomfort for Superpeople (1976)

Composed of loose-leaf form, this Sots-Art work is a parody of an American mail-order catalogue advertising thirty six "objects" for sale. Each item is named after a Russian "buzzword" and is presented with promotional text and a photograph of a model. The objects on offer are not, however, garments or utilities for improved functionality or convenience, but rather unattainable and immaterial qualities such as greater self-confidence, the ability to access one's own true self, and the power to achieve a spiritual connection with others. This page, for instance, advertises Ksushna, an antenna that, when strapped to the head, allows its wearer to attain the feeling of an "invisible ideal" which, as the art historian and curator Ksenya Gurshtein suggests is "inexpressible in human language".

By portraying consumer goods that promised to deliver so much, but which in reality were just absurd and useless objects, Komar and Melamid were parodying the Soviet Union's empty promises of a Socialist utopia. Their blatant assault on the State's visual culture and its dominant role in Soviet life - in Komar's words it was "imposed on the people by a totalitarian elite" that merely advertised an "ideology" - is veiled (albeit rather thinly) through humour and playfulness. In fact, Komar called Sots Art a form of "'self-cleansing' from the hypnosis of Soviet propaganda and, primarily, a cleansing from oneself", and which was, "above all, a 'self-irony', with the idols not outside of us, but within us".

American art critic Marc Fields wrote that "Pathos [...] becomes most evident in the 'Sots Art' pieces because of the underlying assumption that American advertising and Soviet state propaganda are equivalent. This equation was somewhat useful to the artists since it blatantly devalued their government's ideological articulations. Here [in America], however, it tends to reassure those [of us] who would like to go on believing that we "engage" in ideology, just as we engage in any other social activity - that we may choose to ignore or disregard it just as we supposedly do with advertising".

Double Self-Portrait as Young Pioneers (1982-3)

At first glance, the viewer could be forgiven for thinking that the artists' were supporters of Stalin and his regime. But the absurd placement of the adult faces on the bodies of children quickly repels that suggestion. Komar and Melamid are wearing blue shorts, white shirts, rendered yellowish by the light emanating from the top left of the painting, and red neckerchiefs. This was the uniform of the "Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization" (simply "Young Pioneers") which was a youth organization (similar to the Scouting organizations in the West) that promoted communist values, and which ran between 1922 and 1991.

The pair stand upright and salute a bronze bust of Stalin, visible in the top left corner of the painting and illuminated by a mysterious source of golden light. On the right, Melamid raises his right hand to his head in salute; his left arm is glued to his side, evoking a sense of military discipline. Komar on the other hand stands with his open legs forming a triangle and with his left hand on his hip. His right arm holds a trumpet which he blows into the bust's left ear. The painting features typical communist iconography (such as red banners and drapery) but this is overridden by satirical and ironical elements. The bust of Stalin, for instance, sits on a comically tall plinth/support while his elevated sense of self-importance is reinforced by the godly light. The bust's ridiculous distance from the ground is further emphasised by the stacked furniture on which the man/boys are stood. The red drapery hung clumsily over the furniture slips away in places, thus revealing the makeshift supports underneath.

Seen as a whole narrative, Komar and Melamid's comical attempt to reach the height of the bust represents the fact that a communist utopia is out of reach, rather like castles in the sky. The curator Andrei Erofeev suggested, however, that Sots Art was possibly "too extreme" for Western tastes. He wrote, to "the art market, collectors, and any self-respecting audience [...] Komar and Melamid offer eccentricity and giggling of some vague incomprehensible author". There is, he argued, "some discomforting aloofness about them that many people in America define as a Russian look".

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
  • No image available
    Igor Shelkovsky
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    Oleg Vassiliev
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    llia and Emilia Kabakov
Artists
Friends & Personal Connections
Movements & Ideas
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    Post-Soviet Aesthetic Fashion
  • No image available
    Chinese Avant-Garde Art
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd

"Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd
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First published on 07 Apr 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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