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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."
6 of 8
Joint Statement
"Perhaps every artist secretly and unconsciously dreams that his/her work will be destroyed at the hands of its viewers."
7 of 8
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.

The Life 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

Progression of Art
1972

Quotation

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".

Oil on canvas mounted on board - Private Collection: Ronald and Frayda Feldman

1976

A Catalogue of Superobjects: Supercomfort for Superpeople

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".

Catalogue composed of loose-leaf form - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom

1982-3

Double Self-Portrait as Young Pioneers

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".

Oil on canvas - Martin Sklar

1982-3

Stalin in Front of the Mirror

This painting portrays Stalin kneeling in front of a mirror in the pose that one might adopt when kneeling in front of an altar. However, rather than worshipping a religious icon, Stalin is worshipping his own image. His hands are clasped "in prayer" and there can be no doubt that he is being represented as a narcissist. The rich ("blood") red, the symbolic color of the Communist regime, in the centre of the painting punctuates the neutral dark browns of the composition thereby evoking an unnerving and potentially dangerous undertone. The lack of any other ornament, and the strategic lighting that falls on Stalin's face from the top left, imbues him with a piety usually only reserved for religious icons. Stalin's holiness is however humorously undermined by his oversized bare feet. This satirises the former Soviet leader and his own overblown sense of self-importance.

Komar and Melamid were audacious pranksters of Soviet Socialist Realism, and while they exploited its stylistic features, they brought mockery and humour to ridicule its original objectives. Behind the humour, however, one can find more considered personal memories and reflections. As the American art critic Carter Ratcliff claims in his monograph on the artists, "Komar and Melamid advance into the future through persistent efforts of recollection", while the art critic and philosopher, Boris Groys argues, "they consciously and repeatedly bring the image of repressed Stalinism to the foreground thus highlighting its danger and its seductive potential".

Oil on canvas - Ronald and Frayda Feldman

1995

America's Most Wanted Painting

America's Most Wanted Painting is composed of a seemingly idyllic landscape featuring a lakeside scene, two frolicking deer, a group of three clothed strollers, and George Washington standing firm and upright in the central foreground. At first glance the painting may seem innocuous. However, if one lingers, they may begin to feel unnerved by the deer who appear to be floating on the surface of the water; the three strollers who appear to be aimlessly wandering towards the river, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings; and the anachronistic figure of George Washington whose old-fashioned garb clashes with the more modern dress of the walkers. But perhaps the strangest element of all is the presence of a single hippopotamus whose head peaks out from the vegetation in the left background.

This painting forms part of a project entitled "The People's Choice" that Komar and Melamid produced in the United States after emigrating there in the late 1970s. This project was designed as a satirical comment on the notion that contemporary art was too elitist and did not cater to popular taste. This absurdist painting is a result of cautious polling, statistical analysis, and a witty satirical approach. In 1993 Komar and Melamid hired the survey research firm Marttila & Kiley, Inc. and instructed them to ask 1001 Americans countless questions about their artistic preferences. Then, based on the findings of the survey, Komar and Melamid executed their countrymen's "most wanted" and "least wanted" paintings.

Melamid claimed that he wanted to ascertain exactly what constituted "The American People" and whether he was one of them. As he stated, "to find out the truth about American people, politicians, fraudsters, fundraisers, and pundits use polls. Why not artists?". The polling revealed that 44% of Americans had a preference for the colour blue; 49% preferred outdoor scenes featuring lakes, rivers or oceans; more than 60% said they favoured dishwasher-sized paintings; 51% stated a preference for wild, as opposed to domestic, animals; and 56% said they desired to have historical figures featured in the painting. Although the work should have satisfied all the preferences, the result is unsettling and bizarre and sheds new light on the unreliability and absurdity of polling in political contexts. This painting also shows Komar and Melamid's shift in focus. Here, rather than attacking Soviet Realism and the Soviet propaganda, they parody American politics and its obsession with surveys and polling. After the project's debut, Komar and Melamid were commissioned to poll and paint the most and least wanted paintings of another thirteen countries including France, Turkey, Kenya, Russia and China.

Oil on canvas - Ronald Feldman Gallery

1997

The Wings Will Grow

Having become fully settled as American citizens, Komar and Melamid came to the conclusion that the United States and the old Soviet Union were not so diametrically opposed. In their exhibition, American Dreams, they examined the "cult of personality" around the figure of George Washington, who was, in their view, not different in essence to Stalin or Lenin. They even referred to him rather ironically as "stepfather George". The opening of the show, in 1999, overlapped with the last performance of Maita di Niscemi and Dave Soldier's "multi-media opera", Naked Revolution, for which they designed the sets. The theme of Naked Revolution, in which a Russian taxi driver is "haunted" by the figure of George Washington (as well as Lenin, Marcel Duchamp, Isadora Duncan and Molly Pitcher), was carried over into their American Dreams series.

The exhibition space for American Dreams was divided into two areas: a fabricated office and a conventional gallery. The faux office featured a large desk flanked by two large plaster busts of Washington, while on the walls hung various portraits of Washington, one of which was The Wings Will Grow (titled previously Founding Father of the Nation). According to the art critic Bartelik Marek, "this painting scrambles aspects of Rembrandt's Ganymede, 1635, in which Jupiter [the god of weather and the heavens] in the guise of an eagle abducts a beautiful child. Komar and Melamid model the boy's body on Rembrandt's depiction but give him the head of an eagle. Washington, then, takes on the role of Jupiter". For the art critic Michael Amy, meanwhile, Washington's stance was "visually buttressed by the column behind him, which is largely hidden by a swath of red drapery swooping rhetorically across the upper part of the picture". He adds that Washington's "brown suit [...] and the huge globe in the foreground seem illusions to Chaplin's The Great Dictator" (though he criticized this as "an all-too formulaic evocation of the threat of American imperialism").

Around this work, the accompanying gallery space, meanwhile, was home to showcases and vitrines housing what Marek called "'readymade Washingtonia' [:] engravings, postcards, children's books, ice-cream molds, perfume bottles, and bank notes" juxtaposed with "relics of Stalin and Lenin and artifacts of Soviet-Socialist Realist popular culture". On the wall hung a collection of collages which sat next to "a photograph of a psychoanalyst's office (complete with an analyst in his leather chair and a patient on the couch), driving home the pair's interest in psychic relations and symbolic fathers".

Screenprint on paper - Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

Biography of Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid

Childhood and Education

Komar and Melamid, both Jewish and Moscow-born, enjoyed relatively comfortable, middle-class, childhoods. Komar's parents were lawyers employed by the Soviet state and were dispatched to Germany to work on the legalities of the Soviet occupation, while Melamid's father, a fluent German speaker, translated all of Hitler's broadcasts for Stalin's office. During the boys' childhood, Moscow was the hub of the Soviet Union (USSR) and they were inured to the visual culture of Socialist Realism and State propaganda that promoted socialist slogans against red backgrounds, portraits of Soviet leaders, and an over-abundance of paintings of cheerful Soviet citizens. This environment would form the foundations of their art which, in its broadest sense, sought to put the myth of socialist utopianism to the sword.

Komar and Melamid both attended the Moscow Art School in 1958. The pair graduated to the prestigious Stroganov Institute of Art and Design (illustration department) and it was here, in 1965, that they sealed their friendship following a lecture-cum-performance on the history of Russian art. According to academic Allison Leigh-Perlman, soon after graduating from Stroganov the pair joined the youth section of the Moscow Union of Artists and "accepted positions at a summer camp near Moscow where they heard a story about statues of Stalin that had been too large to destroy being buried all over Russia after his death". This proved something of a revelation for Komar and Melamid who came "to the realization that Stalin's effigy lay not only buried literally in the Russian soil, but also deep in their subconscious". It was, Perlman adds, "The liberation of these childhood memories" that led to them spending "their careers 'digging' up these repressed memories and interrogating the very substance of their emotional being".

The Russian art collector Aslan Chekhoev wrote, "[Soviet] Underground art arose in extreme situations of dictatorship; never mind the censorship and repression, it was simply difficult to get materials". But while this slowed Komar and Melamid down, "it also forced them to be more creative and resourceful, and this spurred an incredible level of originality". The pair's first exhibition was promoted under the banner, Retrospectivism, and was held at the Blue Bird Café (Sinyaya ptitsa cafe) on Chekhov Street, Moscow in 1967. During the 1960s, the café was an important venue for "unofficial" exhibitions and provided an exhibition platform for other artists associated with the Moscow underground including Erik Bulatov, Igor Shelkovsky, Oleg Vassiliev and llia and Emilia Kabakov. Komar and Melamid described Retrospectivism as "three-dimensional abstract paintings in the style of the old masters and reflects a typical search for spirituality on the part of nonconformist artists working in an oppressively atheistic state".

As part of a relatively small circle of artists, Komar and Melamid produced works of art that were effectively vetoed - or worse still, destroyed - by officials from the Ministry of Culture. In an environment of high surveillance (the Soviet government controlled the army, police, radio stations, publishing houses, and newspapers) "unofficial artists" became quite used to State harassment and even took to exhibiting works in their own homes; a phenomenon that became known as "apartment exhibitions".

Mature Period

In 1967 the two friends founded the Sots-Art movement. Sots-Art overtly parodied the false optimism foisted onto the Russian people by the state. It used a variety of media and allowed for a combination of Social Realism (sotsialisticheskii realism - hence "Sots"), Conceptualism, Dada, and Western Pop Art. The movement is often likened to Pop Art but it exploited the visual language of Socialist Realism rather than that of mass consumption. Bulatov, Grisha Bruskin, Dmitri Prigov, Leonid Sokov, Igor Novikov, and the art group Gnezdo were the other key names associated with the rise of Sots-Art. Government opposition to this group was such that, in 1969, state censors removed Komar and Melamid's work from the 8th Exhibition of Young Artists in Moscow.

Speaking on behalf of the Moscow Mayoral office ahead of a 2019 Komar and Melamid retrospective, the curator Andrei Erofeev reflected that Sots Art was "a school of disobedience, a school of impudent violation of social behaviour rules [that] exceeded expectations: Sots Art penetrated into almost all types and forms of culture, including its anonymous folklore layer - popular jokes". Erofeev added that their goal was to "change the consciousness of the audience, influence the art development [and] alter the history of [Russian] culture". History had shown that the artists had succeeded in their aims: "Before them, the anti-modern alternative in the history of the 20th century art was hardly discussed', he said, "Everybody [had previously] admired Picasso and criticized Gerasimov, Stalin's favourite artist".

From 1972, Komar and Melamid started signing their works jointly, regardless of whether the works were made collaboratively. In a joint artists' statement, they claimed: "Even if only one of us creates some of the projects and works, we usually sign them together. We are not just an artist, we are a movement". Their painting Portrait of Wives marked the official beginning of their artistic collaboration. However, they were censored in 1973 for creating art that was considered politically hostile and, in the spring of 1974, during a Moscow apartment performance entitled Art Belongs to the People, the pair were arrested together with the other attendees. They were released the next morning but, with other censored artists, they began to seek out other venues which included exhibiting their work outdoors in the Moscow wastelands.

In 1974, both artists took part in the notorious "Bulldozer Exhibition" that took place on the 15th of September in an empty plot in Moscow's Belyayevo neighborhood. The show featured underground art that were promptly confiscated and destroyed by the authorities with the use of bulldozers, waste trucks, and water cannon. Komar recounted how he clung to one of his paintings in shock, and when forced to the ground by a trooper who tried to destroy his painting, he looked up and said "What are you doing? That's a masterpiece!". Komar told how the officer paused briefly before tossing the artwork into the back of a waste truck. Double Self-Portrait was among the many other works of art that was destroyed there on the spot. The Bulldozer Exhibition caused an international outcry and several weeks later, the "unofficial" artists were allowed, without State interference this time, to stage their first exhibition in Izmailovsky Park.

Komar and Melamid typically created projects or individual works with an underlying critical theme. In 1973-1974 for example, they created Post Art; a series of six paintings showcasing famous works by the American Pop artists Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Peter Phillips, Tom Wesselmann, and Robert Indiana, as they might appear after a natural disaster or a nuclear war. As Komar stated, the project was designed as "an apocalyptic vision of the future". They likened these futuristic works to how ancient frescoes appear to us today: decayed and exhibiting the passing of time. The project was designed to raise questions on the idea of artistic value, especially concerning famous works of art over time. It was inspired by the fact that Russian historical icons and Old Master paintings were considered to be of much higher value than works of modern art. Komar and Melamid's treatment rendered the works battered and seemingly damaged beyond repair (but recognizable all the same). For example, Post Art No 1 is a damaged and discoloured fragment of Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Can. In 1976, Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in New York hosted Komar & Melamid's first international exhibition. It brought both artists international attention but the Soviet authorities denied the artist permission to travel.

In 1977, Komar and Melamid were forced to leave the Soviet Union due to their unrelenting critique of Communism. They emigrated first to Israel in 1977 where they stayed for a year before settling permanently in America. According to the author Zinovy Zinik, the general "wave of emigration from the Soviet Union during the 1970s" was and indirect result of the Yalta conference of 1945 when allied leaders decided on the fate of a post war Europe and, because Stalin reneged on the pact - and in so doing effectively brought down the "Iron Curtain" - the conference "in one way or another, cast long shadows on the lives of Komar and Melamid". Zinik adds "There in Jerusalem the two artists commemorated their emigration [...] with an installation called the Third Temple. Their first sacrifice in that temple was to burn their old suitcases".

Late Period

Having arrived in America in 1978, the pair were free to pursue their artistic proclivities as they saw fit and they expanded their repertoire by critiquing aspects of American social and political life, consumerism, and the US art market. Zinik states that in New York the pair "became the talk of the town with their ironic conceptual projects [and following] their major exhibitions of the 1980s in the Ronald Feldman Gallery". Their first American project was the "Society of Buyers and Sellers of Human Souls" in which around 1,000 New York citizens - including Andy Warhol - "sold their souls" to "Komar & Melamid Inc.".

Paintings of this period, such as The Yalta Conference, fused an historic event (of February 1945) with personal memory. The painting was, according to the author Zinovy Zinik, the artists' "first ironic treatment of the subject [that] substituted the alien ET for Roosevelt and instead of Churchill, featured an apparition of Hitler with his finger pressed to his lips as if saying: 'Mum's the word!' According to Komar [moreover] the ET image reflected his feelings of being an extra-terrestrial Russian in the USA". Their Nostalgic Socialist Realism series, meanwhile, "established ironic parallels between the ideal socialist realism of the imagined Stalinist variety and the didactic, allegorical nature of 18th and 19th-century European academicism. Ancient Greek muses were portrayed presenting books of history to Stalin, and Ronald Reagan was depicted as a centaur". In 1986, the pair created their first public sculpture, a bronze bust of Stalin, which was installed (disrespectfully) in the red light district in The Hague, in the Netherlands.

In 1993, Komar and Melamid started work on what is arguably their best-known project. They hired a market research firm to poll people in 11 different countries about their taste in art. Between 1994-1997 they used the results of the surveys to create a series entitled People's Choice, showcasing the "Most Wanted" and "Least Wanted" paintings of all 11 countries. Their use of polling was intended to parody the American democratic process. As Komar stated, "Our interpretation of polls is our collaboration with various people of the world. It is a collaboration with [a] new dictator - Majority". The book, Painting by Numbers: Komar & Melamid's Scientific Guide to Art, published in 1997, explains the statistical underpinnings of the polling process and provides the results of each country's preferences. It was followed in 1998 by Painting by Numbers which brought them considerable attention. The book documents their international survey of aesthetic opinions and tastes in painting which formed the basis of their People's Choice series.

In 1998, they created the sets for an opera, Naked Revolution, about George Washington, Vladimir Lenin, and Marcel Duchamp which was performed at the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis), and the Kitchen (New York). In 2001, they executed their last major project as a duo: Symbols of the Bing Bang. It was an artistic project featuring abstract symbols in an exploration of spirituality, mysticism, and science.

In 2002 the pair presented the controversial "Komar and Melamid's Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project" at the Berkley Art Museum. Though most critics, including Fred Kaplan of the Boston Globe, could not decide if the exhibition was a Dada-like prank or an earnest conceptual art project, the 54 works were the product of their so-called "Elephants Art Academies" which were located in India, Bali and Indonesia. The exhibition's associate curator, Alla Efimova, stated that the works - which, as she proudly pointed out, took their place alongside works form the permanent collection featuring Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and John Mitchell - were "meant to work on a lot of levels and be very ironic". Kaplan wrote that works by Ganesh and Romana (elephants from India and Bali respectively) had been likened to "the wispy lyricism of late-career de Kooning" but Kamar went further arguing that the elephant art was in fact "Better than de Kooning [...] because it is more innocent [and because] De Kooning was corrupted by the art market".

In 2004, the duo formally separated and are now both working independently. Among Melamid's solo works are portraits of hip hop artists rendered in the style of old masters, and his Art Healing Ministry (established, 2011) which is a fully functioning clinic in New York's Soho area that uses art to help mend psychological and physical ailments. For his part, Komar was part of the so-called "Three-Day Weekend Society" which exhibited in 2005 and 2009 at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in New York. The Society posited the idea of a political, religious and familial harmony through the concept of three days of worship: Muslims (Friday), Jews (Saturday) and Christians (Sunday). Komar created a series of mandala-like works, some of which featured devices (mirrors and cut-out holes) that allowed for viewers to place themselves at the center of the work, while others were formed of collages featuring childhood photographs of himself and his divorced (Jewish and Christian) parents. In 2009 Komar created the komarandmelamid.org website which he continues to maintain.

The Legacy of Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid

Komar and Melamid's Sot Arts movement inspired many contemporary artists including an early pioneer of Polish "Critical Art", Jerzy Truszkowsky; the Russian-Jewish performance artist, Alexander Brener; the Chechnyan/Russian refugee Alexei Kallima, and multi-media artist Gosha Ostretsov. Indeed, together, Komar and Melamid produced some of the most significant works of contemporary East-European art; their paintings, sculptures, performances, public installations, photographs, poetry, and music bringing together, personal reflection, wild imagination, and satirical humour. The curator Andrei Erofeev argues for instance that Komar and Melamid were "the first world-class artists who emerged in the Moscow art underground of the 1970s [and the] first to be globally recognized as the successors of the Russian historical avant-garde and colleagues of Western pop artists and conceptualists". He adds that the pair "brought the spirit of political parody, mockery, playing with art styles, visual languages of modernism, kitsch and totalitarianism into Russian culture".

The writer and critic Andrew Solomon stated, meanwhile, that Komar and Melamid "have aged better than many Soviet artists in this post-Soviet period [and] better than any of the other long-term emigres" working in America. He adds that the work for which the men became famous "was about the frightening absurdity of the Soviet system, and was directed toward the dismantling of that system [but now] that the system has been dismantled, Komar and Melamid are the kings of nostalgia, ardent for the very sorrows that once gave them a claim to tragedy [...] Like so many Eastern and Western champions of freedom [they are] among those who, by insistently penetrating personal and political and artistic history, contrive neither to repeat nor to lose it".

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
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    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
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    Chinese Avant-Garde Art
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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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