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Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid Photo

Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid Artworks

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

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 - Tate Gallery

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


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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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