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".
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".
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".
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd
First published on 07 Apr 2021. Updated and modified regularly