Soviet Pop Art Duo Reunites for First U.S. Retrospective Since Their Breakup

This article is part of our Museums special section about how art institutions are reaching out to new artists and attracting new audiences.

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid saw their creative lives flash before their eyes in March as they walked through the first retrospective of their art in the United States in decades.

The Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., which has the largest collection of Soviet nonconformist art in the world, created the exhibition, “Komar and Melamid: A Lesson in History,” which runs through July 16. It features the artists’ pioneering work of Soviet Pop Art — or Sots Art, a term they coined for the movement they created that contracts the words Socialism and art.

Their partnership, which used art to challenge — even ridicule — the fundamental tenets of Socialist Realism, began in the Soviet Union in 1972 and continued after they immigrated to the United States in 1978, but ended in 2003 when they embarked on separate careers.

Creative and personal differences took an inevitable toll on a collaboration that was so close that the artists presented themselves as a single entity, going by the name Komar and Melamid and never specifying who was responsible for which part of their work.

Mr. Komar, 79, with a hint of humor, blamed the split on the fact that after he had given up drinking, they stopped conversing as freely as they once had about their art and started to work more individually.

Mr. Melamid, 77, ebullient in contrast to the somber Mr. Komar, said he was not nostalgic about the show but nevertheless called it historic: “I haven’t seen some of our works in 40 years.”

Mr. Komar and Mr. Melamid appeared together in public in 2019 at their retrospective in Moscow, but this was the first time they agreed to a joint, published interview since they parted ways.

The exhibition‌ ‌at the Zimmerli was going to be called “You Are Feeling Good!,” the title of one of their earliest signature works‌ from 1972, which shows the slogan painted in white on a red background. It was meant to channel an imaginary Soviet artist producing “sincere” propaganda and, in retrospect, mocking both Communist and capitalist slogans that they later ‌sought to undermine once they were in New York.

“American Pop Art was a reaction to the overproduction of consumer goods and advertisements,” said ‌Julia Tulovsky, the museum’s curator of Russian and Soviet nonconformist art. “Sots Art in the Soviet Union was a reaction to the overproduction of ideological propaganda.”

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February led the museum to rename the exhibition to “A Lesson in History.” It opened on Feb. 11, almost a year after the war began.

Mr. Komar and Mr. Melamid first met as art students in the 1960s at the Stroganov Academy, founded in 1825 when Russia was ruled by czars. They were taught the fundamentals of classical, Russian and Soviet Realist art during the waning of the cultural thaw introduced under Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev following the death of his predecessor, Joseph Stalin.

In 1977, the duo emigrated to Israel. A year later they moved to New York; they became U.S. citizens in 1988. For decades, they were deeply embedded in the New York art scene and achieved serious fame. Now, they are being reintroduced to another generation of audiences two decades after they split up.

Their work ranges from performance art — “Art Belongs to People,” which debuted in Moscow in 1974, was recreated at the Zimmerli opening — to public opinion polls that gauge and depict the artistic preferences of mass audiences in Russia and the U.S. in their “People’s Choice” project, to monumental paintings of Stalin as part of their “Nostalgic Socialist Realism” series. They have also taught malnourished Thai elephants to paint and sold the works for their benefit.

In the early ’70s, they created a polyptych painting called “Biography of Our Contemporary,” which tells the story of growing up as a Russian Jew in 197 squares using eclectic styles of art. And they filled an apartment in Moscow with an installation they titled “Paradise,” which some consider to be one of the first immersive works of its kind.

The artists participated in a seminal show in 1974 that became known as the Bulldozer Exhibition when Soviet police interrupted and demolished it. Mr. Komar was toppled in the mud along with “Double Self-Portrait,” a piece depicting himself and Melamid as Lenin and Stalin, which he saved from destruction by telling a policeman that it was “a masterpiece.”

The clash was covered by Western media, and the duo began to receive more press coverage, including by Playboy magazine in 1974. They had two shows at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York before they were even allowed to leave the Soviet Union.

Since splitting, Mr. Melamid has painted portraits of rappers in the style of the ‌old masters, while Mr. Komar has depicted Sept. 11, Covid-19 and Russia’s war on Ukraine on his canvases. Their banter at Zimmerli paints its own picture: two artists who have a lot to catch up on, from their views on politics to religion and how the avant-garde veers into fascism. Mr. Melamid cited the philosopher Baruch Spinoza; Mr. Komar, the Jewish kabbalah.

“A Lesson in History” tracks the sweeping scope of cultural and artistic citations in their work — Dadaism, Socialist Realism and Andy Warhol, whom they described meeting in New York when he was urinating on canvases to create his oxidation paintings. As they reminisced, Mr. Komar and Mr. Melamid riffed on whether Warhol was ironic or idiotic, and they lamented the lack of irony today.

Their artworks were “a prediction of what happened under Trump,” said the artist, critic and curator Robert Storr in an opening exhibition talk with Ms. Tulovsky. In her catalog essay, she wrote that Mr. Komar and Mr. Melamid anticipated the advent of “fake news” with an installation of paintings, alongside photographs and a handmade book, that they claim were created by an 18th-century abstract artist they had discovered named Apelles Ziablov. (The duo created these works; Ziablov never existed.)

The Zimmerli’s Soviet nonconformist holdings come from years of collecting by Norton Dodge, an American economics professor who smuggled out works by dissident artists, including those of Mr. Komar and Mr. Melamid. “He didn’t collect art but artists,” said Mr. Melamid.

The museum has more than 150 of their works. Mr. Dodge and his wife, Nancy, donated about 4,000 pieces to the museum in 1991. Widowed in 2011, Mrs. Dodge donated 17,300 more works in 2017, estimated to be worth over $34 million, with an accompanying endowment of $10 million from the Avenir Foundation that financed the show.

The Zimmerli has been in the process of re-examining and updating its categorization of Russian and Ukrainian art (many Ukrainian artists had been identified as Russian). Oksana Semenik, a Ukrainian art historian and journalist who worked with the collection in 2022, wrote in an email exchange (that was cut off by a Russian drone strike on Kyiv) that much remains to be done to make up for years of neglecting non-Russian artists.

In a room dominated by their monumental painting “Yalta 1945,” Mr. Melamid said of the exhibition: “The fact that it’s timely is not thanks to us. Culture used to seem like the result of movement in a turbulent river. Now it’s like a bog, with things rising from the bottom up. We have the illusion that we are moving somewhere because we are splashing about. But in fact, everything is already there. We live in a cultural bog.”

Mr. Komar then added, summarizing Mr. Melamid’s thought by turning around a well-known phrase of Soviet propaganda: “The bright future has turned out to be the dark past.”

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