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Komar

(b. 1943)


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(1943– )

(1945– )

Russian painters, both born in Moscow. The two artists met as students at the Stroganov Institute of Art and Design in Moscow, while studying anatomy at a morgue. In 1972 they launched the *‘Sots Art’ movement. In 1974, they took part in the unofficial open-air art display in Belijaevo, Moscow, which became known as the ‘Bulldozer Exhibition’ because of the response of the authorities. Their double self-portrait was one of the works destroyed. In 1978 they moved to New York, having already gained an audience in the West for their work through exhibitions with the dealer Ronald Feldman, so managing to avoid the disappointingly indifferent reception encountered by many émigré Soviet artists. One of their first activities in America was to engage in the business of the buying and selling of souls under the name of ‘Komar & Melamid Inc’. Generally they found clients more willing to sell their own souls than buy someone else's. Andy Warhol's was among those which passed through their hands and was knocked down to a Russian buyer for 34 roubles.

In the early 1980s they made a series of monumental paintings which drew on the imagery and style of Socialist Realism. Part of the appeal of such works might have been that few painters in the West had undergone the rigorous training necessary to create them. The effect, however, was not to celebrate, but to undermine that tradition. Boris Groys argues that these paintings ‘would have struck the Soviet consciousness as blasphemous’ because of the way in which they reinscribed the rhetoric of official painting into a history of mythological imagery, so challenging the claims of the USSR to historical uniqueness. However, Komar & Melamid depart from the sunlit brilliance and optimism of most Socialist Realism for a dramatic interplay of dark and light. This refers art-historically to the chiaroscuro of Baroque masters such as Caravaggio and Georges de La Tour, and also to the perpetual darkness brought about by power shortages, which the artists recalled from their youth. There is parodic, carnivalesque humour, but also the invocation of a world of nightmare.

Subsequently their work looked more towards the analysis of Western society. The Bayonne series (1988–90) applied the heroic treatment of the proletariat, the standby of Soviet Socialist Realism, to workers at a New Jersey brass foundry. The ‘most wanted’ paintings, a series on which they embarked in 1995, treated critically the notion of the autonomy and freedom of the artist. They painted according to the results of a poll to determine the most desirable characteristic for a painting in various countries. As Groys puts it, the results were ‘shabby, kitschy, and clumsy’, but also ‘pleasantly poetic’.

The partnership was dissolved in 2003. Since then Komar has continued working in New York on a more theoretical and conceptual path, while Melamid has moved to Rome, where in 2007 he embarked on a series of portraits of cardinals.

Further Reading

Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, Komar & Melamid: History Painting (1985)B. Groys, ‘The Other Gaze: Russian Unofficial Art's View of the Soviet World’, in A. Erjavec (ed.), Postmodernism and the Post Socialist Condition (2003)V. L. Hillings, ‘Komar and Melamid's Dialogue with (Art) History’, Art Journal, vol. 58, no. 4 (1999)

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Subjects: Art.


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