The New Artists.
The New Artists
The article was first published in the catalogue
Brushstroke: The New Artists & Necrorealists. 1982-1991, Saint Petersburg: Russian Museum, 2010 (Palace Editions)
Translated, from the Russian, by Thomas Campbell.
Selection of pictures and captions: H. Fobo
[Igor Potapov:] In your speeches and lectures you often use the words “popular” and “national.” In your practice, however, it seems to me that we can detect something that is rather more elitist and international. Am I wrong?
[Timur Novikov:] You’re wrong, of course, although you’re not mistaken.
–Igor Potapov, “A Few Questions for Timur Novikov” (mid-1980s), DNKh-00-43/2 (Timur Novikov Family Archive)
In this brief fragment, Timur Novikov, the founder of the New Artists group, converses with himself. He had invented two writers—Igor Potapov and the critic Petrov—and addressed readers of Leningrad samizdat via these pseudonyms. The emergence of the New Artists is most often dated to the action “The Zero Object,” in which Novikov and Ivan Sotnikov attached a label bearing this title to a smallish rectangular aperture in an exposition stand at a group show of the Society for Experimental Visual Art (TEII), at the Kirov Palace of Culture. This is how Novikov and Sotnikov described their work:
The TEII exhibition committee, led by Sergei Kovalsky, immediately demanded that the artists remove the Zero Object: because it was not on the list of works approved for the show and its continued presence might have led city authorities to shut the show down. The action provoked a series of TEII general assemblies where the Zero Object was discussed by artists, as well as an absurd pseudo-bureaucratic correspondence between the TEII and Novikov, Sotnikov, and their allies. The “controversy” dragged on until the end of the month. Novikov and Sotnikov issued bulletins and convened a “Zero Object Truth Commission.” The commission’s chairs, Kirill Khazanovich and Georgy Gurjanov, were joined by violinist Tatyana Korneeva (who had been given the title “chair of the selection committee and chair of the Moscow directorate for zero culture”) in ruling that “the Zero Object is a stone tossed into a swamp—or rather, a stone that has revealed the existence [of this swamp].”
The idea of the absurd that they borrowed from Daniil Kharms was the guiding force of the “zeroists” within the New Artists movement. This idea enabled them to easily and effectively invert the norms of the official ideology, which from cradle to grave taught Soviet citizens to tediously look for meaning on the razor’s edge between doublethink and thoughtlessness.
Like the Zero Object, the zeroist aesthetic opened a window into the realm of “non-meaning” (Malevich), where life organized itself spontaneously, freely, and gaily, as if the everyday cares and political failings of Soviet society simply did not exist. The New Artists did not fight for social rights denied them by the powers that be. They instead took a radical approach to the problem, organizing everything they wanted to do and everything that was missing in their lives in whatever spaces and places they could find, for the Zero Object was at home everywhere. In this sense, they were always in the vanguard. They tried to outpace events and did not view Leningrad as a depressing place that had been totally captured by their ideological foes. On the contrary, Oleg Kotelnikov, Timur Novikov, Ivan Sotnikov, and Yevgeny Yufit grew up in Leningrad and thus felt like masters of the city. Smolny (city hall) was not theirs, of course, but you had only to walk one hundred meters in any direction to enter the rather spacious realm that was theirs: bourgeois mansions transformed into Young Pioneer and cultural centers; communal flats where friends lived; buildings slated for major renovations and thus wholly or partially emptied of inhabitants; courtyards, vacant lots, gardens, and parks. The New Artists thus had somewhere to stage theatrical performances, make films, and hold exhibitions. They revived the spirit of the historical avant-gardes—an unbending will to freedom from both society and circumstance. Like poets and artists, avant-gardists are born, not made. As Mikhail Trofimenkov has quite justly argued, the avant-garde tradition is not something that can be possessed as the sum of knowledge about it.
As had been the case in the practice of the pre-Revolutionary Russian avant-garde, the zeroist aesthetic gave its adepts the acute sense that “life-creation” (zhiznetvorchestvo) was something primeval and unending. The creative process was unleashed for days on end, twenty-fours a day. The “nullification” of artistic means made it possible for them to turn anything at hand into a pictorial masterpiece—soot-covered walls in a communal kitchen, shower curtains, sheets, etc. The question that had plagued the older generation—how to be an artist when, by law, only people who have received an official arts education were considered artists, and only these people had the right to buy paints and canvases at the Academy of the Arts shop or rent a studio—was moot for them. Here, for example, is Oleg Kotelnikov’s description of how he came to paint three works that now grace the collection of the Russian Museum:
The portrait of Kovalsky was produced at Sotnikov’s place. It was [painted on] a billboard that Sotnikov had stolen. […] He dragged it home, but then he was unable to drag it out again. So we reassembled the frame and glued some quite scarce canvas on it, covered that with gauze, then another layer of canvas. And we painted it horizontally, of course. At first it was a portrait of four characters, but then we agreed that four characters were too much, that it was wrong to break the canvas up, and so we decided to paint only Kovalsky’s portrait with him holding a tape player. Back then he constantly recorded everything. We joked that he was spying for the United Arab Emirates. […]
An Operation on the Internal Organs [was] the wall of a cupboard that barely fit in [our] kitchen. It was painted at night over a short period of time because there was no other time [when I could do this]. [I worked] at night, then again in the morning: [the rest of the day] there were people running around the flat. It was all good.
The nullification of artistic means rendered the idiom of the New Artists essential and adequate to their situation: their pictures transmitted basic human passions (the desire for joy and love, the energy of struggle and movement, exultation at the vivid, living world that surrounds us) and an acute sense of historical time. The real-time mode in which the New Artists operated—not distinguishing life in art from life on the streets—was their means of outmaneuvering the social stagnation of the late Soviet period. Whereas the whole country lived as it were in an enclosed space where it has hard to breathe and hard to see, where you felt as if you were on “tape delay,” the New Artists and necrorealists discovered that there were different ways to get “on the air live.” The writer and artist Yuri “Compass” Krasev (one of Yufit’s lead actors and a soloist with Pop Mechanics) explained how they managed this:
Even when you looked at wallpaper—cheerful, the kind old people like—everywhere you were getting run over [by this idea]. It didn’t even matter what you looked at: you would look at the asphalt and see that it was all cracked; it cried out to you, “I’m this messed-up, lousy pavement.” All the time they were trying to put this idea over on you. You’d even look at the birds and see that they had been spoiled by this entire culture. It was like being in prison, in a cage, surrounded by these prefab, alien images. But the soul needs freedom. So what could you do? It turned out that there was a solution. [Timur’s] idea was to come to grips with this space using “zero music.” There was something really comforting and nice about this zero, you felt like yourself [when you were] inside it. It was like this hole in our dimension that led into another space, into another realm whence you could look and contemplate to your heart’s content, but also do something, create, and live somehow. And [Yufit] and Kotelnikov got drunk on port wine—I don’t know how it happened exactly, but there was probably steam coming out their ears—and came up with their own way of transmitting [this freedom]. All this was closely bound up with a specific period, and this period was not restricted to a single country. It was the same way all over the world, I think: there is something that surrounds the earth, as in Vernadsky’s [theory of the noosphere]. This was also connected with the fact that we were in our early twenties. [Novikov, Kotelnikov, and Yufit] also decided to nullify everything, but to push it to the point of absurdity. Not the absurdity of Salvador Dali, which is cloying and boring, but simply to the point of stupidity. Then everything doesn’t turn into a morbid, paranoid idea, but into a liberating stupidity that is healthy at the same time, both in the behavioral and artistic sense. And so this stupid, endlessly energetic self-image was found. This individual was not tied down by anything. He was so full of energy that he burst all the chains—not because he wanted to free himself, but because he had a lot of energy and looked at the world this way. And so the chains flew off of their own accord, he hit the streets, and the film The Flight began.
Articulated during the years 1982–84, a dark and uncertain time when the country’s leaders (Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko) successively agonized on their death beds and passed away, the idiom of the New Artists anticipated the discourse of perestroika in the sense that the young artists did not allow this confused reality to faze them. At the epicenter of a growing social malaise, they founded a dazzling, united front under the banner of heroic absurdity. Heroic absurdity is a particular rhetorical tone: it enables one to hit a sentimental note while talking about both the most uncomely things and the most hackneyed themes, and to talk like an idiot at the same time. (That is, if we keep in mind that, in the original Greek, an “idiot” is an eccentric individual who lives outside social norms.) The main quality of this sentiment is that it cannot (for obvious reasons) be recuperated by the powers that be. And, of course, during times when society accepts inhuman behavior as its norm, idiotic heroic absurdity (as a species of “holy foolishness”) represents a way out of a bad situation; in particular, it was quite widespread in twentieth-century avant-garde art.
 In addition, in the latter half of 1987, Novikov wrote an article entitled “New Russian Painting” under the pseudonym McGreis, which was meant to show that foreign observers had taken an interest in the New Artists. The copy of the article preserved in the Timur Novikov Family Archive (DNKh-87-50(5)/1) also contains the first list of publications about the group, articles that appeared in the USSR and abroad during the period 1984–July 1987. Novikov borrowed this pseudonym from Oleg Kotelnikov, who in 1979 produced an author’s book entitled McGreis.
 Novye khudozhniki, 1982–1987: Antologiia [The New Artists, 1982–1987: An Anthology], ed. Ekaterina Andreeva and Elena Kolovskaia (Saint Petersburg, 1996), p. 66.
 Novye khudozhniki, p. 71.
 An important moment of inspiration was the opening of the Leningrad Youth Palace (LDM) during the 1980 Olympics. Although the west boycotted the games, and Leningrad thus hosted only fans and athletes from the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, even this was enough to generate the sense that life had overflowed the usual mundane order. The LDM opened with a youth exhibition and an all-night party. Kotelnikov and Novikov, who participated in the show, would later refer to it as the “Olympic” exhibition, and Kotelnikov believes that it was there that the New Artists were born. A year later, the LDM became the principal venue for TEII exhibitions.
 Mikhail Trofimenkov, “The New Artists Group,” DNKh-00-88(4), p. 2 (in Russian).
 Timur: “Vrat’ tol’ko pravdu!” [Timur: “Lie Only about the Truth!”], ed. Ekaterina Andreeva (Saint Petersburg, 2007), pp. 30–31, 27, 25.
 Timur, pp. 119–120. The Flight is a 1970 Soviet film (Alexander Alov and Vladimir Naumov, dir.) based on the eponymous play by Mikhail Bulgakov. According to Krasev, Yufit gave this title to his first film.