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Thursday, 16 June 2011

The Roots of Moscow Conceptual Art

By Alexandra A Jopp

The emergence of Conceptualism marked a critical moment in late twentieth century art. British philosopher Peter Osborne described the movement as “An art of ideas, which can be written, published, performed, fabricated, or which can simply remain inside your head – it is also an art of questions.” Since its arrival in the mid-1960s, it has challenged views about society, politics and mass media around the world.

Vadim Zakharov, History of Russian Art from the Russian Avant-Garde to Moscow Conceptualism, installation, 2004

E. Dyogot Classification of Moscow Conceptualism 1991

The term Conceptual art came into use in the late-1960s to describe a wide range of types of art that no longer took the form of conventional art objects. It referred to a type of work in which the idea is paramount, and the material form is secondary. Thomas Crow, in fact, suggested that Conceptual art is “against visual culture.” In the 1970s, Lucy Lippard produced a record of the early years of the movement in the book, “Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972.” Lippard introduced the concept of this “dematerialization” in two ways: art as idea and art as action. Dematerialization seeks to minimize the importance of the material aspects of art – especially of art as object – and the traditional views of “uniqueness, permanence, and decorative attractiveness” in favor of “anti-form” or “process art.” This method was fundamental to Sol LeWitt's definition of Conceptual art: “In conceptual art, the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”

The first Conceptual works by Russian artists were produced in the late-1960s and early-1970s, the same time when Conceptual art was blossoming in the First World. Conceptualism, then, was the first Soviet art movement that coincided with a similar movement in the West. Largely confined to Moscow, the movement was shaped by domestic issues and national and cultural traditions.

Moscow Conceptualism is considered to be the most important Russian art movement of the second half of the twentieth century. It is a unified, relatively clearly defined movement that consciously sets itself apart from the rest of Russian art. It has an easily identifiable aesthetic for the Russian viewer and even possesses a quasi-institutional internal organization.

Art and politics have long overlapped, and not just in the Soviet Union. In the 1930s, anti-Surrealist sentiment emerged in the art world and took the form of concrete art or hard-edged abstraction (the Cercle et Carré group). Many of these artists were also anti-fascist; some were anarchists and some were aligned with the Communist Party. What is interesting, though, is that there does not seem to be a correlation between political philosophy and the style of artistic expression.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Abstract Expressionism swept away all before it. Much has been written about Abstract Expressionism being representative of American freedom and being used as a diplomatic tool in the Cold War. Some young Russians were familiar with the Ashcan School and many American artists including Stuart Davis, Charles Sheeler and others. “You in America have inherited the leadership, and you represent freedom and the future,” one Russian reviewer wrote. In the Soviet Union, though, all art that did not adhere to the rules outlined by the Supreme Soviet and was not in the category of Socialist Realism was suppressed. Young Russians who were exposed to American Abstract art saw in those works the possibility of new ideas.

Moscow Conceptualism grew out of the independent, unofficial Moscow art scene of the 1960s. This scene emerged in the Soviet capital – and in Leningrad – soon after Stalin’s death in 1953. Though tolerated by the Communist government, it was excluded almost completely from the official exhibition circuit.

Moscow artists were under constant watch by the Kremlin. After Stalin’s death, Soviet artists expected a “cultural thaw.” However, after officials pulled back somewhat on the censorship and oppression during the start of the Khrushchev regime, the end of the 1960s and early-1970s saw new threats and violence. Artists were under constant attack from the state media. The Soviet daily “Pravda,” on May 17, 1975, for example, called Conceptual artists “charlatans of art” and asserted that “what they are engaged in is not innocent playing at ‘pure art,’ but essentially active propagandization of bourgeois art.” Thus, most Russian artists, who the government insisted were to be charged with carrying an ideological message, had difficulties exhibiting their new art and had no way of reaching the people and influencing their perceptions and beliefs. As a result of being denied a place in society, Moscow Conceptualism was driven underground, where it established its own institutional system.


1: Peter Osborne, Conceptual Art (London and New York: Phaidon, 2002) 4.

2: Thomas Crow, Modern Art in the Common Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).

3: Gary Garrels Sol Lewitt, Sol LeWitt: a retrospective (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2000) 369.

4: Boris Groys, “Communist Conceptual Art,” in Total Enlightenment: Conceptual Art in Moscow, 1960–1990 (Madrid: Fundación Juan March; Frankfurt: Schirn Kunsthalle; Ostfilden: Hatje Cantz, 2008), 28–35.

5: Michael Krenn, Fall-out shelters for the human spirit: American art and the Cold War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005) 168.

6: I. Gorin, "There is No Third way," Pravda 17 5 1975.

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