This Generation

Artist and art historian Dmitry Gutov, participant and witness of the genesis of contemporary russian art, talks about the role of artists whose career began in the 1990s and 2000s and many of whom are participating in the GUM-Red-Line art show.

If we consider a longer time frame, such as the history of Russian art from the beginning of the underground movement in the USSR – from the mid-1950s to today, then we should note that the 1990s were an extremely bright period. It was historically a period of extreme highs, and we have to properly evaluate it, since this time period is still close to today. Besides, there are few people who could give it a fair appraisal. But if we consider the intensity of emotions, the madness, the scale – it has been an unprecedented time. Crime, the significance of big money – let’s leave it to social scientists. Many artists became quite alert to all of these changes, and at the end of the 1980s, they had their first breakdown. All of the artists who had a chance to work in the real underground movement faced a lot of new challenges at the time. Their art was very much focused on the realities that have either already disappeared or changed in a blink of an eye. Next came a new wave of artists. We are not talking about the age of these people – most of them were over 25 at that time. Osmolovsky was the youngest artist of that generation, as he was born in 1969, while I was the oldest – I was born in 1960.

In the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s professional artists with an excellent educational background were the ones who formed the underground movement. They considered themselves to be true artists, in particular, and thought that there was a future into which they would be taken. They were thinking in big painting categories, in terms of art history. But another generation came, and these youngsters did not even call themselves “artists”.

The ways that the art community survived in the 1990s were quite peculiar. When you are not able to make money through art – it is valuable experience, and it was difficult for artists to make a living at that time. On the other hand, they had complete creative freedom. Artists of that time didn’t consider how to commercialize their efforts, and it was a time when you could get involved in large installations, or performances, like Osmolovsky and Co. did. The environment changed from a financial point of view in the beginning of the 2000s. Putin’s rise to power was another breakdown that happened in a split second. Commercialization kicked off, and it was the second turning point for that generation. Artists were loaded; they could buy cars, apartments, etc. Nobody even considered that this would be possible before. In the words of Kulik who noted, referring to the 1990s: “They would pull you out from the trash, put you on a plane, if they were lucky enough to be partners with a large airline, you could even travel by business class, with the corresponding options. You would stay at an excellent hotel with great breakfasts. And after that, back again they sent you to your garbage can.” These times had an almost mystical quality to them, I experienced similar things. There were receptions at the highest possible levels – with prime-ministers, the Queen of Spain, etc. We met Princess Diana, there were presidents, kings, and ministers, CEOs from the world’s largest companies. And afterwards – “back to your trash can”. Then there was the Russian default of 1998. I cannot recall a single artist who was able to earn a single kopeck, or was selling anything at that time. The galleries remained the same – XL, Guelman, Aidan, Regina, Fine Art. In the 2000s money started to come in small drips, and then we were flooded with cash in comparison with the previous decade.

Let me tell you a story. At that time Vinogradov and Dubossarsky, having spent ten years of considerable efforts sold something, managed to buy their first car. That Zhiguli was so old that it had a broken windshield, not even a speed counter. So, there was no way to determine the speed that you were driving at. This is how it looked – Vinogradov at the steering wheel, Volodya would be to his right, I was at the back. As soon as Volodya saw a more expensive car (practically all other cars!), he would start shouting: “Sasha, go for it!” Sasha would speed up, and that would freak out all the drivers around him. They would immediately understand that it would be better to keep away from him! We should ask Vinogradov and Dubossarsky about the date of the purchase of their first car, and then we will find out the time when the money flood started. There was more and more money, and this proved to be a terrible trial for artists since many of them started to produce sloppy artworks. Before all that, they were able to think about their artworks for years, in the new circumstances, they had to participate in art shows actively and make things happen quickly. At the time, I had a painting with the following inscription: “I will follow my path, and will not let the bourgeois society turn me into a money-making machine.” Despite these best intentions we were not always successful in striving for this ideal. Tolik Osmolovsky went through an especially radical change after the 1990s. Back in the 1990s even if he wanted to sell artworks, he had nothing that looked like a piece of art that could be bought by anyone. And sometime in 2003, he announced something that appalled his leftist followers: “Serve the rich people!” So, he started creating projects that would sell like hot pirozhki on a market day! Long before the gold tanks, he had a work involving leaf-gold and blue enamel. And later his renown Breads sold like crazy. If you didn’t have Breads in your collection, then you were considered to be low class. This abundance of cash turned out to be a greater trial to this generation than the chaos, empty pockets, and the criminal situation of the 1990s. The Stella Art gallery was established in 2003, and it was a radically different type of exhibition space. Right around that time Igor Markin and his ART4.RU Museum appeared centerstage. I recall that he made a brilliant art show – artworks in a row, and by each of the works there was a graph showing for how much he bought it, and how much it was worth by the time of the exhibition. He checked auction prices, and the charts were skyrocketing! That was not the end of the whole story. The economic crisis of 2008 broke out. Things just started improving, and then we were back to hard times! This crisis was catastrophic. The art community is volatile and nervous, so it is always influenced the most by all events.

It is a generation that received the most crushing blows from fate: interest from the West – no interest from the West, interest – no interest. Artists have been to all countries on Earth, participated in all kinds of biennales. The latest blow came in 2014. I recall that there were many solo exhibitions about to be open in London, New York, etc. But following the events well-covered in the media, artists started to receive calls: “Sorry, our plans have changed.” 

What are the positive sides that I see in all of the above for our generation? The thing is that contemporary artists are extremely flexible thanks to all of the above. They are ready for all changes; they are prepared for renewal. The most exciting feature of our generation – artists continue to create till the very end and are never going to stop.