Some people fight against oppression with weapons. Russian-born artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid chose to wield paint brushes dipped in mockery. Tongue-in-cheek humor and sharp criticism of the Soviet Union, American capitalism and the art market will be on display in the Zimmerli Art Museum’s latest exhibition, Komar and Melamid: A Lesson in History, a retrospective of the artists, both U.S. immigrants who worked together from 1972 through 2003.
Some people fight against oppression with weapons. Russian-born artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid chose to wield paint brushes dipped in mockery.
Tongue-in-cheek humor and sharp criticism of the Soviet Union, American capitalism and the art market will be on display in the Zimmerli Art Museum’s latest exhibition, Komar and Melamid: A Lesson in History, a retrospective of the artists, both U.S. immigrants who worked together from 1972 through 2003.
A print from "The Essence of Truth (Grinding Pravda)" by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid.
The exhibition – featuring installations, paintings and prints from the museum’s Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union – opens Saturday, Feb. 11, and runs through July 16 at the Zimmerli, 71 Hamilton St., New Brunswick. Admission is free to the public. The exhibition includes loans from national and international institutions, such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Tate Modern in London and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, as well as private collections.
Opening such an exhibition near the anniversary of Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine is not lost on museum officials.
“The art of Komar and Melamid is critical of a totalitarian regime and mocks Soviet idiosyncrasies and propaganda,” said Julia Tulovsky, the Zimmerli’s curator of Russian and Soviet nonconformist art.
The art of Komar and Melamid is critical of a totalitarian regime and mocks Soviet idiosyncrasies and propaganda.
Curator of Russian and Soviet nonconformist art, Zimmerli Art Museum
“It's important to know that they've lived longer in the U.S. than they lived in Russia,” said Maura Reilly, director of the Zimmerli, adding that Komar and Melamid “created this amazingly powerful political work in response to a repressive, totalitarian regime.”
“Komar and Melamid are dissonant artists, like Ai Weiwei and Tania Bruguera,” said Reilly, adding the exhibition is a compelling example of “artists using their work to fight oppression – a struggle that persists throughout the world today.”
"Factory for the Production of Blue Smoke" by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid.
Noting both Russia’s oppression and propaganda surrounding the nation’s war with Ukraine, the exhibition is both timely and relevant to today’s audience, Zimmerli officials said. They emphasized the museum is a natural place to host such an exhibition: The Zimmerli holds the largest collection in the world of Soviet nonconformist art – more than 20,000 works by 1,000-plus artists – thanks to a 1991 donation from collectors Norton and Nancy Dodge.
“Their intellectual wit and tongue-in-cheek (dis)obedience to both ossified Soviet rules and clichés in American culture supplied them with a unique place in the art of both countries, as well as globally,” Tulovsky wrote in an essay about Komar and Melamid in the exhibition catalog. “Mixing and matching elements of different art styles, cultures, or political systems, [Komar and Melamid] unite a variety of often opposite and contradictory phenomena with an enviable ease.”
Tulovsky, who organized the exhibition, described it as “very funky, very funny,” adding that Komar and Melamid “are important artists for our collection, for the history of Soviet nonconforming art and also play a significant role in the contemporary American art scene.”
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