The Moscow Times
December 19 - 29, 2003

By Gay Archer


Artists Honor A Harsh Critic
The S.ART gallery's newest show, the First Axiom, is as much a personal introduction to the controversial ideas of Mikhail Lifshits as it is an exhibition. One of the most controversial art theorists of the Soviet period, Lifshits (1905-1983) was a virulent critic of modernist art. In tribute to his legacy, S.ART has brought together paintings, photographs and video by today's modern artists -- a group of contemporary artists who say that Lifshits was in fact one of Russia's most important critics.
But it will be up to visitors to determine the strength of Lifshits' critiques for themselves. Lifshits' views were squarely Marxist, and his hostility to modernism absolute. While many of the Russian artists with whom he studied eventually emigrated and helped defined modern art abroad, Lifshits remained in the Soviet Union to rail against his contemporaries' transgressions.
Lifshits' supporters say that it was precisely his extensive understanding of modern art forms that made him such an important critic. "He studied this culture from the inside," said Dmitry Gutov, the exhibition's curator and founder of the Lifshits Institute. "And so as early as the 1920s, he was able to provide the highest level of criticism of modern art."
Today, the 12 artists featured in First Axiom argue that Lifshits' Marxist philosophy of aesthetics needs to be examined anew. Rather than being a reactionary herald to the halcyon days of socialist realism, First Axiom intends to stimulate fresh interest in Lifshits' ideas. Most of the artists are under 40 and well practiced in contemporary art forms. Gutov, for example, has worked with installations in the past, and contributed a painting to the exhibit featuring a monkey reading Lifshits' book, "Crisis of Ugliness: From Cubism to Pop Art." Meanwhile, Vladimir Salnikov's "Portrait of Mikhail Lifshits," which is pictured on this week's Metropolis cover, combines modernist technique with classical style in a thoroughly contemporary way. Ironically, while some of the artwork has clear realist strains, most is quite -- for want of a better expression -- modern.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Lifshits' books were widely read within the Soviet Union, but not for the reasons that he intended. Much of the work that Lifshits discussed was off-limits in the U.S.S.R., making Lifshits' extensive critiques -- filled with detailed reproductions -- one of the only ways that Soviet citizens could view the offending art. In a photograph in the S.ART Gallery by Konstantin Bokhorov, for example, a copy of Lifshits' "Crisis of Ugliness" ironically features a still life by Pablo Picasso on its cover. But Gutov hopes that exchanges with the First Axiom artists will help refocus interest on Lifshits' actual texts.
First Axiom runs until Jan. 16 at the S.ART gallery, located at 14 Zemlyanoy Val. Metro Kurskaya. Tel. 916-0366, 917-5454.