By Brian Droitcour
Theories of Painting
The Moscow Times


Artist Dmitry Gutov took works reflecting his unfashionable fascination with Marxist teachings on visual art to this summer's Venice Biennale. Mikhail Lifshits was the Soviet Union's most vocal critic of modern art. He argued that deviations from figuration or the harmonious abstract patterns of decorative arts violated the laws of nature, and asserted that this visual violence shared its roots with fascism. The Marxist critic attacked artists from Pablo Picasso to Andy Warhol to Nam June Paik in his 1968 "Crisis of Ugliness," and the book flew off the shelves -- not because Soviet readers agreed with his invective against those artists, but because it was the only book available with reproductions of their works.

"In the 1970s, the name Lifshits was synonymous with obscurantism and backwardness," artist Dmitry Gutov said in an interview at his studio Monday. "By then, Picasso's 'Guernica' had already been hung in the Pushkin Museum -- criticizing modernism was unthinkable."

When Gutov calls Lifshits an obscurant, he does it with reverence, not disdain. He has admired the theorist and championed his writings since the late 1980s -- the height of perestroika's anti-Marxist sentiment -- in spite of being perceived as reactionary by his fellow artists. Now Gutov enjoys success in a field that he, like his intellectual hero, regards with skepticism; this summer, his work has been displayed at two major surveys of contemporary art: the Venice Biennale and Documenta in Kassel, Germany.

Gutov's work does not resemble the art usually associated with Marxism and the Soviet period. "Like any ideology, Socialist Realism was invented for idiots," he said, adding that the 1930s also brought the work of Dmitry Shostakovich, Boris Pasternak, Sergei Eisenstein and Andrei Platonov. Gutov makes small, droll paintings that even diehard capitalists would find it hard not like. They often have one simple image or text, on a background layered with hot and cool colors for an effect of depth.

Gutov's approach to choosing subject matter is simple: "I paint what I like," he said. Some paintings are nostalgic, reproducing the candy wrappers, furniture and book covers of the artist's 1960s childhood. There are portraits of Karl Marx, oil renderings of aphorisms by Marx, and paintings of Marx's manuscripts. Gutov also paints Lenin, but not Stalin.

For Gutov, who studied painting at art schools but holds a degree from the Academy of Fine Arts in art history, the idea and the object are equally important. His work at the Venice Biennale, selected by American curator Robert Storr for the international survey "Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind," reflects his two-pronged approach to aesthetics.

Entitled "The Karl Marx School of the English Language," his installation referred to classes recently conducted in Moscow by the American writer David Riff, at which participants read aloud and discussed English translations of the Marx's writings, occasionally comparing them with the Russian translation or the German originals to clarify nuances of English syntax and grammar.

In the Venice installation, several of Gutov's paintings -- of manuscripts, the cover to Lifshits' 1933 anthology "Marx and Engels on Art," and other topical texts and images -- are paired with an audio installation compiled by Riff from the readings, in which a American woman's voice teaches proper English pronunciation using quotes from Marx.

Documenta opened in Kassel, Germany, a week after the Venice Biennale, and attracted many of the same viewers. Held approximately once every five years, Documenta was initiated in 1955 with an exhibition that featured several works from the notorious "Degenerate Art" exhibition of 1937, where the Nazi government encouraged viewers to mock and deface modernist works. Documenta was conceived as an act of atonement that would help re-integrate Germany in the cultural and intellectual fabric of post-war Europe, located in a city decimated by Allied bombing because of its status as a center of the artillery industry.

Rather than painting, Gutov offered at Documenta sculptures of twisted, rusting iron that suggested the contours of various pieces of text -- calligraphy by the 19th-century samurai Yamaoka Tesshu, the last page of Ludwig van Beethoven's letter to his "immortal beloved," and, again, a page from Marx's manuscripts.

"It's hard to say why I do the same thing in various media," Gutov said. "When I went to Kyoto and saw Buddhist stone gardens, I saw Marx's manuscripts. When I look at Marx's manuscripts, I see a metal fence." For Gutov, the hardness of the iron, and the resistance with which it twists, express the power and effort with which Marx put his ideas into words.

But in general Gutov is reluctant to define his work with formal distinctions such as painting or sculpture, or to describe the display based on sessions of the Karl Marx School of the English Language as performance art. "Marx believed that under communism everyone would be an artist," he said. "I just do what I like, and distinctions between different activities are nothing more professional cretinism."