20.02.2015. Pure Abstraction

Andrey Kovalev

 It is customary to say that a powerful burst of abstract tendencies among Russian nonconformists owed much to the American exhibition of 1959 in Sokolniki, where they for the first time saw Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. But in fact, abstract expressionism had been just as influential in the postwar European art. Curiously enough, in the USSR, the information about relevant processes in art was being transmitted primarily by American journals that accorded scarce attention to the art situation in Europe. That is why Russian artists knew next to nothing about their French, German and North European colleagues and contemporaries, and yet were able to merge quite naturally with the general movement. It is therefore not accidental that Igor Vulokh turned out to be adequate and precise: his clear, marvelously executed abstractions of the mid-60s would have doubtlessly looked quite appropriate in Paris at the exhibition of the representatives of Art Informel. But feedback, alas, was not possible.

I should also mention here that Igor Vulokh almost ideally matches the concept of a European artist. The irremediable absence of art market and art institutions led to the situation where underground figures were able to easily leap from one style to another. And those were, of course, not just exercises in self-discovery: artists took upon themselves the important duty of filling all empty niches and overlooked artistic periods. That is why some individual projects in our art appear, to put it mildly, unfinished. Against this background, Vulokh seems an exception from the general rule: he stoically avoided any leaps or changes in style. He would say about himself: “before becoming an artist I was a researcher.” Like a real scientist, he formulates his goals with precision and sets about achieving them. The color in his paintings either completely disappears or thickens. The reality of a landscape or an interior may come closer or disappear completely. The clear linearity of the “white series” very organically transits into shapeless forms. But behind all these transitions one can sense some kind of clear, carefully formulated plan of research of the properties of time and space, of light and color.

Beginning with the 1950s, the art milieu sets a very important goal for itself: restoring the lost, reestablishing the connection with the great discoveries of the Russian avant-garde in the first third of the 20th century. But that dialogue would constantly generate internal contradictions. For the people of the 1950s and 1960s, the global world-construction of Vladimir Tatlin, Kazimir Malevich or Alexader Rodchenko bore in itself the poisoned seed of the totalitarian conscience. In that situation Igor Vulokh took a unique and very responsible position. With his almost academic approach, he immersed himself in the study of the problem. Gennadiy Aygi, a close friend of Vulokh, was working at the Mayakovsky Museum – the only place where one could relatively easy study and, with certain caveats, even exhibit the works of the Russian avant-garde. Vulokh himself enthusiastically joined the exciting process of discovering the Russian avant-garde: for instance, he took part in the preparation of a very important scholarly edition Mayakovsky the Artist. A group of enthusiasts assembled in the Museum a vast collection from the early futurism to constructivism and was even cautiously displaying some of it at exhibitions under the cover of the “greatest poet of the proletarian revolution.” Aygi also introduced the artist to Aleksey Kruchenikh and Nikolai Khardzhiev. The great archivists of the Russian avant-garde who managed to preserve those collections, colossal both in size and importance, through the gloomiest of times, were for obvious reasons rather cautious and wary people. But Vulokh became one of the few who managed to study their collections. There he found those whose names were little known at the time. In Vulokh’s works we see, for example, carefully thought-through and studied references to the lyrical futurism of Olga Rozanova and Elena Guro, the lovingly arranged suprematist constructions of Lubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova. Most likely, Vulokh saw the “grey” Picturesque Composition by Alexander Drevin (1921) that strikes the expert’s eye with the subtlety of its color development in the apartment of George Costakis. It appears that Vulokh had been familiar with Drevin’s work even before his acquaintance with Costakis and had been intuitively moving in the same direction. However, it is obvious that the great discoverer and collector was very glad when he saw a young artist who was so correctly and precisely drawing on Drevin’s legacy – an artist he so valued and with the discovery of whose avant-garde period he credited himself. It is not accidental that the best works of Vulokh’s early period made their way into the collection of this extraordinary man with an unerring flair for good art.

In the end of the 1950s the artists’ circle to which Igor Vulokh belonged was engaged in the search for the Absolute, in the construction of their own cosmogonic concepts. It should be pointed out that the very understandable and worthy spiritual quests of the best part of the Russian intelligentsia of that time on careful examination turned out to be no more than exercises in exaggerated self-confidence, however charming. Igor Vulokh, on the other hand, did something quite radical – he went to work as an assistant at the Department of Western Religions at the Troitsa-Sergieva Lavra, i.e. joined real professional theologians.

Vulokh did not become a theologian himself; he remains an artist – someone interested only in what is taking place specifically on the canvas and in the eye of the viewer. How do the fragments, looking like scraps of colored paper or shards of colored glass, shape themselves on the canvas into a complex multidimensional structure? How do strict parallel lines laid down on the canvas affect time? At the same time, creating something “abstract” was never the end goal for him. He simply concentrated and meditated, pondering the slow flow of a river, the wind disheveling the tree crowns, or the secret nobility of simple roadside stones. And, like a Zen master, he insisted that “The inner journey has a great importance. It cannot be compared with a mere formal crossing of a graphic line” .