Ukrainian Artists Focus of Dodge Collection Exhibition at the Zimmerli Art Museum
Painting in Excess: Kyiv’s Art Revival, 1985–1993
WHERE: Zimmerli Art Museum, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick
The exhibition Painting in Excess: Kyiv’s Art Revival, 1985–1993 explores the inventive new art styles by Ukrainian artists responding to a trying transitional period of perestroika (restructuring) during the collapse of the Soviet Union. On view at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, the exhibition highlights an explosion of styles, rediscovered histories, and newly found freedoms that blossomed against economic scarcity and ecological calamity, creating an effect of baroque excess.
Organized by guest research curator Olena Martynyuk, Ph.D. with assistance from Julia Tulovsky, Ph.D., the Zimmerli’s curator of Russian and Soviet Nonconformist Art, Painting in Excess: Kyiv’s Art Revival, 1985-1993 is accompanied by a catalogue of the same title, co-published with Rutgers University Press.
Excessive in its expressive manner and color, Kyivan painting of the late 1980s and early 1990s produced a new quality in art, no longer defined by the dichotomy of official and unofficial art during the Soviet era (1922-1991). Such daring art had not been publicly visible since the avant-garde of the early 20th century. With some ideological restrictions lifted, artists were flooded with information on Western theories, from postmodernism to formalist abstraction.
Simultaneously, Ukrainian artists discovered chapters of local history that had been suppressed or deleted, as well as their decades-long exclusion from the global library of art. Thus, allusions to antique ruins and other spoils of Western culture abound in Ukrainian painting. Oozing symbolic meaning, large-scale canvases reflect their transitional moment, reconsidering the past and defining the future. The museum is pleased to showcase perhaps the most well-known work of this time, Georgii Senchenko’s wall-sized Sacred Landscape of Peter Bruegel (1988; top image), an oil rendering of Bruegel’s ink drawing The Beekeepers and the Birdnester (1568). Restored for this exhibition, it had not been shown since the 1988 Moscow Youth exhibition, which for the first time presented the new Ukrainian art as a coherent stylistic and intellectual phenomenon.
A section of the exhibition focuses on the Painterly Preserve, a collective founded in 1992. Members of the group were captivated by the contrast between the bountiful and beautiful Ukrainian landscape and the invisible nuclear threat contaminating it after the Chernobyl catastrophe. They also were preoccupied with history of the forbidden Ukrainian avant-garde of the early 20th century—an unfinished venture—and gravitated toward abstraction, even though they were aware that it was no longer the dominant global trend. Their formal explorations were often a gradual disassociation from storytelling and subject matter in painting. Midnight (1981) and Guest (1982), two oil paintings by Tiberiy Silvashi, the unofficial leader of the group, demonstrate the prevalence of the materiality of color that would soon overcome his rudimentary storytelling, transitioning into pure abstraction.
The exhibition also provides historical context with a selection of works by artists who were active in Kyiv during the 1960s and 1970s. They experienced various degrees of recognition—and persecution—anticipating many subjects and themes that became relevant for the generation that emerged in the 1980s. Some artists, including Alla Horska and Opanas Zalyvakha, explored the previously forbidden avant-garde tradition and spoke openly about Communist injustices. However, many were considered to be dissident threats and were expelled from jobs or imprisoned, and their art was destroyed. Others, such as Oleksandr Dubovyk, were confined to semipublic shows, but deprived of state commissions and positions of power. Artists such as Valery Lamakh and Hryhorii Havrylenko practiced art entirely outside the system, in their private apartments without access to the public or institutional resources.
Painting in Excess also represents the culmination of an important international collaboration that brings together more than 60 works of art, the majority of which have never been exhibited in the United States. A selection of paintings and works on paper is drawn primarily from the Zimmerli’s Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, supplemented by loans from the Abramovych Foundation, and a group of Ukrainian art collectors, facilitated by support from Tymofieyev Foundation. In addition, this is a rare opportunity to exhibit these 33 artists together, many of whom are the most well-known of their generation in Ukraine: Oleksandr Babak, Oleksander Hnylytskyj, Oleg Holosiy, Anatoly Kryvolap, Mykola Matsenko, Kostiantyn Reunov, Oleksandr Roitburd, Arsen Savadov, Marina Skugareva, Oleg Tistol, and Aleksander Zhyvotkov.
Painting in Excess is the second exhibition focusing on Ukrainian art within the Dodge Collection. “These artists were very important to the late Norton Dodge, who spent more than three decades acquiring artwork from the former Soviet Union,” Tulovsky stated. “He was very eager to showcase collection’s vast number of works by Ukrainian artists, as they have not been widely represented in other exhibitions of art from the Soviet era.”
Martynyuk also organized the museum’s first exhibition of Ukrainian art, Odessa's Second Avant-Garde: City and Myth, in 2014, when she was a Dodge Fellow at the Zimmerli. She received her doctoral degree from Rutgers University in 2018 and currently is a Petro Jacyk Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Ukrainian Studies at the Harriman Institute of Columbia University.