Vladimir Dubossarsky and Alexander Vinogradov sit and smoke in their penthouse studio, not far from Moscow’s Sheremetev Airport. They are laughing as they tell a story about Night Fitness (2004), their large painting of a woman doing a push-up in the shallow end of a swimming pool beneath a night sky filled with stars. They are laughing because the work sold at the Phillips de Pury & Company auction in London last June for $250,000, a record price for them. A few years ago the painting sold for about $15,000.
Dubossarsky talks vividly and almost incessantly, while Vinogradov looks on with a smile. Why are they so amused? “Because we are not the clever ones,” Dubossarsky says.
Clever or not, the duo have entered the top echelon of the market for Russian contemporary art. At Phillips de Pury’s London auction of the John L. Stewart collection last October, their paintings outperformed all sales estimates, according to chairman Simon de Pury. Their 2005 painting Snow sold for more than $225,000, almost doubling its high estimate. More significant, their canvases were auctioned alongside works by some of Russia’s most prominent living artists.
“We are doing consistently well with Dubossarsky and Vinogradov,” says de Pury. “What was interesting was not only the level of prices they attained but to see international collectors as well as Russian collectors bidding.”
The artists are also garnering recognition at home after showing at the Venice Biennale and Deitch Projects in New York in 2003, Vilma Gold in London in 2004, and Saatchi Gallery in London in 2005, among other venues. Their large picture Russian Troika was included in the Guggenheim Museum’s “Russia!” show in 2005. They will be returning to Vilma Gold in March and to Deitch Projects later this year.
Last year they had a surprise hit in Moscow: their picture installation The Four Seasons of Russian Painting, shown as the grand finale of the Tretyakov Gallery’s exhibition of 20th-century Russian art, was a crowd-pleaser. There is only one way out of the Tretyakov’s 20th-century exhibition, and that is to follow it through 42 rooms. This is not an easy undertaking, but The Four Seasons rewards visitors who reach the end. It’s a massive multipanel work that wraps around the room. The first in a series of special projects commissioned by the Tretyakov, it is part of the permanent collection and will be on view for at least the next year.
For the piece, Dubossarsky and Vinogradov took photographs of paintings in the Tretyakov that are recognizable to every Russian—heroic depictions of Lenin and Stalin, sentimental genre scenes, portraits of Pushkin and Gorky, and images of characters from folktales, among many others—then scanned the photos onto canvas and painted them. The result is an exuberant collage of clichés—a Socialist Realist–style pastiche that many gallerygoers find entertaining.
Critics and painters, on the whole, are less enthusiastic about the work. Critic Alexander Panov, for example, said that the entire exhibition appeared to have been put together by designers rather than curators and called Dubossarsky and Vinogradov’s contribution a triumph of decoration over art.
The exhibition’s curator, Irina Lebedeva, acknowledges that The Four Seasons has aroused a certain amount of disdain. After all, it was produced by two artists who have been accused of spawning Socialist Realist porn, or “Capitalist Realism”—art intended to capture the fancy of the new rich. But, she adds, visitors like it. “Vladimir Dubossarsky and Alexander Vinogradov are classically trained artists creating a new approach to painting,” she says, standing in front of the work, which hangs from wires like a banner. “They have found a new and unusual approach, the way Erik Bulatov did.” (Bulatov was one of the first painters to parody Socialist Realist icons.) “Not everyone understands that this has been done with great love for Russian art,” Lebedeva insists.
Dubossarsky, 43, and Vinogradov, 44, have known each other since they were teenagers. Both were born in Moscow, studied art at the Surikov Academy, and served in the Russian army. Dubossarsky likes to say that he flunked out of art school: “I left the institute, or they kicked me out. Anyway, I stopped going there, but Sasha [Vinogradov] finished. Afterward we had an idea to paint our first picture together.”
Their initial collaboration, painted in 1994, depicts Picasso standing on the Moscow River Embankment. The first in a series they informally call “People Who Never Came to Moscow,” it was followed by images of the Beatles and Jesus. Andy Warhol also showed up, with a tiger, standing in front of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. His portrait can be seen in the new Moscow museum (and Web site) Art4.ru, a private showcase for the contemporary-art collection of window-blind tycoon Igor Markin.
The duo had occasional gallery shows in Moscow in their early days, “but we were seen by only a hundred artists and critics,” Dubossarsky recalls. In 1994, the artists say, they were the first to create bright, beautiful paintings in reaction to Moscow’s oppressive atmosphere of confrontational installations and street performances. “You have to understand, when we started working together, there was an opinion here that painting had died,” says Dubossarsky, a tall, lanky man known to friends as Volodya. “In some way, our first project was alternative at that point in time. We didn’t understand what we were doing, but we understood it was against the trend. Aggressive performance art was very popular here. Art was either depressive or aggressive. We decided to create paradise.” Vinogradov smiles at the floor in agreement.
The pair charted new terrain later in the decade when they started to parody the visual language of Socialist Realism to deal with the new Russian ideology of money, sex, and glamour. Russians who have been bombarded from childhood with paintings of idealized life on Soviet collective farms—Sergei Gerasimov’s 1937 Collective Farm Harvest Festival, for example—can appreciate the humor of Dubossarsky and Vinogradov’s Harvest Celebration (1995), in which the action in the hay field is not a feast but an orgy. The painting comes from a series called “Commissioned Paintings.” In the Soviet era, state entities of all kinds commissioned artists to paint pictures. “We pretended we had orders from different institutions, and this one was from the collective farm,” Dubossarsky says.
Western superheroes were also grist for the parody mill. In an untitled painting, a youthful Arnold Schwarzenegger sitting in a field of flowers flexes a bicep for a group of admiring children. And in Happy Day (1995)—the artists call it “a picture for the Reichstag”—shown at Galerie Kai Hilgemann in Berlin, then German chancellor Helmut Kohl watches a wedding ceremony, intended as an allegory for German reunification, under a sky crowded with angels and flowers. Der Spiegel commissioned a portrait of Kohl for its cover after the show.
Russian Troika (1995), the finale to the Guggenheim’s “Russia!” exhibition, was inspired by a familiar image from 19th-century painting and literature. Gogol ended his novel Dead Souls with a vision of Russia as a speeding troika that would one day force the rest of the world to give way. In Dubossarsky and Vinogradov’s version, the coachman fires a Kalashnikov machine gun at a flying demon while wolves run alongside, howling. Dubossarsky calls the painting a tongue-in-cheek “welcome to Russia.”
More recently, the artists have produced utopian visions in such works as Total Painting (2001), Night Fitness (2004), and the dreamlike Snow (2005). But this utopia is in the style of advertisements and TV commercials. The golden sunbeams, overripe fruit, and lush flora and fauna are frankly artificial. Relaxed bodies seem to be floating out of orbit, whether they are on land, in water, or in space.
The artists are “particularly fascinated by images of earthly paradise in advertising,” critic Ekaterina Dyogot wrote in the catalogue for the Stewart collection auction. “This world of immediately fulfilled desires, with its effective erasure of differences of sexes, ages, and seasons, inflicts universal boredom—this is usually the final ‘truth’ about Dubossarsky and Vinogradov’s ‘models of happiness.’ The more exuberant these images of fulfilled life are, the more skeptical and even sarcastic [the] artists appear to be.”
Snow is a strange picture in which a young man is submerged to the neck in what seems to be warm water, while snow falls around his head. He is walking in the water, his face hidden from us. He has no purpose other than to keep walking, Dyogot said, “to keep being alive, young and happy. This is a particularly poignant portrait of contemporary society.”
In 2001 the artists started Total Painting, a work in progress that now includes more than 150 panels dispersed around the world. Painted in a deliberately slapdash style, parodying the joy offered by advertising images and Socialist Realism, the panels jumble movie stars, fashion models, and pop singers with the artists and their friends, all kinds of commercial products, naked sunbathers on a beach, and Tolstoy and Dostoyev-sky as nude models. When 38 of the panels were shown at Deitch Projects in 2003 under the title “Our Best World,” they prompted New York Times critic Ken Johnson to ask (in imitation of David Letterman), “Is it something or is it nothing?”
“If this painting is anything,” Johnson decided, “it’s a goofy, distinctively Russian satire of consumerist euphoria. There are reasons to think it’s not much of anything—it’s not admirable as painting nor is its iconography surprising. Still, its effect is exhilarating. It may not be something, but it’s not nothing.”
Just as difficult as defining Dubossarsky and Vinogradov’s work is persuading them to explain how they do it. Both eschew questions about who holds the brush, and when. Finally, the generally silent Vinogradov ends the mystery: “First we discuss our project. Then we make a sketch on the computer, and then we think of characters. We simply paint. We have assistants who help us. In the end, we put our signature on it.”
Nora FitzGerald is a Moscow correspondent for ARTnews.