Last week, Cooper Union, a storied New York art school that has been attended by many famous artists, made the decision to postpone an exhibition about Vkhutemas, a Moscow-based art and architecture school that was active between 1920 and 1930. Cooper Union said it had made the decision in light of the war in Ukraine.
The decision was decried by a group of artists, critics, and art historians who released an open letter on Sunday in which they called the possibility that the show could eventually be canceled a “chilling impingement on academic freedom and education.”
Among those who signed the open letter were famed art historians, such as Claire Bishop, Yve-Alain Bois, Hal Foster, David Joselit, Rosalind Krauss, and Joachim Pissarro, as well as artists who attended Cooper Union, such as David Diao and Devin Kenny. Also among the signatories were Adelita Husni-Bey, Alfredo Jaar, and Amy Sillman; architect Rem Koolhaas; and Flavin Judd, the leader of the foundation that manages the work of his father, the Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd.
The exhibition, titled “Vkhutemas: Laboratory of the Avant-Garde, 1920-1930,” was slated to open on January 25, the same day that it was postponed by Cooper Union. It was to include works by Cooper Union students alongside materials related to Vkhutemas, its faculty, and people who attended it.
Vkhutemas, which has often been compared to the Bauhaus school, was intended to foster a crop of artists who merged art and politics in their life and work. Established as part of a larger initiative to shift the educational system in Russia under Vladimir Lenin, it was ultimately shuttered by Joseph Stalin, who accused the school of promoting “formalism.”
The school’s faculty included Aleksandr Rodchenkov, El Lissitzky, Lyubov Popova, Aleksandra Ekster, Kazimir Malevich, and Vladimir Tatlin. In 2014, the Gropius Bau in Berlin mounted an exhibition about Vkhutemas; the Cooper Union show is unrelated to that exhibition.
In a statement written by Hayley Eber, the school’s acting dean, and Alexander Tochilovsky, its exhibition committee chair, Cooper Union said it had delayed the opening to “provide us with the time and space to fully consider” qualms about the exhibition.
“As this exhibition would be experienced amidst the present-day conditions, it has generated concerns and started instructive dialogue,” the statement reads. “We are grateful to our colleagues of Ukrainian descent who are helping us to work through this matter as we seek to balance, with accuracy and sensitivity, the scholarly study of architectural history amidst the current atrocities being exacted on the people of Ukraine by the Russian government.”
Although Cooper Union’s statement did not mention it, the postponement came only a few days after Peder Anker, a professor on the faculty of NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, had written an op-ed decrying the show in Archinect.
Accusing the Cooper Union show of being a form of Russian soft power, Anker wrote, “Even though the scholarly work behind the exhibit is solid, it serves in the current cultural politics as Russian propaganda. With the war raging, why would The Cooper Union agree to support this now publicly?”
In an emailed statement to ARTnews after the publication of this article, Eber said that the postponement was not made as a result of Anker’s op-ed, which she said “created the impression that the exhibition was an implicit endorsement of Russian policies today. The original opinion piece, which was not fact checked and has since been significantly amended, spread misunderstanding, and sparked concerns and continuing dialogue at Cooper, within our community, and the field at large.”
In his essay, Anker had previously accused the exhibition’s curator, Anna Bokov, of being associated with Vladimir Putin, but mention of this has now been stripped from the article. Archinect noted that Bokov had responded, calling that label “false and defamatory,” and that Anker did not disclose that he knew her prior to publication.
Noting that he was not an expert on Russian architecture, the open letter attributed Anker’s article, which it labeled “intellectually questionable,” as the reason for why Cooper Union pushed the show’s opening.
In an email to ARTnews, Anker, who specializes in the history of science and environmental philosophy, did not deny that he was not an expert in Russian architecture, but he said that this “does not disqualify me from writing this op-ed (which is not an academic article).” He said he sought to raise questions about “the timing of the show,” not its content, and said he had sought to show how the “intellectual patronage” of Bokov’s father, the architect Andrey Bokov, had allowed her to access material related to Vkhutemas.
“We urge The Cooper Union to immediately engage in an open and responsible process, including conversations with the community as well as experts in the field, and to establish a timely date for the launch of Vkhutemas: Laboratory of the Avant-Garde, 1920-1930,” the open letter concludes. “This exhibition, which showcases work by former and current Cooper Union students, is an important reminder of the cultural experiments of the interwar years and their lasting legacies that stand in opposition to authoritarianism—both then and now.”
In her statement to ARTnews, Eber added, “The decision to provisionally postpone the exhibition was not made because of one person’s opinion; we felt it was critical to have time and space to consider a way forward that both respects the study of this important period of architecture and is mindful of the environment in which work [is] presented. To that end and as a next step, Cooper Union leadership is continuing to have instructive discussions with our students and faculty, as well as with members of Cooper’s Ukrainian community.”
Clarification and update, 1/30/23, 3:40 p.m.: A previous version of this article stated that the exhibition was indefinitely postponed. A Cooper Union spokesperson said it was postponed, but not indefinitely. This article has been updated to include a statement from Hayley Eber that was sent to ARTnews after the publication of this article.