Published  23/10/2014

Natalia Kolodzei interview: ‘My dream is that every American museum has a small collection of Russian art’

Natalia Kolodzei interview: ‘My dream is that every American museum has a small collection of Russian art’

Natalia Kolodzei, executive director of the Kolodzei Art Foundation, talks about her family collection of Soviet and Russian art, begun in the 1960s when Nikita Khrushchev’s leadership of the Soviet Union led to slightly more freedom for artists

This Leads to Fire: Russian Art from Nonconformism to Global Capitalism, Selections from the Kolodzei Art Foundation Collection
Neuberger Museum of Art, State University of New York, New York
14 September 2014 – 11 January 2015


Twenty-three years ago the world celebrated the fall of the Soviet Union. There was much hope in the air for a decisive break with the country’s history of suppression of dissident thought, in politics and art alike. The so-called “nonconformist art,” which arose on the margins of officially accepted art forms during the period marked by the death of Stalin at one end and the dissolution of the communist rule at the other, has also become part of this history. People who have been collecting it all along – clandestinely and in circumstances fraught with danger to themselves and the artists they were patronising – have come out in the open, forming foundations to expand their holdings and show them to the public more effectively. In This Leads to Fire, the Kolodzei Art Foundation, one of the most important of this kind, brings to our attention a small but comprehensive sampling from its collection.

Curated by Sarah Warren, associate professor of art history at Purchase College, the State University of New York, the exhibition contains 88 works of various media from the countries of the former Soviet Union, offering an overview of art in the region featured in Kolodzei Art Foundation from the early 1960s to the present. Divided into five thematic sections, the exhibition charts a course of development of visual thought in a region where artistic freedom has never been taken for granted. Natalia Kolodzei, executive director of the foundation, gave an interview to Studio International on the occasion of this exhibition.

Natasha Kurchanova (Studio International):When I was preparing for our meeting, I read some interviews with your mother, Tatiana Kolodzei, in which she described her beginnings as a collector in the 1960s. I learned a tragic story about her father – your grandfather – who was killed in 1948, during the postwar wave of Stalinist purges. There is also a happier story about your mother’s friendship with artists, musicians and poets during the relative freedom allowed by Khrushchev.

Natalia Kolodzei: In the 1960s, it all began with my mother meeting George Costakis, a famous collector of Russian avant-garde art, and other art collectors of that period. She lived in Moscow and travelled to Leningrad, where she also met collectors such as Abram Chudnovsky and Lev Katsenelson, for example. She also knew Evdokia Nikolaevna Glebova, the sister of Pavel Filonov [1883-1941], and every time my mother visited Leningrad, she went to see her. At thе time, Glebova transferred all Filonov’s paintings to the Russian Museum, but she still had most of her brother’s drawings, which she showed to my mother. My mother also knew other notable people and artists who lived in Leningrad at the time, such Kazimir Malevich’s student Vladimir Sterligov [1904-73].

SI: Was she mostly interested in artists from Moscow and Leningrad?

NK: No, not only them. In the 70s and 80s, she frequently visited Estonian artists and made a few visits to Latvia and Lithuania. In the collection, we have works by Tõnis Vint, Mare Vint, Raul Meel, Leonhard Lapin, Siim-Tanel Annus, Malle Leis, Jüri Arrak, and others. Also, we have a very good collection of Georgian artists, including Alexander Bandzeladze, Gia Edzgveradze and Yuri Berishvili. In 2001, we lent several works by Georgian artists to the exhibition Abstract Art in Russia: The Twentieth Century at The State Russian Museum, St Petersburg. During the Soviet times, it was a very close circle of artists, poets, musicians and art collectors. When I was turning five, Genrikh Sapgir read his children poetry at my birthday party. We were like one big family in those days. Now, many artists are dispersed all over the world – living in Paris, Berlin and New York. Before the Soviet Union fell apart, we were very closely connected with them. Now, times have changed. People are busier, but we are still very happy to see each other when opportunity permits.

SI: I am interested in your practice of collecting as a family tradition. Your mother frequently mentions the importance of Costakis’s mentorship. It appears that her desire to start a collection was nurtured by him. Also, in 1974, she was instrumental in helping Norton Dodge [1927-2011], who became a well-known American collector of Russian nonconformist art, to form his collection, by introducing him to artists in Moscow. How does the relationship with these collectors impact on your history? Apart from your mother, did any other collectors inspire you or serve as mentors?

NK: It so happened that when Dodge came to Moscow in 1974, in the beginning he knew a very narrow circle of people around Oskar Rabin. The artist Borukh (Boris Shteinberg; 1938-2003) introduced Dodge to my mother. Then she took him to see the studios of all the artists she knew, including Ilya Kabakov, Eduard Gorokhovsky, Rimma and Valeriy Gerlovin, Francisco Infante, Vladimir Yankilevsky, Mikhail Shvartsman and many others. In other words, she was responsible for drastically widening the circle of Dodge’s acquaintances. Dodge had been visiting the USSR since the 50s, but at that time he was collecting material for his book on women in the Soviet economy and was not interested in collecting art. Only in the 1970s did he become infatuated with this idea. My mother was at the origin of his collection. When, in 1977, Dodge, together with Professor Alison Hilton, published the first catalogue of his collection, New Art from the Soviet Union: The Known and the Unknown, he asked my mother’s permission to acknowledge her role in the building of his collection. At that time, she asked him to forego this mention, because I was still little and this acknowledgement could have had negative political repercussions for our family. Only later, in 1995, when an expanded catalogue appeared, Nonconformist Art: The Soviet Experience 1956-1986,did he mention her and thank her publicly. In 1974, when Dodge and my mother were visiting artists in Moscow, they had to be very careful. They never gave each other anyone’s addresses or telephone numbers and always arranged to meet “in the same place, at the same time”. Now, of course, the situation is different. Now the works of Kabakov and Erik Bulatov are being sold by the best auction houses and are in the best museum collections around the world. They are among the most expensive contemporary artists. I am happy that Oleg Vassiliev joined this league as well. In 2004, we arranged a large exhibition of his works in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the Russian Museum in St Petersburg. We also prepared a thorough monograph of this exhibition, Oleg Vassiliev: Memory Speaks (Themes and Variations). The difference between the collection of Dodge and ours is that he concentrated on collecting artworks created before perestroika took place and non-conformist art ceased to exist. We, on the other hand, are aiming to represent all postwar Soviet and Russian art, including contemporary work. I am very happy that we could include Alexandra Dementieva’s interactive installation Mirror’s Memory (2003) in our exhibition at the Neuberger Museum of Art, for example, because art did not stop in 1986 and those artists who were considered non-conformist at the time continue to make interesting works. Even though Vladimir Nemukhin, Rabin, Ernst Neizvestny, Vladimir Ovchinnikov are no longer creating under oppressive political circumstances, their works still deserve attention.

In terms of mentorship, I think that perhaps when we first arrived in the United States, we adopted the same marketing strategy as Dodge to promote Russian and Soviet art. For example, until recently, we personally delivered works of art from our collection to different art centres and museums, sometimes driving them in ourselves. If anyone ever expressed any interest in Russian art, we were there, ready to offer a choice from a great variety of works from an extended time period. We did many non-commercial exhibitions at various cultural institutions, some of them lasting only one day. An example is our long-term cooperation with the World Russia Forum at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington DC. We know that many people do not frequent museums, so we give them an opportunity to see works in other settings. We are open to various forms of cooperation. In 1992, we sent nine drawings by three Siberian artists of the Circle of Pure Group into space in the Resurs-500 capsule of the Soyuz launch rocket during the private space flight Europe-America-500. Museums, of course, are ideal places for exhibiting works, but if we have a chance to show works at alternative spaces, we take it. Sometimes, we have to alter the format of what we exhibit – choose videos over paintings, for example – but we rarely pass an opportunity to show our art publicly.

SI: In one of her interviews, your mother also recalled an exhibition at the House of Culture of the Exposition of People’s Economic Achievements, held in 1975. This exhibition was a sequel to the famous Bulldozer Show in Moscow the previous year. She helped to organise the exhibition, but had much trouble with the Soviet authorities, who thwarted the organisers’ efforts at every step.

NK: Artists asked my mother and collector Leonid Talochkin [1936-2002] to help them with the organisation of the exhibition. However, it was not the starting point of our collection; the first work entered in it was Boris Kozlov’s Nun (1963) in 1967. As you know, there was no art market or private art galleries in Russia before perestroika. The First Gallery was opened by Aidan Salakhova, Alexander Yakut and Evgeni Mitta in 1989, the Mars Gallery in 1988, and the Regina Gallery and the Marat Guelman Gallery in 1990. Before this, no one was interested in art apart from a very narrow circle of people, collectors and diplomats. There was an expression: “suitcase-size paintings,” meaning that paintings were made of a certain size, so that they could fit in a suitcase and be taken out of the country easily. My mother is a professional art historian. In the beginning, she helped artists to organise their exhibitions. There was no monetary compensation, so to thank her some artists gave her their work. However, this kind of exchange existed only in the beginning. In 1979, she spent one pay cheque and her vacation money on buying a certificate giving her ownership of Dodge’s soul. This certificate was part of the work by Conceptual artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, entitled Corporation for Buying and Selling Souls. Komar and Melamid produced this work on their arrival in New York, where they created a corporation for buying and selling American souls. Between November 1978 and May 1979, they “purchased” American souls and resold them later that year in Moscow. They met many notable figures of the art world, including Andy Warhol. The First Auction of American Souls in Moscow was one of the first private art auctions in Russia. It took place in Mikhail Odnoralov’s studio in Moscow in 1979 and was organised by the Gnezdo group (Viktor Skersis, Gennady Donskoi and Mikhail Roshal). The Soul of Norton Dodge was the most expensive – 246 rubles. By contrast, Warhol’s soul went for 30 rubles.

SI: In 1975, you were one year old. That means that you literally grew up together with the collection. What are your memories of those early years?

NK: My first work was given to me on my first birthday by artist Petr Belenok. He passed away in 1991, and in 2003 I organised a posthumous exhibition, Petr Belenok In Black and White Space, in his honour with the help of the Russian, Ukrainian and Belorussian missions in the United Nations. I am very grateful to my mother that I grew up together with artists and knew them personally.

SI: Did you ever study art history?

NK: Yes, in Russia I received a classical education, which included studying art history at a club for young art historians in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. In 1992, I entered the art history department of Rutgers University in New Jersey, which I finished in 1998 with distinction. I am very grateful to Dodge for creating the Nonconformist Art Scholarship, of which I was a recipient. Now I am an honorary member of the Russian Academy of Arts.

SI: The Kolodzei Art Foundation was formed in 1991. Since then, it has been very active. It organises exhibitions almost every year. Right now, your foundation has two exhibitions on view, at the Neuberger Art Museum in Purchase and the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum in Lafayette, Louisiana.

NK: The Kolodzei Art Foundation, Inc, a charitable, non-profit corporation founded in 1991, promotes the contemporary art of Russia and the former Soviet Union through art exhibitions in museums, universities and cultural centres throughout the United States, Russia and Europe. Its board of directors includes distinguished business, diplomatic and cultural figures in US-European-Russian relations. The foundation also publishes books on Russian art. We organise exhibitions every year, but they vary in size and content. Sometimes, they are rather large overviews of our collection or historical surveys; sometimes they are smaller. We are very happy that This Leads to Fire: Russian Art from Non-Conformism to Global Capitalism. Selections from the Kolodzei Art Foundation, now at the Neuberger Museum, is showing 100 works by 60 artists. Also, the Finding Freedom in Russian Art, 1961-2014. Selections from the Kolodzei Art Foundation and the Collection of Dr Wayne F Yakes at Hilliard Museum’s exhibition is rather large. We lend works to other exhibitions – for example to the exhibition Oleg Vassiliev Space and Light at the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick. We also lent works for the Yuri Sobolev retrospective currently on view at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. He is a wonderful artist, and we are happy to contribute to his exhibition.

SI: It appears that the exhibition at Neuberger Museum of Art is, first of all, educational in nature. It demarcates movements and participants, placing them in well-defined categories and a clearly explained historical context.

NK: Yes, the aim of the curator, Sarah Warren, in organising this exhibition was pedagogical. It was important for her to show a diverse range of artists. This exhibition has a long history. It was initiated by Thomas Collins, the former director of the Neuberger Museum, and Helaine Posner, senior curator of contemporary art. They asked Warren to curate the exhibition, because now American universities are working toward greater cooperation between faculty and museums on their campuses in order to make material in these museums more accessible to their students. Initially, I chose 300 works, aiming for a more historically comprehensive overview, from which Warren picked around 100, because she wanted the show to be more thematic. The exhibition, in my view, is a success, because it accomplishes its aim of educating the public about Russian postwar art. It is important for us that these group shows give the viewer an idea of a great variety of diverse forms of thought and events that took place on the territory of the former Soviet Union. It is also important that each visitor to our exhibition finds something personal for himself or herself in it, be it a work by Dementieva, Dmitrii Krasnopevtsev, or Nemukhin. I am always very happy to work with university museums, precisely because their primary mission is to educate the public. For example, in connection with the exhibition at Neuberger Museum, there are lectures planned by Masha Gessen, Vitaly Komar and myself. When I lectured at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis last year in connection with the exhibition from our collection Concerning the Spiritual in Russian Art, 1965-2011, the audience was enormous. I was touched and surprised by people’s interest in the subject. Also, in 2006, when we took part in an exhibition of Russian art at the MADI Museum in Dallas, we gave the same lectures in the morning and at night, and some people came to both.

SI: What criteria do you have for choosing works?

NK: Individuality and quality are the primary criteria. The direction or style of work is secondary. We do not sell the works from the collection – the collection is our lives. One day it will become a seed for a museum, but at this point we, as the 19th-century Russian artists the Itinerants, are interested in travelling and sharing the works with different public.

SI: Are you looking at artists from Kazakhstan or other Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union?

NK: Yes, of course, but less frequently than before. In 1989, we mounted an exhibition, 100 artists from the Kolodzei Collection,at the State Museum of Fine Arts in Tashkent in Uzbekistan. We have works by Rustam Khamdamov, an artist born in Tashkent, so that year we brought his work to his native land. We have artists from Kazakhstan in our collection, but not many. As in any collection, some artists are better represented, some less so. Sometimes, the range and number of works by particular artists are determined by mutual interests.

SI: I learned that, before perestroika, your collection numbered about 2,000 works. Right now, this has reached approximately 7,000 works by 300 artists. Where do you keep these works and which artists form the core of your collection?

NK: Yes, our collection has approximately 7,000 works at the moment: this includes every medium – painting, drawing, sculpture, installations and video. These works are held in special storage facilities, which are closed to the public. Concerning your question about core artists in our collection, I think that there are none. There are artists who are represented by a greater number of works, but this does not mean that when we make exhibitions, we give preference to them over someone else. For example, we have enough works by Belenok, Nemukhin, Farid Bogdalov, Irene Caesar, Sergei Volokhov, and Vassiliev to organise their personal exhibitions, but when we make group exhibitions, we never focus on individual figures. If we can speak about a “core” at all, it would be a “collective core” of our collection, formed around the geographical axis of “Moscow-St Petersburg”. We do not give preference to any particular time period covered by our collection. As I said before, it is important for us to emphasise that those artists who were active in the 60s, 70s and 80s continue to make great work now. This does not mean that their older work is more or less interesting. What is important is that they keep working. From the point of view of the market, the works from the 60s may be more valuable, but from the point of view of art history, if a work made in 2014 has something new and interesting, it is as important to us as a work made earlier. We also show many young and emerging, unknown artists to the American public. We also organise a series of thematic exhibitions – for example, one of the exhibitions from the Women in Artseries, From Non-Conformism to Feminisms: Russian Women Artists from the Kolodzei Art Foundationat New York’s Chelsea Art Museum, has works by Lydia Masterkova, Valentina Kropivnitskaya, Natalia Nesterova, Olga Bulgakova, as well as Tatiana Antoshina and other feminist women artists.

SI: As executive director of the Kolodzei Art Foundation, what are your plans for the future?

NK: I dream that every American museum has a small collection of Russian art. It does not matter whether it is Malevich, icons, or contemporary Russian artists. I want to help make Russian culture part of the international art collective.

SI: Are you talking only about museums in the United States?

NK: Yes, since we now live in the United States. In Russia, we organise and participate in many exhibitions – with the Tretyakov Gallery, the Hermitage, the Russian Museum, the Moscow Museum of Modern Art and the National Centre for Contemporary Arts (NCCA). However, in Russia there are many other resources for Russian art. Here, we would like to raise the general educational level of the public about this subject. We do not want to show our collection only in New York and Washington, for example, but to bring it to other states. We want to bring a piece of Russian culture to various corners of the United States.

SI: Have you ever organised exhibitions in Europe – in England, for example?

NK: In London, I lectured at Sotheby’s and the Foundation lent works for the project Breaking the Ice: Moscow Art, 1960-80s at the Saatchi Gallery in 2012. When we want to exhibit our works in other countries, usually we look for a partner who can guarantee the safety of the works and their return to the collection – as, for example, in the exhibition The Hurricane of Time. Turn of the Century, Close of the Millennium Art of the 1960s Though 2000. Selections from the Kolodzei Collection in 2000 at Villa Ormond in San Remo, Italy. It’s not so easy, so now we focus our efforts on the United States. We have established the International Association of Contemporary Russian Art Collectors to collaborate with other collectors. For example, the exhibition at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard Art Museum also contains works from the collection of Dr Wayne F Yakes.

SI: Thank you very much for taking your time to speak to Studio International.


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