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American Artists from the Russian Empire

by Amy Galpin


Throughout its history the immigrant experience has shaped the American cultural landscape. American Artists from the Russian Empire, on view at The San Diego Museum of Art, October 24, 2009 through January 17, 2010, examines the diverse ways in which Russian artists created work in the United States during the twentieth century. Artists featured in the exhibition include: Alexander Archipenko, David Burliuk, Nicolai Fechin, Mark Rothko, and Ben Shahn. Organized by the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg as a part of a series of exhibitions that addresses the emigration of Russian artists to divergent places, American Artists from the Russian Empire uses the term "Russian" to identify any artists born within the borders of Russia and its former territories such as Armenia, Lithuania, Poland, and the Ukraine.

From approximately 1890 to 1950 the narrative of Russian immigration in the U.S. reveals major events such as pogroms, the Revolution of 1917, and World War II as catalysts for immigration. These events contributed to inadequate access to food, widespread poverty, tyrannical oppression, and the horrific abuse of the Jewish population that caused many to leave Russia and seek safer and more viable existences.

Just as the artists from Russia came to the U.S. for many different reasons, the modern artists who emerged from Russia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries subscribed to different practices ranging from academic portraiture to abstraction. Within Russia multifaceted traditions continued despite the many immigrant artists who left. Russian artists like Natalia Goncharova, Wassily Kandinsky, Kasmir Malevich, and Vladimir Tatlin created significant art in Russia and Europe. Though these artists never lived in the U.S., they influenced American art. The breadth of Russian artistic achievement was experienced both at home and among the many immigrants who arrived in the U.S.

Immigration is never experienced in the same way and the manner in which these Russian artists negotiate their work in the U.S. occurs in myriad forms. The artists in American Artists from the Russian Empire arrived at varying points in their lives. Louise Nevelson and Max Weber came to the U.S. as children, making the journey with their families, while others like Ossip Zadkine sought refuge from the violence of war. For some artists in the exhibition their contribution to the cultural fabric of the U.S. left an indelible mark, while others such as Emmanuel Mane-Katz retained a strong connection to the Russian traditions and the education they received in their native country; therefore, the move to the U.S. altered their art sparingly. In many ways this survey of U.S. artists from Russia parallels major trends in twentieth-century American art: the appropriation of European modernism; the establishment of art colonies in Taos, New Mexico; the practice of Social Realism; participation in the Works Progress Administration sponsored programming; and the exploration of Color Field Painting. Through their presence in the U.S. these artists from Russia contributed to an American art aesthetic that incorporated varied ideas and cultural influences.

Several artists such as Alexander Archipenko and Jacques Lipchitz lived in Europe before they arrived in the United States. Elements of their practice learned in Europe, in particular the prevalence of Cubism, were introduced more firmly to American audiences by their arrival to the U.S. By amplifying the use of Cubism and ancient myth in his work, Archipenko pushed his technique further and developed "sculpto-painting," in which he tested the traditional boundaries of painting and sculpture. His work, Abstract Woman, 1920 created in relief with polychromed bronze, reveals the form of a woman emerging from a series of abstract shapes. Archipenko's Leda and the Swan, c.1938 demonstrates the long curvilinear shapes associated with his sculpture. The slight twisting of the forms reveals an abstract, but elegant and graceful pair. According to Greek mythology Zeus appeared to Leda in the form of the swan. The image was reinterpreted by several sixteenth-century artists in Europe who depicted Leda with a swan locked in a loving embrace. Since the Renaissance, artists have developed an interest in this ancient legend. In more modern times, the reference was adapted by Paul Cézanne and later Cy Twombly.

Unlike Archipenko and Lipchitz, who came to New York from France, Max Weber immigrated to New York in 1891 before he traveled to Europe. By 1898 he enrolled at the Pratt Institute, where he studied under Arthur Wesley Dow. During a visit to France from 1905 to 1909, he befriended Henri Rousseau, Henri Matisse, and visited the studio of Pablo Picasso. While he struggled to gain recognition and sell his work in New York, he was able to exhibit at Alfred Stieglitz's progressive 291 Gallery in 1911 and he was asked to be a part of The Armory Show of 1913, though he declined to participate because he was only asked to show two works. Weber's relationship with Stieglitz eventually dissolved as both men possessed strong opinions and did not always find common ground. Stieglitz's initial support, however, helped Weber launch his career and he included Weber's essay, The Fourth Dimension from a Plastic Point of View in his journal Camera Work in 1910. While he pushed his ideas further, he also accomplished significant professional achievements. By 1918 he was the first artist with an abstract approach to teach at the Arts Student League and in 1930 he received a solo exhibition from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, just one year after the founding of the institution.

In his writing and painting Weber argued for radical re-thinking of pictorial space. Weber used Cubism gleaned from the Paris art scene and applied it to his life in New York and therefore, continued the trend of making an American art form from a European precedent. His work offers a synthesis of art motivations in the early twentieth century. While Pablo Picasso and George Braque documented café life in Paris, Weber's New York Cubism included images of the rapid growth of the urban environment as demonstrated by his Interior of the Fourth Dimension, 1913, where Weber presents a challenging juxtaposition of rounded geometric shapes and sharp-edged lines that mimic the chaos of the city and uses Cubism as a central language for communicating an avant-garde art form.

For many of the artists included in the exhibition and generally speaking for artists and immigrants from 1890 through 1950, New York served as their home and as a center for cultural achievement. Nina Schick's many images of New York, including Manhattan Cityscape, c.1940 reveals the artist's connection with the city and the power it evoked for many. In New York, Weber saw the skyscrapers, the Brooklyn Bridge, the subway, and busy restaurants as inspiration for his work. Though the city and industrialization intrigued him, he never forgot his cultural roots. He continued to examine Jewish culture, depicting rabbis and other Jewish scholars, for example in The Talmudists, 1934 and Sabbath, 1941.

Outside of New York, several Russian artists including Leon Gaspard and Nicolai Fechin settled in New Mexico. Earlier in his career, Fechin depicted historical narratives, but he eventually devoted a large portion of his cultural output to portraits. Before arriving in the U.S., he studied at the Art School of Kazan and with Ilya Repin under whose tutelage he began using a palette knife to apply paint more thickly. His fame preceded him to the United States and in 1910 the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh presented a portrait of his father and Portrait of Miss Sapojnikoff, 1908. His family endured pain in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917. The land given to them by his wife's family was seized, and amidst the chaos that ensued, they sought asylum in the U.S. Fechin arrived in New York at the age of 42.

After leaving New York, Fechin moved to Taos, joined the Taos Society of Artists, and became a part of the growing movement of outsiders who lived in the Southwest and were inspired to portray Native American culture. These representations often embodied romantic notions as artists tended to present idealized images as opposed to revealing the daily realities of many Native Americans living in the region. In Manuelita with Kachina, 1927-33 Fechin portrays a young girl holding two kachina dolls typically associated with Pueblo communities and most frequently with the Hopi culture. Frequently kachina dolls are carved from wood, painted, and adorned with feathers and they are used to teach children about their culture. In the painting, Fechin correlates the young girl with her heritage through her physical attachment to a cultural artifact.

Like Fechin, Leon Gaspard found a connection with Taos; however, in contrast to Fechin, Gaspard's images frequently reference his Russian heritage. Employing a bright color palette and an attention to decorative surfaces, Gaspard's King Solomon portrays the leader seated on a throne adorned with two lions. Identified as a King of Israel, Solomon was frequently associated with wealth and wisdom. While adapting to their new homeland and simultaneously reaffirming their cultural past, Russian artists like Gaspard navigated a complex identity upon settling in the U.S. Boris Grigoriev, End of the Harvest (Faces of Russia), 1923 and Sergei Sudeikin, Pre-Lenten Festival, 1928 further demonstrate the perseverance of Russian themes among certain artists who immigrated to the U.S.

As a result of the severe effects of the Great Depression, the government made efforts to support artists through the Works Progress Administration; opportunities were not limited to artists born within the United States. Across the country, many Russian artists participated in the print and mural programs sponsored by the W.P.A. Notably Ben Shahn embraced political art forms and contributed to Social Realism. Shahn settled in Brooklyn and studied at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League in New York and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris. He assisted Mexican painter Diego Rivera with his ill-fated project at Rockefeller Center and went on to create his own murals. His first W.P.A. project occurred at Jersey Homesteads (now Roosevelt), New Jersey and subsequent projects included the Federal Security Building (now Department of Health, Education, and Welfare) in Washington, D.C., and the Bronx Central Post Office in New York. Shahn's public art projects reaffirmed his interest in society and the complicated experiences of everyday people. These W.P.A. projects and his other Social Realism works are contemporary with his best-known series, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, 1931-32.

In the years following World War II, Shahn's work took a dramatic shift. He began using allegory regularly as a way to create universal symbols and to deal with his own disillusionment with war. Painted during the same year Shahn became Professor of Poetry at Harvard University, Helix and Crystal, 1957 depicts a scientist immersed in his crystalline structure. Frequently during this period Shahn depicted scientists and molecular systems to symbolize scientific research. In 1960 Shahn created a poster that boldly stated "Stop H Bomb Tests," on behalf of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, proving that he possessed a genuine mistrust of some aspects of scientific "advancement."

Like Shahn, David Burliuk worked for the W.P.A. and developed a Social Realist style; however, unlike Shahn, Burliuk was established as an artist before coming to the United States. Burliuk, a follower of Der Blaue Reiter and a leading figure of Russian Futurism, left Russia for Japan in 1920. He lived there and created over 500 works before settling in New York in 1922. Although he left Russia following the Revolution, once he lived in the U.S. he embraced the cause of the worker and acted as a defender of the proletariat, frequently delivering lectures to labor unions. Shame to all but to the Dead (Or, Unemployedville), 1933 reflects Burliuk's interest in exploring the effects of the Great Depression on both workers and the urban environment. On the right side of the canvas, a group of downtrodden workers congregate in one of the shantytowns built by the homeless. In the center of the composition rests the lifeless body of the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic, who made extreme poverty a virtue; adding to the drama of the scene, two stones are placed over his eyes. On the left side of the canvas, Burliuk depicts an abandoned New York City with Central Park emerging in the background. Burliuk and many other Russian-born artists occasionally conceived of their paintings as part of a larger political platform. To accompany this painting, Burliuk wrote a manifesto that ended with the bold statement: "An immense city with tens of thousands and piles of food wasting away provokes me to give my picture a title -- SHAME TO ALL BUT THE DEAD."

While Burliuk committed to figurative forms, Russian artists like Mark Rothko and Jules Olitsky turned to abstraction and broad use of heightened color in the 1950s and beyond. Rothko's father arrived first in the U.S. and after he found employment as a pharmacist in Portland, Oregon, he sent for his family to join him. In Portland, a young Rothko strived in school and eventually won a scholarship to Yale University. After a few years at Yale, he left without a degree and settled in New York. Greater proximity to the momentous changes occurring in the New York art scene led to significant relationships with influential artists. During parts of 1925 and 1926 he studied under Max Weber at the Art Students League. After meeting Milton Avery in 1928, he began making regular visits to the artist's studio. In 1935 Rothko and Ilya Bolotowsky, another Russian immigrant artist, became founding members of The Ten, a group of friends that met monthly to discuss their art, expressed interest in abstraction, and favored artists like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Milton Avery. Later David Burliuk and John Graham, also included in American Artists from the Russian Empire, joined The Ten. Organizations offered immigrant artists a sense of community, a support system, and opportunities to coordinate efforts for specific causes. The members of The Ten were particularly interested in securing opportunities for mutually beneficial exhibitions. In 1938 the group hosted an exhibition entitled Whitney Dissenters at the Mercury Galleries in opposition to the practices of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

In these early years despite the support of The Ten, Rothko experienced difficultly gaining sales and recognition of his art. Before World War II most of the sales of his works were due to the generosity of his friends and other artists. Early works like Figure Composition, 1936-7 and Olympian Play, 1943-4 represent the influence of Ancient Greece, Surrealism, and universal mythmaking in Rothko's work during this period. Rothko's Untitled, 1947 shows him moving toward the types of Color Field Painting that would become his greatest artistic achievement and the work, exemplified by No.7 (Orange and Chocolate), 1957 that continues to illicit international attention.

From the end of the nineteenth century through the post-war years, Russian artists came to the United States and contributed to American visual culture. Whether they brought ideas from their homeland, developed new ideas in the U.S., or redefined current American artistic trends, their presence impacted the production of twentieth-century American art. These artists' works, revealed side by side in American Artists from the Russian Empire, reinforces the power of immigrants and stresses the need for a multifaceted definition of American art.


About the author

Amy Galpin is Project Curator for American Art at the San Diego Museum of Art.


About the exhibition American Artists from the Russian Empire

American Artists from the Russian Empire premiers this fall at its only West Coast venue, The San Diego Museum of Art. The exhibition features 55 paintings and sculptures by many of the best-known artists working in America in the postwar period, among them Louise Nevelson, Jules Olitsky, Mark Rothko, and Ben Shahn. (right: Fechin, Nicolai, Girl in Purple Dress, n.d., Oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inchces (50.8 x 40.7 cm.). Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art (Univ. of OK) 2003.001.026.)
On view Saturday, October 24, 2009 to Sunday, January 17, 2010, American Artists from the Russian Empire presents a fascinating foray into the work of artists of Russian descent and training who left the Russian Empire before the end of the 1930s. These artists all created a significant body of work in the U.S., and the exhibition provides unique insights into the immeasurable contributions they made to the creation of American culture.
The exhibition brings to San Diego a broad selection of works on loan from museums, galleries, and private collections in the U.S. The installation at the Museum also features works from its own permanent collection and some local loans from private collections by artists who emigrated to the U.S. from Russia, among them: Alexander Archipenko, Nicholai Fechin, Jacques Lipshitz, Joseph Solman, and Max Weber.
"American Artists from the Russian Empire will give our audiences an exciting opportunity to see a broad range of artistic styles and media used by some of the most active and influential Russian artists who lived and worked in the United States. The Museum is thrilled to partner with major institutions in Russia and the United States to bring this dynamic exhibition to San Diego," said Julia Marciari-Alexander, deputy director for curatorial affairs at The San Diego Museum of Art.
The San Diego Museum of Art is proud to be the second and final U.S. museum to host this exhibition. Curated by Evgenia Petrova, deputy director for science at the State Russian Museum, the project will be managed at The San Diego Museum of Art by Julia Marciari-Alexander, deputy director for curatorial affairs.
The exhibition is organized by The Foundation for International Arts and Education, Bethesda, Maryland, and the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.
American Artists from the Russian Empire is accompanied by a 288-page, illustrated catalogue published by the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, available at the Museum store.


(above: Gaspard, Leon, King Solomon, 1940, Oil, gouache and gold leaf on paper, 30 x 24 inches (76.2 x 61.0 cm.). Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art (Univ. of OK). 1996.017.052)


(above: Anisfeld, Boris, Woman on a Beach, 1920s, Oil on Canvas, 50 x 40 inches (126.9 x 101.6 cm.). ABA Gallery, New York)

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Katy Harrison of Bailey Gardiner, A Creative Agency, San Diego, CA for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text by Ms. Galpin..

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