Essays and Texts

Ksenia Nouril

The work of Anton Ginzburg is almost always put into context with the historical European avant-gardes of the twentieth century.  This connection by critics and scholars alike is a direct reflection of Ginzburg’s self-identification with Russian Constructivism through artists and architects such as Mikhail Matyushin,  Aleksander Rodchenko, Vladimir Tatlin, and Konstantin Melnikov. These figures loomed large in Blue Flame: Constructions and Initiatives, Ginzburg’s 2016 solo exhibition at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery. As discussed at length in other texts, Ginzburg often draws inspiration from the academic principles of the legendary early Soviet art school VKhUTEMAS, with which many of these figures were associated. For this particular exhibition, he brought together a number of works exploring the potential of a utopian project.
“Looking at these iconic Constructivist buildings is a way of reliving their creation as the first stage of a universalist project, now in the past, and as a way to imagine the future,” reflects Ginzburg.

This essay contextualizes the works exhibited in this, as well as in several subsequent shows (at Fridman Gallery, New York; Barbara Davis Gallery, Houston; and Helwaser Gallery, New York) within a refreshingly different lineage—that of Soviet Nonconformist art, specifical movements in Soviet kinetic art of the 1960s and 1970s.  It also reframes Ginzburg’s work using Rosalind Krauss’ concept of the grid. A seminal theory of the October generation, it provides Ginzburg with yet another important but overlooked lineage, that of so-called Western modernism under which he eventually trained at Bard College in the United States. At this moment of retrenchment, it is important to acknowledge the transnationalism practiced by an artist like Ginzburg and learn from the way he embodies the histories of multiple cultures to imagine different futures. He executes this deftly, in contrast to the stereotypical Cold War model that sees Russian and American cultures as inherently opposed. Ginzburg’s work harmonizes these interdependent histories in new and innovative ways.

Coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Ginzburg’s exhibition Staring and Cursing at Fridman Gallery in 2017 was a total installation that immersed the viewer in a sensory explosion of bright colors and bold lines. Made on the centennial, his ORRA paintings reference the theories of Mikhail Matyushin. A Russian Futurist artist and composer, he most notably collaborated with writer Alexei Kruchenykh and artist Kazimir Malevich on the 1913 opera Victory Over the Sun. Beyond this infamous collaboration, Matyushin proposed ways to actively engage with one’s surroundings through theories on color and space, systemized in his Seeing-Knowing (ZorVed [Zrenie-Vedanie]) program, which he enumerated in the 1923 manifesto “Not Art but Life” (Ne iskusstvo, a zhizn’). With it, he aimed to enhance the capabilities of the average human eye, so as to achieve complete 360-degree perception. Called rasshirennoe zrenie (expanded vision), this way of seeing activates all five senses in “carefully observing nature and seeing beyond.” Following the proscriptions of his program, Matyushin and his students went to great lengths to reach this immersive sensorial state through “animated, indefatigable observations of nature.” This required a literal return to nature through visits to the country-side around the burgeoning metropolis of Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg, Ginzburg’s hometown), where Matyushin established and taught at the Workshop for Spatial Realism at the Petrograd Academy of the Arts and in the Section on Organic Culture at GINKhUK (The State Institute of Artistic Culture).

In his ORRA paintings, Ginzburg captures the sensation of the ineffable and immaterial not through the natural world but through the artificial—through a series of concretely tangible octagonal wooden panels composed of overlapping squares and crosses. These dynamic combinations of forms along with their dramatic color palettes produce a sense of dimensionality that results in the work radiating outward toward the viewer. They are buoyed by the artist’s study of Matyushin’s texts and elaborate hand-colored charts, which defined principles of harmony among pigments. Yet Ginzburg’s ORRA paintings simultaneously speak to another lineage unfolding over fifty years later and halfway around the globe. In her seminal text “Grids,” which was first published in the summer 1979 issue of the American journal of critical theory October—founded in homage to the Russian Revolution of 1917—art historian Rosalind Krauss lauds the grid as the hallmark of modernity. She draws our attention to the subtle differences between understanding the grid as the material of the work—physically evinced in the faktura or surface of the painting—versus the essence of the work— metaphysically embodied in its form that operates as an interface into another realm. Krauss writes that “[Piet] Mondrian and [Kazimir] Malevich are not discussing canvas or pigment or graphite or any other form of matter” but “talking about Being or Mind or Spirit,” making the grid “a staircase to the Universal” disinterested in “what happens below in the Concrete.” She goes on to discuss the “power of the grid” that gives it mythic attributes, yet the grid refutes narrative. A true structuralist, Krauss understands the grid not as a story that unfolds but a space that is unfolded, where everything is held, literally, in tension. The grid “is a structure… that allows a contradiction between the values of science and those of spiritualism to maintain themselves within the consciousness of modernism.” While in opposition, the scientific and the spiritual can work together within the grid.

Reading Ginzburg’s work through Krauss’ modernist grid takes it beyond the Gesamkunstwerk traditionally associated with the early twentieth-century avant-garde, as described by Boris Groys.8 It also connects Ginzburg to another art historical lineage—the kinetic art of the Soviet 1960s and 1970s. Kinetic art uses movement, light, and even sound in three-dimensional constructions. Thanks to advancements in science and technology at that time, artists benefited from the invention of new materials, such as Plexiglas, aerosol spray paint, and nylon fabrics. Kinetic art is a product of the Cold War; yet in this Soviet context, it is still rooted in the avant-garde—most prominently in Vladimir Tatlin’s failed Monument to the Third International

(1919–1925). Conceived as a 1,300-foot rotating tower of glass and iron on the banks of the Neva River in Saint Petersburg, it was to commemorate the 1917 October Revolution. (It makes a cameo appearance in the initial frames of Ginzburg’s film Turo [2016], which traces the dispersion of the Constructivist legacy through architecture and sound.) The nuclear and space races of the mid-twentieth century, which developed the rockets that at once threatened inter-continental attack and brought a man to the moon, only added to the fervor over the intersections of art and technology in both official and unofficial Soviet art during the 1960s and 1970s.

Ginzburg’s work is equally nourished by that work of Dvizhenie or Movement Group, the most well-known practitioners of kinetic art of this period. Dvizhenie was a short-lived, loose collective of artists, including Galina Bitt, Francisco Infante-Arana, Viacheslav Koleichuk, Lev Nussberg, Natalia Prokuratova, and others. While aspects of the group’s history remain under dispute, they worked together in Moscow in the mid-to late 1960s, sharing an interest in synthesizing art and science through kinetic objects and environments. The impetus behind their pseudo-scientific aesthetic experimentations is summarized in the succinct but powerful “Kinetic Manifesto,” published in 1966 by Lev Nussberg. It calls for the creation of a world institute of kineticism, harnessing the utopian idea of global integration at the height of the Cold War. “Let kineticism bring life close to the world of dreams and imagination,” writes Nussberg and his colleagues, “We will push apart the horizons… master a new language of the soul.” Here—just as in Krauss’ text—the formal is directly linked with the spiritual.

Complementing Dvizhenie’s interests in the intersections of contemporary scientific advancements and spiritualism through the plastic arts was an intimate knowledge of the Russian avant-garde, which valued the material, spatial, and spiritual properties of objects. Koleichuk, specifically, made works like Spiral (1966), Self-Sustaining Tensile Structure (1970), and Mobius (1975) in direct response to precedents, such as Rodchenko’s Spatial Constructions from the 1920s. Mobius is composed of concentric ovals radiating outward at a slight angle, which evoke rotation.

It exhibits Koleichuk’s deft manipulation of material, as it is formed from a single flat sheet of metal that is cut then bent into shape. While Mobius exists today as a tabletop sculpture, it is easily scalable. Latvian artist Valdis Celms shares in Koleichuk’s reverence for the avant-garde as well as the realization of the kinetic dream. His Positron (1976) was a proposal for a public sculpture on the grounds of an electronics factory in the Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk.

A positron is a positively charged subatomic particle, which, when unstable, can produce radiation. Trained as an interior designer at the Latvian Academy of Art in Riga in the late 1960s, Celms had little direct experience with chemistry and physics; yet he likely was inspired by the potential of the positron when naming his project.  Although never realized due to the scarcity of resources, Positron is an excellent example of kinetic art, which enhances typically three-dimensional constructions with movement, light, and even sound. If it were realized, Positron would have rotated and emitted patterns of colorful light, producing psychological and emotional effects meant to relax the factory’s workers and lift overall morale. Like Koleichuk, Celms harnessed organic connections between art and science for the benefit of the spiritual.

In handcrafting their futuristic worlds, kinetic artists like Koleichuk and Celms deftly circumnavigated the limitations of state-sanctioned Socialist Realism. “Unofficial” is a general term applied to all work made outside of Socialist Realism, which typically depicted positive, heroic, and idealized subjects unencumbered by the trials and tribulations of the everyday. However, “unofficial” art was not exclusively motivated by politics, and due to fluctuations in Soviet cultural policy, it may have been acceptable for public exhibition under ideologically correct circumstances. While these are historical terms, they are critical to understanding the aesthetic hierarchies of this period and their repercussions today. They are the intersecting lines of the grid that was everyday Soviet life.

During the 1960s and 1970s in the Soviet Union, kinetic art was realized in both official and unofficial institutions. It reached the widest audience when exhibited within scientific contexts, such as on the grounds of the Kurchatov Institute of Nuclear Energy, the  Joint Institute of High Temperatures, and the All-Union Scientific  Research Institute of Industrial Design (VNIITE), all in Moscow. Even after Dvizhenie began to dissolve around 1970, its members continued to work independently and with other groups. Infante- Arana formed the Authors’ Working Group (ARGO), which produced the installation Artificial Space Crystal in 1972 for the State Glass Institute’s exhibition in the Consumer Goods Pavilion at Moscow’s VDNKh (the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy). Although the work itself is no longer extant—assembled and disassembled like a theater set—documentary photographs in the Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union at the Zimmerli Art Museum show the installation as fully immersive, drawing the viewer into a kaleidoscope of layered planes that reflected and refracted light.

Unfortunately, not all of their dream worlds came to fruition. Altar for the Temple of the Spirit (Sketch for the Creation of an Altar at the Institute of Kinetics) by Lev Nussberg and Natalia Prokuratova locates the viewer in the future, where kineticism shapes the experiences of everyday life. In this photocollage, people traverse an awe-inspiring structure that ascends toward the heavens. The sketches, maquettes, and even full-fledged constructions by postwar Soviet artists working between official and unofficial spaces, like Infante-Arna and Nussberg, propose fanciful yet somehow practical constructions by exhibiting principles of movement, symmetry, and synthesis.

Form similarly follows function in Ginzburg’s sculptural installation  Stargaze: Orion, which was commissioned in 2014 by the Art in Embassies program and installed in 2018 on the grounds of the  United States Embassy in Moscow. In this monumental project that links his identities as Russian and American, Ginzburg met the challenge of translating the language of the cosmos into human scale. Stargaze: Orion is not merely an aesthetic object of formalist experimentation but a mise-en-scène completed by the viewer.  “I’ve created an instrument that frames the landscape, but that is impossible without the viewer,” says Ginzburg. Like the kinetic artists that came before him, his work speaks to the human condition through its use of scalability. But where is the modernist grid? Has it disappeared? It is not immediately perceptible in Stargaze: Orion because the picture plane is horizontal, laying flat on the ground in the form of a bronze base. This inversion of perspective encourages the viewer to look not across but upward toward the sky. While this outdoor sculpture is “a tribute to modernism's utopian aspirations and a witness to the movement’s transformation over time,” its embrace of science and technology in the everyday speaks to the later postwar history of kinetic art. Ginzburg talks about Stargaze: Orion not only as an artwork but also as an instrument. When the viewer stands under it, they are framed by the constellation. The viewer then becomes the subject of the work.

Today, despite the scientific advancements of the twentieth century, the cosmos remains a frontier. People have yet to colonize Mars or other planets. When stargazing, Orion, also known as the Hunter, is one of the most prominent and recognizable constellations in the solar system. Astronomers visually map it using a grid of right ascensions and declinations or celestial coordinates. Ginzburg’s Stargaze: Orion adopts this mapping as a strategy for visual representation. Its grounded metal armature traces the path of Orion upward. However, this physical manifestation of the constellation is only part of the artwork. Its form—multiple modules precariously stacked on top of one another evoking both strength and lightness—is but a sign.  It gestures outward. Struck by the sun, its mirrored steel casts a shadow, mapping itself onto the Earth’s surface. Its iridescent structure also catches the light, reflecting the surrounding city. Thus,  the city is the grid within the work. Subsuming the sculpture, it creates a crossroads of celestial and terrestrial matrices.

Through his compositions that harken back to precedents in movements of avant-garde and postwar art, Anton Ginzburg charts him-self onto history. Together this amalgamation of style and substance accounts for a multivalent practice that transcends our expectations of the ordinary both in the museum and in the public space. What Ginzburg imparts to the viewer is an immersive experience for both mind and body, providing alternative views for the fraught social and political landscape of the contemporary.

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