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Yuri Zlotnikov: The Method of Incompleteness

Dmitri Gutov
Yuri Zlotnikov. From the series "Proto signals", paper, black aquarelle. 1957
Yuri Zlotnikov. From the series "Proto signals", paper, black aquarelle. 1957
Born 1930 in Moscow, Yuri Zlotnikov was one of the first artists to return to the system of non-objective painting during the post-war period. The author of the famous series "Signal System" (1958-1961), Zlotnikov has participated in numerous exhibitions in Russia and abroad. This dialogue between Yuri Zlotnikov and the artist Dmitri Gutov, a member of the Moscow Art Magazine's editorial board, continues a special project of interviews with prominent figures of artistic life in Moscow begun by Gutov on the pages of the magazine (cf. Moscow Art Magazine Nos. 43/44 and 45).

Dmitri Gutov: Yuri Savel'evich, the subject of our conversation today is the artist's method of working.

Yuri Zlotnikov: On the whole, investigation is my method. Renoir once said something really brilliant: the artwork needs to reach a point at which you want to continue it. That is, it needs to be beyond norms. Once Alexander Rappaport wrote in an article about me that I was not an artist of completion but an artist of processes. I really liked that...

D. Gutov: There are few people who can say that of themselves.

Yu. Zlotnikov: When people like Kabakov, Bulatov or Vasil'ev came to me in the late 1950s, they didn't understand a thing. They were still caught up in the inertia of their educations at the Surikov Institute, which taught to produce according to the norms. Their diploma pieces had to conform to a certain model. So the works of these guys were infected by the microbe of completion. Of finitude.

D. Gutov: That makes sense.

Yu. Zlotnikov: Of course it does. On the one hand, it's only professional. Kabakov wrote somewhere that when he came to the West, he encountered the notion of aesthetics. Meaning that there doesn't only have to be material, but that you have to serve it in a certain form for it to be eaten. This technology comes from studying at the Surikov-Institute.

D. Gutov: I would say that this is the technology behind any education.

Yu. Zlotnikov: At the time, all of those young artists were crazy about Robert Falk. He was a really eminent figure back then. One day, I took some pieces of mine and went to Falk to show them to him. Actually, he was making music at first and asked me to wait. There was a tennis court nearby, so I waited there. When he finally let me in, his wife Angelina made lunch and we talked a little. I was a very brash young man. He told me that my material was raw, but that he would take me anyhow. As a student. But I didn't go, didn't go consciously. It seemed to me that there was some kind of isolation there. All around, the social situation was very tense, and here, there was this desire to create some self-contained micro-world, to play chamber music. And for a kid of 24, that just didn't make any sense.

D. Gutov: I guess that probably doesn't make much sense to you today either.

Yu. Zlotnikov: You know, Dima, something drives you. You sniff around, but in the end, you reach the place you need to get to.

D. Gutov: But how does this absence of investigative drive express itself in the art of your younger colleagues?

Yu. Zlotnikov: In the most direct way possible. Who is the hell is Kabakov, after all? All of his work is based on sociology. Or let's take surface. This is something very serious. How did Erik Bulatov see surface? He decided that there's one kind of space hidden somewhere deep inside the painting, while the other space is here. This is basically Favorsky, who he was fascinated with, and his conception of space, taken literally. You break through a wall with your head, from here to there. This is very naturalistic, illusionist thinking. But surface is not just some physical essence. That's the whole philosophical Zimmes of surface...

D. Gutov: Not to mention your youngest colleagues...

Yu. Zlotnikov: I once had a conversation with Dubossarsky and Vinogradov. The things they had to say don't even belong to the sphere of culture, but to the genre of market-psychology. A bunch of new-sprung maestros acting like jackasses because they aren't aware of anything and have no respect. This makes me laugh. I also read what they had to say about Velasquez and Matisse. This is nothing but the talk of solitary existences. For them, I'm like a Latin teacher.

D. Gutov: But you've included them in your curatorial projects.

Yu. Zlotnikov: I don't think they even understood why exactly I've shown their work twice already. And that artist who paints in the style of "Krokodil", what's his name, Zvezdochetov. I exhibited them as the normative culture of today. They reflect the social and cultural atmosphere, an atmosphere of kitsch.

D. Gutov: But you yourself have disavowed painting.

Yu. Zlotnikov: Dima, my technologies are imaginative. I drove off painting like an apparition that needed to be destroyed. I kept driving it off until I finally realized that I'm an artist too, after all. But in comparison to Dubosarsky and Vinogradov, my work would look very touching. Although it's very hard to break the power of the bosses, once they're in power. But when you look at it, all of this boulevard-kitsch makes you tired eventually, which is why people will come back to my work in the end. In my work, there is plenty of substance. But all they are is an illustration from some American journal, a Disneyland of painting...

D. Gutov: Yuri Savel'evich, I would like to know whether...

Yu. Zlotnikov: This explains why they say this is bullshit and that's Vermeer. I'd like to say a thing or two about Vermeer, who they talk about just like that, in passing. For the last two years, Vermeer has become a pedant to my thinking. How? Vermeer unites Mondrian with the passion of human extraordinariness. These guys, the way they segment space, it's intellectual operativism. But Vermeer, he makes a space into which he places the human being, like some other element. The exact opposite of all those architectonics.

D. Gutov: Yuri Savel'evich...

Yu. Zlotnikov: These guys are always making value-judgments. They're not being analytical. What lies behind this is actually the brutal reality of the market. This is exactly what I don't like. Or take Kulik, the man from the provinces. Which is not a bad thing, taken in and of itself. He tries to stay mobile, but there's far too much pragmatism. Kulik takes Lolita as a member of his entourage, as a kind of pedicure. What, has he read "Lolita"? He wants a ticket to the sweet life. So what if some woman praised him? That's very normative. "Whatever will Countess Maria Alexeivna say?" That's what he sounds like. There's no dynamic tendency in Kulik. And that deprives him of scale and makes me suffer.

D. Gutov: So what we're actually talking about...

Yu. Zlotnikov:...is savagery and oddity. The principle of destruction has become a commercial credo, a brand. Even Komar and Melamid already worked according to commercial norms and speculated on human misfortunes. Or take Brener's tastes, which are basically pagan-Christian. Just like Dostoevsky. Brener is a young man who wants to kill an old lady.

D. Gutov: This isn't your method.

Yu. Zlotnikov: The motor, the dynamic, the vibration behind everything I've done is investigation. This is why you won't find any rotten social aspects in my work. Just look at Edik Shteinberg or all those guys from Lianozovo – rotten to the core, worm-eaten by social sentimentalism.

D. Gutov: I guess you're very skeptical of revolutionary change.

Yu. Zlotnikov: All of that's nonsense, between you and me. Do you understand?

D. Gutov: With difficulty.

Yu. Zlotnikov: Russia is a country of talk and talk is cheap. You can see this in Kabakov, but you can also see it in Osmolovsky. There's no precision of logical thought, only lots of gabbing. Empty talk of Chekhovian proportions, just like Epikhodov. Putting all of my sympathy for Osmolovsky aside, who wants to hang around like a free electron in an atom, I can't help but notice that Osmolovsky has all of these authorities. Just mention Deleuze, and he's already pissing his pants with joy. He thinks that culture boomed under the Bolsheviks. You know, Lenin called Lunacharsky and said: "Anatoly Vasilevich, stop it immediately! We may be revolutionaries, but we like Yaroshenko and Chopin. So stop it! We love old culture".

D. Gutov: This sounds a lot like you.

Yu. Zlotnikov: No it doesn't.

D. Gutov: Sure it does, word for word.

Yu. Zlotnikov: No, my friend, it doesn't. Really, you're taking me far too literally. Lenin was saying something completely different. His mother taught him to play the piano. He was a product of the culture of sentimentalism. Take, for an example, the things he said about Beethoven. Beethoven affects your nerves, makes you want to cry, stroke people's heads and all that. But you have to hit people on their heads if you want to be a revolutionary. Don't you see? This is a completely different approach. That's radicalism in a social sense. But for me, culture is the material I work with. I'm not a Latin teacher.

D. Gutov: I think it was probably the material Lenin worked with as well.

Yu. Zlotnikov: Yeah right. I heard your dialogue with Osmolovsky on Lenin on Gordon's talk-show. It's not even funny. If it's not a parody, that is. It looks a lot like ethnography. You can talk about Lenin all you want; it's a serious subject. But you're interested in the situative side of things. You're talking about Lenin, even if he's been dragged through the dirt. It looks very Pickwickian: nothing more than a genre-piece. All you wanted to do was let off a bunch of savory farts. And while we're at it: all that revolutionary-Trotskyite stuff that Osmolovsky has been doing has the quality of a Leskovian narrative.

D. Gutov: So you probably watch Gordon because you've been interested in natural science since the 1950s?

Yu. Zlotnikov: All those evenings with Gordon are ludicrous, really. He does the same thing, what did I call it before, Epikhodovianism. He grimaces and makes faces like the artful dodger, like Osip, Khlestakov's servant in Gogol's "Inspector-General". What's interesting is that he drags the intellectual process to the surface and transforms it into an everday phenomenon by doing so. But on the other hand, there is no ceremony, no professorial hierarchy...

D. Gutov: So who do you hold discussions with and what exactly do you discuss?

Yu. Zlotnikov: I argue with my peers. They think that I should have stopped with all of this urbanism a long time and ago, that I should have focused on the human being instead.

D. Gutov: And what do you tell them?

Yu. Zlotnikov: In fact, I am actually investigating the human being. I'm investigating humanity.

D. Gutov: What else?

Yu. Zlotnikov: I analyze. After a trip to Iraq, I made an analysis of the Arabic language. In Israel, I tried to get at the essence of the Bible and of Judaism. And what happened on September 11th is something entirely new for me, a new relationship to architectonics. I haven't found a way of expressing this yet.

D. Gutov: Could you talk about this in more detail?

Yu. Zlotnikov: On the one hand, those Mujaheddins smashed those towers to all fuck. On the other hand, they are doing some kind of hygienic work, just like parasites. Here you go, in your lifetime, that's what you've become! So be more flexible! Examine yourselves from all sides. What has American culture and all of its pioneering spirit come to? It's turned into some kind of primitive nonsense, determined by money, banks, stock-exchanges. This civilization demands some other understanding.

D. Gutov: Through the language of abstraction?

Yu. Zlotnikov: Abstraction is an x-ray of intellectual ability. A language that checks your head for lice.

D. Gutov: But abstraction doesn't really look very convincing at big exhibitions.

Yu. Zlotnikov: At the big exhibitions of today, artists always want to crush their neighbors. They jump out at you on a physically, on the level of scale. Yet at the same time, micro-electronics keep developing on a molecular level. Not too long ago, I saw Kiefer. I looked at him as if I was looking at the Borodino Panorama. Where the hell is the economy of space and time?

D. Gutov: So what should artists do?

Yu. Zlotnikov: What I need is a flash-analysis of the situation. I want to break through to the heart of the problem on a micro-level. I don't need to capture space. There already little space as is. You can circumnavigate the ball in very little time. This is what influences thinking. But who needs all of this stuff, especially if it's so nightmarishly huge? It's no more than hypertrophied material, material that has crushed the artists themselves.

D. Gutov: This is something one has to resist.

Yu. Zlotnikov: What we need is a new Vernadsky to identify the contemporary world's main dangers. What about global warming? What will happen if the polar caps melt? I'm far more worried about things like that than about somebody's inflated project. The larger it is, the more stuffed to the brim with nonsense, the more it's befitting of a museum. I don't need any of that. To hell with them, with all of that bullshit...

D. Gutov: So actually, reality actively breaks into your work.

Yu. Zlotnikov: Reality is a hurricane, a storm. We live on thin ice. Life has even forced "Moscow Art Magazine" to change, to turn away from all those academic, Masonic investigations and semantics. I didn't like what Salnikov said about Monastyrsky in "MAM". In fact, I thought his article was a piece of shit. But still, in all of this shit, there's the everyday reality of our time, some live emotion, and this gives the magazine a new lease on life.

D. Gutov: But how are you connected to the local situation?

Yu. Zlotnikov: I'll tell it to you like it is. In a way, I'm nothing but a local boy with the mentality of a guy from the shtetl. But I know this whole situation, from top to bottom. With any strong institution of culture, without that whole Mediterranean. I may not be very modernized in the conventional sense. I set my own goals. My modernity consists in the fact that I can set my own crazy goals. Which is what I do.

D. Gutov: Do you take public opinion into consideration in any way?

Yu. Zlotnikov: Laconic signals are what public opinion wants from me, and if they don't get what they want, they'll tell me that I'm painting symbolism. Whatever. My newer work tackles problems that they can't even begin to imagine.

D. Gutov: That's a hard line you're taking.

Yu. Zlotnikov: Having been alone then, in the age of cybernetics, I didn't expect to find myself in a vacuum now. Maybe it's my age? I often think about how old I've grown. After all, I'm 72. And as you can see, I'm not part of any social circle whatsoever.

D. Gutov: Even if there are people all around you.

Yu. Zlotnikov: Yes, there are. For an example, Kostya Zvezdochetov comes and starts to sniff my paintings. I guess he's trying to be funny.

D. Gutov: Why does he sniff them?

Yu. Zlotnikov: I suppose he wants to show that they are paintings. Or take this one time when he came to my personal exhibition and said, "Yeah, it's not a bad little exhibition, very likeable, really." In other words, he just doesn't get it. That's not my problem, but his. I was upset, and that's that. But that gets in the way of any live contact. We're both sitting in an aquarium that we just pissed in.

D. Gutov: What a bringdown...

Yu. Zlotnikov: And it's a bringdown that hasn't crystallized as of yet.

D. Gutov: So where exactly do your anti-normative investigations lead you?

Yu. Zlotnikov: As Matisse said, I want to falsify myself but always come back to the same thing. Although that's not really true. Let's not say "always". Dima, do me a favor: take that word "always" out, if you will.

Moscow. November 15th, 2002

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