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Oleg Vassiliev, leading Nonconformist and Contemporary Russian painter, dies at 81
Oleg Vassiliev (1931-2013). “Artistic Vision,” 2009. Oil on Canvas. Collection of The State Hermitage, Russia. Gift of Neil K. Rector. Image courtesy of Joel Ney.

By: Joel Ney

NEW YORK, NY.- Oleg Vassiliev, a highly influential painter of the Nonconformist and Contemporary Russian Art movements whose importance had been widely recognized not just by scholars worldwide but was also highly regarded by other artists, has passed away after a long battle with cancer at the age of 81.

“Oleg Vassiliev was a true modernist who ingeniously balanced on the margin between discourse and nature, realism and abstraction,” says Dr. Margarita Tupitsyn, prominent art scholar and curator, and a lifelong expert on the artist’s work.

Many decades before his works were sought by international art collectors at top auction houses such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips de Pury (now known as PHILLIPS), Vassiliev had already long ago quietly earned the high respect of his fellow artists, who collected his works ever since the painter created his first revolutionary modernist canvases despite his personal style being in contradiction to the enforced mandates of Socialist Realism in the Soviet Union. The prolific author of numerous volumes on the genre as well as the forthcoming A Century of Russian Art: 1900-2000, Prof. John E. Bowlt, Director of the Institute of Modern Russian Culture (IMRC), said that the artist “represented an entire wave or generation of valiant contras.” In Oleg Vassiliev’s case, his resistance to the system was one of a more quiet, determined type as opposed to the more colorful revolutionary personalities enacted by other nonconformist artists of his generation. "The path of social-political struggle... was impossible for me," he reminisced in a 1997 autobiographical essay. Despite his stated avoidance to be a part of the unofficial art movements, his inadvertent influence on the transition of Soviet Nonconformist Art to Contemporary Russian Art still deeply resonates.

“The passing of Oleg Vassiliev marks the end of one of the seminal figures of the Soviet Nonconformist Movement,” declared Dr. Michael Mezzatesta, who, like the late legendary collector Norton T. Dodge, was one of the very first Americans to value and collect the artist’s work in the West. “While director of the Duke University Museum of Art [now the Nasher Museum of Art], I was fortunate to be able to add his work to its collection of Russian art.

“Rooted in memory and inspired by Russian Realism and the Avante-Garde, his art opened a window not only to life of Russians but also to the mind and soul of all people.”

Born in 1931 in Moscow, Vassiliev completed studies at the V.I. Surikov Art Institute in 1958. Following his graduation, he actively worked for the next three decades as a highly productive children’s book designer and illustrator, a State-approved profession that sustained him while also allowed Vassiliev to afford the opportunity to discreetly explore his own explorations and philosophy in modern painting. Vassiliev collaborated on most of these publications with Eric Bulatov, his lifelong friend and a fellow painter (today, an international superstar of the contemporary art world), producing countless books cherished by children throughout the USSR.

“I first met him in September 1987, at the dawn of Perestroika, in the Moscow studio that he shared with Eric Bulatov. What I remember most, other than the light in those paintings, and Oleg’s series of drawings, was the camaraderie of good food, Georgian brandy and talk of art,” recalls art critic Amei Wallach, who is currently producing a documentary on Ilya Kabakov and the Moscow Conceptualism movement. “Oleg Vassiliev met Ilya Kabakov in art school in Moscow in 1947; soon after that they formed a tight friendship with Eric Bulatov and a circle of friends, who were probing questions about a different art and a different world from the ones that they knew... Oleg and Eric in particular were transfixed with the art of Vladimir Favorsky, a painter at the time thoroughly out of favor. They found him, went to see him, and learned lessons in composition and the centrality of light – elemental, metaphysical, structural. Most of all, they took lessons in how to be an artist and authentic in a society in which the two did not always correspond. Together the young painters each individually evolved ways of artmaking that put them at the center of the group that would become the Moscow Conceptualists.”

Wallach shares: “In exile in America, in later years, the complexity and insubstantiality of memory became Oleg Vassiliev’s subject, particularly after his wife, Kira, died in 2010. He was marooned in Minneapolis, in a neat but soulless suburb, and he did what he had always done: paint beautiful, extraordinary, otherworldly depictions of remembered landscapes and his own inner light.”

Dr. Victor Tupitsyn, author of “Museological Unconscious” and countless other academic volumes on art, added: "Throughout his entire career, Oleg never stopped reinventing himself."

Besides an exhibition in 1968 that lasted only one night at a Moscow cafe frequented by the underground art community, Vassiliev did not have any other solo shows in the USSR. Years later, following the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, the artist was finally able to realize a childhood dream of displaying his paintings in a major one-man exhibition in the The State Tretyakov Gallery and in the State Russian Museum, which jointly produced the first hardcover monograph on his work in 2004. Now, both of these world famous institutions hold his work in their permanent collections, as does the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, situated almost directly across from the Kremlin. Most other important museums in Russia also hold significant pieces from the artist’s long career, including but not limited to the Contemporary Art Museum, Moscow and the Noviy Contemporary Art Museum, St. Petersburg.

Other significant collections of Oleg Vassiliev’s works can be also found in the collections of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, North Carolina; the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, New Jersey; Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, Massachusetts; the Art Museum of the University of Kentucky; Dresden Staatliche Kunst Gallery, Germany; Kunstmuseum Bern, Switzerland; Norsk-Russisk Kultursenter Galleri, Kirkenes, Norway; and prominent collections of Russian Art such as the Tsukanov Collection, London; the Kolodzei Collection, USA; the Ludwig Collection, Germany; and the Costakis Collection, Greece.

Vassiliev’s works are considered prized possessions to this day by many living members of the Moscow Conceptualism and its sister movements (such as “Sots-Art”, which lampooned Soviet Communism and its fallacies); his works are owned by such leading Contemporary Russian Artists such as Ilya Kabakov, Grisha Bruskin, Leonid Sokov, as well as his lifelong friend and frequent collaborator, Eric Bulatov, amidst many others.

News of Vassiliev’s death caused an unusually significant outpour of statements of appreciation for the artist and his contributions to contemporary art, from Russian artists in the United States and abroad.

Artist Vitaly Komar, formerly of the internationally reknown duo Komar & Melamid, wrote in the Russian news venue IZVESTIA: “I first met Oleg Vasiliev in the late 1960’s at the “Blue Bird Cafe”; it was the only place where they could exhibit representatives of unofficial art. Exhibition lasted only one night. In those days, all the galleries, all journals on art, all sales and purchases - everything belonged to the State.... in reviewing his work “for itself" - that is, not for its monetary value - Vasiliev connected, it appears, two significant and opposite traditions: the realistic manner of the traditional Russian landscape and the geometry of the Russian Avant-Garde. You can thus see in his paintings a poetic, brooding beauty of a landscape, combined with Platonic mathematics and ideal figures. This is a unique artistic approach. From my point of view, Vassiliev is perhaps the most striking Russian painter of the 20th Century.”

Prominent painter and sculptor Alexander Kosolapov also produced a statement, expressing: “I was friendly with Oleg Vassiliev for most of the 1990’s... Basing his art on the aesthetics of Realism, he created canvases reflecting Russian nature, like forests, roads, landscapes, but as they seemingly emerge from scraps of memory. For me, this is Realism driven to its utmost limits. He demonstrated a tremendous concentration of this vision into his painting, resulting in a unique ability to showcase how fragile is the very fiber of our existence. The paint layer thus seems almost ready to disappear. I would call it an existential landscape at the edge of the world’s apparent boundaries...all these qualities make me regard Oleg Vassiliev as one of the truly most interesting artists of our time.”

Younger noted artists, such as Genia Chef, also shared: “He was a great artist and a wonderful person. I appreciate his art very much, it will be a milestone in the history of Russian art and worldwide art as well.”

Following the political turmoil in the new Russia, Vassiliev emigrated first to Paris and then settled in New York City. The artist later moved to the St. Paul area in Minnesota.

Oleg Vassiliev was one of just a handful of contemporary artists selected to be featured in the groundbreaking 2005 exhibition “RUSSIA!” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Vassiliev’s final solo exhibition, “The Art of Oleg Vassiliev,” was held at The Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis, surveying his long career and contributions to contemporary painting. The Saatchi Gallery in London also featured Vassiliev’s work in the highly popular current exhibition gathered from important private collections, "Breaking The Ice: Moscow Art 1960’s-1980’s."

In autumn 2012, Neil K. Rector, noted philanthropist and a chief patron of the artist’s work, donated Vassiliev’s 2009 canvas “Artistic Vision” to The State Hermitage Museum’s new contemporary wing, currently structured under the title “Hermitage 20/21”. The gift inaugurated The Hermitage Museum Foundation's “Art from America” Program, timely developed to meet the completion of the renovation and redesign of St. Petersburg's General Staff Building for the Museum's 250th birthday in 2014 which will boast new state-of-the-art exhibition spaces, including but not limited to its expanding 20th and 21st Century collections.

"As we build our Post-War and Contemporary art collections, the Hermitage Museum welcomes The Hermitage Museum Foundation's ‘Art from America’ program which is designed to expand the Museum's holdings into the 21st century and beyond," said Dr. Mikhail B. Piotrovsky, famed Director of The State Hermitage Museum. "The Hermitage has collections of great masterpieces from our twenty-one Rembrandts to many of the most significant and beautiful works of Matisse and Picasso. We welcome the opportunity to display the works of the great American artists of this period permanently in our new General Staff Building facilities. ‘Art from America’ will allow us to curate new art that will become the history of tomorrow."

In presenting his important painting to the Museum at the event, Rector commented, "Oleg Vassiliev is one of the most important artists of his generation. He should be represented in the collections of the great museums of the world, especially the Hermitage. As a board member of The Hermitage Museum Foundation, I am presenting this gift, the first gift to the ‘Art From America’ program, with the hope that it might persuade others to donate to this extremely important and groundbreaking endeavor."

“We are lucky to have his piece in the collection,” later stated Dimitri Ozerkov, who directs the “Hermitage 20/21” initiative.

In early 2012, Igor and Natasha Tsukanov established the Oleg Vassiliev Visiting Artist Fund at the Yale University School of Art under the auspices of the institution’s Dean, Robert Storr, a former senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). In announcing the fund, Storr expressed the Fund’s vision “to bring Russian artists, critics, curators, and historians to help Yale students gain a better understanding of art and the art context in the new Russia.”

“He was a lovely man, a gentle spirit,” Wallach says. “He was a man for whom art was truth, more important, perhaps, even than the intimacy of friendships and family that he valued and tended all his life. In 2010, a crew and I filmed a nearly day-long interview with Oleg in Minneapolis for my documentary-in-progress on Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. Oleg spoke of his memories, his friends, his life, and the beloved wife he missed so much.”

One of the artist’s final solo retrospective exhibitions was held at The Museum of Russian Art, “The Art of Oleg Vassiliev,” in Minneapolis.

Oleg Vassiliev died January 25, 2013 in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is survived by his son Alexei, with whose family he lived during the final years of his life.

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