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A giant of 20th Century Russian art, Vladimir Nemukhin has died at 90
Vladimir Nemukhin in the 1970s. Photographed by Igor Palmin. Courtesy of the photographer.

by Joel Ney

MOSCOW.- On April 18, the Russian-born artist Vladimir Nemukhin died. He had turned 90 this past February.

A central figure in 20th Century Russian Art, during his lifetime Nemukhin's work already seized and continued to maintain a paramount presence. It can easily be ascertained that works by Vladimir Nemukhin exist as vital cornerstones of all known leading collection of this genre. The artist's works are treasured in such noteworthy collections of Jean-Jacques Guéron, Irina Stolyarova, Alexander Kronik, Viktor Bondarenko, The Tsukanov Family Foundation, and The Kolodzei Art Foundation, amidst most others. Vladimir Nemukhin's creative legacy is of course well-preserved in the permanent collections of most, if not all, primary national museums in the Russian Federation, including in the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and in The State Tretyakov Gallery.

In the United States, numerous important works by Nemukhin were gifted by the late American collector Norton Dodge (1927-2011) to the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University. "I am very saddened by the news of Vladimir Nemukhin's passing," stated Dr. Julia Tulovsky, the Museum's Curator for Russian and Soviet Nonconformist Art. "He was a pioneer of non-conformist art and an absolute key figure for many generations of artists. It is a big loss for Russian art and culture."

A particularly spectacular Nemukhin work that had been purchased by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for their permanent collection in New York is the 1966 mixed media canvas titled "Cards on a Marquetry Table."

Susan Goodman, Senior Curator Emerita of The Jewish Museum in New York City, commented: "I was sorry to learn about the death of Vladimir Nemukhin. He was certainly a force within the Soviet art world. Unfortunately, I never met the artist and all that I know is what I have read, which leads me to believe that he made a significant and unique contribution to art during the difficult years of Soviet oppression."

Vladimir Nikolaevich Nemukhin was born November 12, 1925 in the outskirts of the greater Moscow region. According to a 2011 article in The New York Times, the young Nemukhin studied with an artist who had been one of the assistants to avant-garde master Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935), which illustrates the late artist's rare position of historically connecting the Russian Avant-Garde movement with the Soviet Nonconformist groups including what is now being described as Moscow Conceptualism, the forefathers of Contemporary Russian Art today.

Scholars describe Nemukhin as one of the core members of the "Lianozovo Group," a bohemian gathering of artists & thinkers that began towards the mid-1950s and included fellow Soviet Nonconformist artists Oscar Rabin (b. 1928), Lydia Masterkova (1927-2008), Evgenii Kropivnitsky (1893-1979), Lev Kropivnitsky (1922-1995), amidst others. He was also one of the key organizers and participants of what is now referred to as the "Bulldozer Exhibition" of late 1974, a historic incident in which Soviet authorities literally bulldozed and completely destroyed a display of artworks by Nonconformist artists, most of whom are now recognized and highly valued in the new Russian Federation.

Masterkova and Nemukhin, though reportedly never officially married, were in a relationship from 1954 through 1968; the couple raised Masterkova's neice, now the prolific author and art historian Dr. Margarita Tupitsyn. Vladimir Nemukhin in fact was Tupitsyn's godfather.

When reached, Dr. Tupitsyn graciously shared a relevant excerpt on the artist from her forthcoming book titled 'Moscow Vanguard Art: 1922-1992':

"In the late 1950s, Vladimir Nemukhin realized that the importance of Abstract Expressionism resided in automatism, in its ability to obliterate the figurative image and attain the condition of 'vneliteraturnost' [beyond literary]. He called Socialist Realism 'an imposter,' insisting that in art there was a place for 'indignation which most dramatically can be expressed in abstract art,' a conviction that in the 1940s brought Aleksandr Rodchenko to the same style of painting."

Dr. Tupitsyn's husband, also a preeminent scholar in the field, Victor Tupitsyn shared a passage from his recent volume "The Bulldozer Exhibition" (Ad Marginem, 2014):

"In the mid-1960s, I already knew about the existence of artists from the “Lianozovo Group”; they were friendly with the dissidents and human rights activists Andrei Amalrik and Alexander Ginzburg, and the latter’s apartment was simply chock-full of contemporary art, which hung everywhere — even on the ceiling. It was there that I first saw works by Vladimir Nemukhin, Lydia Masterkova, and Oscar Rabin.

"Vladimir Nemukhin is best known for his still-lives with playing cards, fighting cocks, and fragments of card tables. This entire iconography, borrowed from the sphere of heated games, corresponds well with the vitality of his artistic character. In the majority of cases, this inventory bore a conditional semantic burden, intensifying the effect of chance, intrigue, indeterminacy -- i.e., everything that would contrast with the doctrines of 'objectivity and universal character of causality' espoused by the Soviet establishment."

Possibly the last living member of the former "Lianozovo Group," the revered master painter Oscar Rabin, 88, quietly resides in Paris and could not be reached for comment in time prior to publication of this obituary.

One of the few American-born experts in post-war Russian Art who had officially represented Vladimir Nemukhin in the United States, author and contemporary art consultant Andrew Sarewitz wrote a heartfelt tribute, contemplating Nemukhin and the legacy of the "Lianozovo Group" of artists:

"With his compatriots which included Oscar Rabin and Lydia Masterkova (wife for a time, friend for life), this group of artists left evidence and proof that art, even under the worst suppression could affect the world. Both free and behind iron curtains, by impressing contemporary visual and intellectual ideologies, Nemukhin introduced original abstract imagery so prominent and recognizable, it will live beyond symbols and codes and define freedom of thought and expression.

"The survivors of this artistic era we have labeled 'Unofficial' and 'Nonconformist' are sadly giving way to time, as all mortals do. I may not have been there, but I was here as an art dealer, in America, opening eyes and hearts and minds to some of the most significant Twentieth Century imagery to cause reaction, passion and change. Insignificant as my single presence may be, I will say that I was fortunate enough to meet Mr. Nemukhin: to hear him speak, to tell him, 'thank you.' "

Besides the late Dmitri Plavinsky (1937-2012), Nemukhin was reportedly the only other Nonconformist artist whose work was permitted by the Soviet Union to be included in the 1977 show "Russian and Soviet Painting: An Exhibition from the Museums of the USSR," held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"I didn't know Nemukhin very well," writes one of the aforementioned exhibition organizers, John E. Bowlt, now Professor, Department of Slavic Languages at University of Southern California and clearly one of the foremost living historians on Russian art. "I met him from time to time in Moscow, but always enjoyed his relentless sense of humor."

Since that trailblazing exhibition at The Met, the artist's work has been consistently featured in countless museum shows of his genre, in the United States and beyond.

A co-founder of the trendy Internet-driven hub TondoArt, Sotheby's former Senior Vice-President and Director of Russian Art in North America Sonya Bekkerman wrote: "I was honored to discover and offer many great works by Nemukhin that spanned his career, to serious collectors of Russian Nonconformist Art... my favorite memory was selling 'Unfinished Game of Patience' [1966] for a world-record price."

"It was thrilling to see the artist recognized and collected," Bekkerman adds. "Whether early action paintings or daring collages featuring his ubiquitous playing cards, he had a singular voice and an inimitable style. Under great political and economic pressures, he was a leader among his peers."

"I have known Vladimir Nemukhin for the past 50 years," wrote legendary art collectors Tatiana Kolodzei with her daughter Natalia Kolodzei in a joint statement responding to inquiry for this obituary. "He was one of the key figures in the Nonconformist art circles as well as an active contributor to the cultural life in Moscow: member of the 'Lianozovo Group,' participant of the 'Bulldozer Exhibition” (1974), and, starting in 1976, one of the organizers of the exhibitions at 'Gorkom Grafikov' (Painting Section of Moscow's Joint Committee of Graphic Arts), which introduced entire generations of new artists to a general audience, which played an important role in the Moscow art scene from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s.

"We are proud to own many artworks by Vladimir Nemukhin and continue to share them with the American public through the Kolodzei Art Foundation exhibition programs. Vladimir Nemukhin’s drawing 'In the Park' [1959] was the earliest piece in the recent exhibition 'This Leads to Fire - Russian Art from Nonconformism to Global Capitalism: Selections from the Kolodzei Art Foundation." The comprehensive show was held at The Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, NY, in 2014-2015.

One of the last exhibitions of the artist's works that took place during his lifetime was held this earlier this year in Moscow at the Museum ART4, the private institution famously founded by top Contemporary Russian Art collector Igor Markin. The exhibition had featured a remarkably curated selection of various works showcasing the many mediums which Nemukhin had mastered over the course of his long and storied career, including paintings, sculptures, and graphic works utilizing a variety of materials.

A major retrospective of the late artist took place in 2015 at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMoMA). Under the leadership of MMoMA's Director, Vasili Tsereteli, the show, "Vladimir Nemukhin: Facets of Formalism" was jointly displayed alongside an affiliated exhibition, "Lydia Masterkova: Lyrical Abstraction." Both were curated by one of Russia's best-known art scholars, Andrey Erofeev

Under the historic past vision of Michael P. Mezzatesta, the Mary DBT and James H. Semans Director Emeritus at the Duke University Museum of Art (that later became the Nasher Museum of Art), as one of the first institutions in the United States to build a major collection of 20th Century Russian Art, the Museum acquired the artist's mixed media "Composition" (1987), yet a visually arresting piece utilizing acrylic and sand.

When reached for comment, Dr. Mezzatesta declared: "Vladimir Nemukhin's passing makes us recall events of the past under the Soviet regime epitomized by the brutal suppression of the 'Bulldozer Exhibition.'

"Yet Nemukhin's art is just as relevant now as it was then," he continued. "The hand of cards that life deals us, and what we make of that hand, defines who we are. Nemukhin's paintings of playing cards - often assembled in fragile structures - served as metaphors for the strength of human spirit in the face of political and spiritual repression, not just in the Soviet Union... but wherever free expression through art is challenged.

"Ars longa, vita brevis," he poignantly concluded, a Latin expression basically translated as 'life is short, but art remains.'

Vladimir Nemukhin is survived by his wife, Galina, and a daughter, Alevtina, in Moscow.

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