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The Works of Leonid Sokov On Display at the Zimmerli

Leonid Sokov's works will be on display until July. Sokov is known as the Modern Master of the Absurd.

The Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers features the world’s largest collection of art created during the Cold War era by Russian artists willing to risk life and limb to defy Soviet repression, and it will be on display until July. 

From Jan. 26 to July 14, the museum will present Leonid Sokov: Ironic Objects, the first museum exhibition in the U.S. devoted to the career of Leonid Sokov, one of the most distinctive of these `nonconformist’ artists. The exhibition includes 80 works by Sokov, many on view for the first time, ranging from sculptures created in the early 1960s to work created in 2000, more than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Forty works drawn from the Zimmerli’s Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Soviet Nonconformist Art will be accompanied by an equal number of loans from private collectors in the United States and the artist himself. 

Unlike many of his fellow dissidents who overtly adopted the strategies of the American and European vanguard, in the 1970s and 1980s Sokov preferred to assume the stance of the ‘simple man’ in his art making. In so doing, he won widespread acclaim for roughly hewn and seemingly improvised sculptures and kinetic toy-like figures inspired by Russian folk art. Today Sokov, who is 71 and has lived and worked in the New York area since 1980, is widely credited as one of the originators of the Sots Art movement—a Soviet version of Pop Art that emerged in the early 1970s.

“Over the years, Leonid Sokov has employed the forms of naïve art to create a layered and sophisticated body of work,” says Suzanne Delehanty, director of the Zimmerli. “We are proud to present this overview of his career at the Zimmerli, the only museum in the country where it is possible to consider his achievement within the larger context of Soviet nonconformist art. The museum’s Dodge Wing, featuring works by Bulatov, Kabakov, Komar, Melamid and other leading artists of the Cold War movement, will be just steps away from Leonid Sokov: Ironic Objects.“

Julia Tulovsky, Associate Curator for Russian and Soviet Nonconformist Art at the Zimmerli, has organized Leonid Sokov: Ironic Objects at a time of increased interest in the artist’s work. This summer, the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA) presented a major retrospective, to which the Zimmerli was a significant lender, and published a comprehensive accompanying catalogue, to which Tulovsky contributed an essay on Sokov’s art in relation to popular culture.

“Lenin, Stalin, Mickey Mouse, and Marilyn Monroe—Sokov spared no iconic figure as he portrayed the absurdities of 20th-century history, politics, and culture,” says Tulovsky. “Sokov is notable for how he embraced the broadest of cultural contexts, both high and low, and Soviet and American.”

The tension between the prescribed style of Socialist Realism and Western modernism is a recurring theme in Sokov’s sculpture, one to which he has often returned. The theme is seen in a highlight of the exhibition, an eloquently simple bronze sculpture from 1990 in which Sokov situates two figures facing each other: Lenin on one side and Alberto Giacometti’s existential Walking Man on the other. This juxtaposition is also the subject of the centerpiece of the exhibition, the room installation Shadows of Twentieth-Century Sculptures, which Sokov created for the Russian Pavilion at the 2001 Venice Biennale. Here 100 miniature replicas of iconic sculptures by such modern masters as Alexander Calder and Constantin Brancusi are placed on a well-lit stand in the center of a 625-square-foot space. As the stand rotates, the tiny sculptures project large moving shadows on the surrounding walls. This poetic tribute to the disproportionate power of art and ideas has never before been seen in the U.S., and only once in Europe after its debut in Venice. 

Many of the other works featured in Ironic Objects illustrate Sokov’s sly humor. These include Project to Construct Glasses for Every Soviet Person (1976), a play on the cliché, “the Soviet way of seeing.” Created at a time when the Soviet regime was touting progress, but most citizens were experiencing severe deprivations, Sokov’s rustic and crudely rendered glasses suggested the poor quality of Soviet industrial production that obscured the view into the “bright Soviet future.” Sokov’s waggish and oversized eyeglasses would have evoked not just smiles, but outright laughter.

Two other objects in the exhibition also suggest that Sots Art, while sharing affinities with American Pop Art, requires a different reading that takes into account its historical context. While Pop Art commented on the over abundance of products in a consumer society, Sots Art satirized the over abundance of ideology produced by the communist regime. In the early 1980s, Sokov created a number of sculptures reflecting back on political leaders. Viewers are invited to consider how Nikita Khrushchev, the head of the country from 1958 to 1964, is turned into a roly-poly doll, alluding in a humorous way to Khruschchev’s ability to withstand the political struggles and intrigues that occurred after Stalin's death. The brightly colored papier-mâché and wood sculpture, Problem (1976), addresses the tension that occurred between nationalities within the multinational Soviet state, which was comprised of 15 republics stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Here, Sokov offered absurd, yet humorous and witty, commentary on internal Soviet politics simply by illustrating that most characteristic part of the human face—the nose.   

The Artist

In 1986a groundbreaking exhibition entitled Sots Art, curated by Margarita Tupitsyn at The New Museum, drew widespread attention to Sokov and other Soviet nonconformist artists.  Since that time, Sokov’s work has been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world and acquired by many major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Guggenheim Museum, and the Centre Georges Pompidou.  Sokov was born in 1941 in the village of Mikjaliovo, Kalinin (now Tver) region.  He moved to Moscow at the age of 6 and studied at the Moscow Secondary Art School under the auspices of the Russian Academy of Arts where he made life-long friends who would later form the core of the nonconformist movement: Erik Bulatov, Ivan Chuikov, Ilya Kabakov, Alexander Kosolapov and Oleg Vassiliev. In 1969 Sokov graduated from the Moscow School of Art and Industry (former Stroganov School), one of the leading art universities in the country, established in 1825 by Count Sergei Stroganov. In 1980 Sokov immigrated to the United States and settled in New York where he reconnected with many the artists he had known since his childhood in Russia.

The Curator

The exhibition is curated by Julia Tulovsky, Ph.D., Associate Curator for Russian and Soviet Nonconformist Art, Zimmerli Art Museum. She is a specialist in modern and contemporary Russian art and received her Ph.D. from Moscow State University. Before joining the staff of the Zimmerli in 2007, Tulovsky served as Assistant Curator at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and later as Executive Director of the Malevich Society in New York. She has published extensively on Russian art history and contemporary art, both in Russian and English. Tulovsky co-edited a special Russian-American issue of the Pinakotheke journal focusing on interrelations and cultural parallels between Russian and American art and architecture. She was general editor of the Zimmerli publication The Claude and Nina Gruen Collection of Contemporary Russian Art (2008), as well as a contributor to its major book on Russian contemporary artMoscow Conceptualism in Context (2011), co-published by Prestel, a member Verlagsgruppe Random House GmbH.

 Public Programs

Sunday, Feb, 17, 2 p.m.

Robert Storr

Soviet Nonconformist Art: A View from the U.S.A.

This lecture by the leading American critic, curator and artist Robert Storr is devoted to the topic of Soviet nonconformist and Russian contemporary art. Storr is a Professor of Painting and Dean of the School of Art at Yale University. He has served as curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1990 to 2002), and as the first American to assume the position of commissioner of the Venice Biennale (2007).  

Voorhees Hall.  $10 general admission; $5 museum members.  Free to Rutgers faculty, staff and students.  RSVP toeducation@zimmerli.rutgers.edu

Wednesday, Feb. 6, 5 to 9 p.m.

Art After Hours: First Wednesdays
Leonid Sokov

Comedian Ben Rosenfeld performs hilarious Russian and American humor in recognition of the wit of Leonid Sokov. An Open Mic session afterwards allows audience members to perform their own jokes.

Art After Hours is the eclectic evening series held the first Wednesday of the month at the Zimmerli. Each month spotlights a special exhibition or permanent collection highlights with a guided tour, as well as related entertainment and activities. Free to Rutgers students, faculty and staff and museum members. Others are free with museum admission.

Location and Hours

The Zimmerli is midway between New York City and Philadelphia and a short walk from the New Jersey Transit station in New Brunswick. The Zimmerli Art Museum is located at 71 Hamilton Street at the corner of George Street on the College Avenue campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10 am to 4:30 pm, and Saturday-Sunday, noon to 5 pm; first Wednesdays of each month September through July, 10 am to 9 pm. Admission is $6 for adults; $5 for adults over 65, and free for museum members, Rutgers students, faculty and staff (with ID), and children under 18. Admission is free on the first Sunday of every month. For more information, call 732.932.7237 or visit the museum’s  website:  www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.

—The Zimmerli Museum

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