Zimmerli Art Museum exhibits Cold War-era artwork


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Photo by Casey Ambrosio |

The Zimmerli Art Museum hosted the Moscow Conceptual art show. This exhibition featured works made by artists in the Soviet Union who were told their creations did not count as art.


Soviet nonconformist art was never expected to have an audience, but the Moscow Conceptual Show at the Zimmerli Art Museum is providing one anyway. 

The work in the exhibit comes from the Dodge Collection, a compilation of the works collected by Norton Dodge, and in part by his wife. The works of art were considered valueless in the Soviet Union, yet Dodge still made routine trips to collect the art from his network of artists in Russia, said exhibit curator Jane Sharp.

On the opposite side of many of these paintings is a stamp that says, “This work can be exported because it is not considered a work of art,” said Sharp, who is also a professor in the Department of Art History.

Many people gave Dodge their work because they had no audience, and without this collection, there would be no record of these pieces, Sharp said. 

“The fact that this collection exists is what inspired others to collect," she said.

Many of the works in the collection are philosophical, creating “mindscapes,” as the Russian artists called them. The works resist simply existing as a painting, or an art form, but instead act as ways of communicating things beyond that, Sharp said. This is where the name “Thinking Pictures” comes from.

Several of the works on display are multi-dimensional. There is a room that recreates a Russian artist’s presentation of his stories, as well as a painting where the artist writes what he imagines people are thinking about while they observe his painting. Another work features a replication of a room with a desk and an easel. The room’s light illusion is created with vinyl, she said.

The exhibit’s relevance in the 21st century comes from a number of factors.

The exhibit comes at what Sharp called an “opportune moment,” as well as a “cumulative moment.” The timing of the exhibition is both a point of entry for an artist, as well as a time to make a major statement, Sharp said.

“Today artists in Russia are facing censorship again,” she said. 

The historical themes and the loneliness each artist felt are both aspects that people can relate to today, said Theresa Watson, the communications coordinator from the Zimmerli Museum.

“It’s a great way to discover something new. It seems unfamiliar on the surface, (people) think it’s intimidating, but I think it’s a great opportunity to get out of your comfort zone,” Watson said. “A lot of what these artists went through is relevant today.”

Those caught creating the art were “treated as a non-artist, a non-person.” There were professional consequences, as well as facing harassment from the KGB, Sharp said.

“It was such a serious threat that many artists refused to participate in public exhibitions,” she said.

The process of curating this exhibit was a long-term process. Sharp said it has been in the works since she first started working at the Zimmerli in 1999. There were some changes in directors, as well as personnel, which prolonged the process.

The initial plan for the exhibit involved a show on Moscow Conceptual Art, as well as a book accompanying it.

The book came out in 2011, and work on the exhibit was reactivated at the end of 2014. From there, curating took about a year and a half. 

Sharp said she knew she did not want to have a survey of Moscow conceptual art, as that had been done before. A unifying theme needed to draw the art together. Once she found that, she looked for pieces that contributed to it.

“You make some choices and magic happens,” Sharp said. “The work that’s on view now, Moscow Conceptual Art, is some of the most significant work in the collection. It’s evaluated as such by critics, the artists themselves … it privileges Moscow as a center for unofficial art production."

She had to work within the frames of the Zimmerli floor plan, considering placement as a means of accentuating continuing themes and as a way to create drama.

The Dodge Collection was given to Rutgers in the early 90s as an entire collection of unofficial art from the former Soviet Union.

The relationship between Rutgers and the Dodge collection works as a long-term loan. The Dodge family will give works annually, with most of the work being a part of the Rutgers-Zimmerli collection. Most of the art is physically at Rutgers.

Soviet nonconformist art was never expected to have an audience, but the Moscow Conceptual Show at the Zimmerli Art Museum is providing one anyway. 

Students are able to learn from the museum, Sharp said. Sharp teaches two graduate exhibition seminars, which train students to become curators. 

Students travel to the off-site facility to examine art as well as write the extended labels in the exhibit, she said.

“Every curatorial project is a team-developed project,” she said. 

She had numerous curatorial assistants, often doing work like crafting checklists, putting together new lists and aiding in documentation.

Curating a museum is similar to authoring a book, Sharp said. She puts together the list of objects, and then makes decisions regarding installation.

“It proposes a certain approach to (or) a way of thinking about Moscow Conceptualism. I’m arguing that the artists too have a range of areas of interest in their work, and this highlights the visual, the engagement, the painting," she said.

Other professionals aid in installation and preparation of the art. Norton Dodge’s experience with the art contrasts this professional treatment.

“He would rent places and just nail the stuff up,” Sharp said. 

This allowed the artists to at least have an informal audience.

Giving these artists an audience is very important, Sharp said. Their art comes from an unconventional place.

“They’re not creating for a museum, they’re creating for you,” Sharp said.


Faith Hoatson is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore. She is a correspondent for The Daily Targum.


Faith Hoatson

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