Moscow - New York: The Russian Artist Yuri Grachev

The exhibition of works by the artist Yuri Stepanovich Grachev at the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg and the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow provides a unique opportunity to see a retrospective of the creative work of a superb Russian emigre artist, a master Russian artist of the generation of the 1960s.

For the postwar generation of artists this period marked a change in the times, a shift in visions of the world and of the artist's role. Following many years of isolation of the national culture from world art behind the "iron curtain" there was, for the first time, an opportunity to directly encounter modern Western art. During those years art in Russia provided possibilities for resisting the "officialdom" of the totalitarian era, for restoring lost traditions and searching for artistic ways of depicting the modern era.

The fate of the man and artist Yuri Grachev, revealing his past, present and posthumous future, are inextricably bound up with all the dramatic dissonances of an era which also defined the major "keynotes" of his life.

Study at the famous Moscow Secondary Art School, which still today is considered as a school for particularly talented individuals, was one such key element. The creative atmosphere and excellent teachers of the Art School provided Yuri Grachev with the opportunity to immediately and fully exploit his innate artistic talent as an outstanding draughtsman (Self-portrait, 1950). Neither the hardships of postwar life nor difficult living conditions could prevent this flowering of talent. A.O. Barshch, one of the best known teachers at the Moscow Secondary Art School, put one of Grachev's school drawings of a cast of the head of the Belvedere Apollo on the cover of his book, "Drawing in Secondary Art School," which is still popular with students today. It was probably during that time in school that Grachev's highly demanding personal criteria for his own art were formed as well as his concept that the fundamental objective of creative work was to serve art.

In the 1960s Yuri Grachev as a draughtsman explored the world surrounding him, discovering the everyday, simple values in life. This penetration into the real world of "living life," the desire to grasp its movement, intensity and focus of insight was expressed in many charcoal, pencil and sanguine pencil drawings and sketches of his little daughter, sleeping, sitting at a table, posing, and of his wife, reading or at work: ("Masha Sleeping" 1968; "Masha Thinking," 1969; "Veta Reading," 1972). The tense brush strokes and skillful fluidity of line in the artist's studies from nature preserve the charm of his immediate impressions.

From his school years on pen stroke drawings play an important role in Grachev's graphic art. Throughout his life the artist continued to fill sketchbooks and albums with his drawings and studies. A draughtsman's skill, clarity, lightness of touch, unique artistry of line characterize the artist's contour drawings ("Memories of Childhood" 1968; "Mother and Child" 1975; " From the Album, New York " 1999-2000).

During these years, however, Yuri Grachev's range of creative interests were not limited to classical drawing. The artist was actively studying and mastering the modernist tradition, using abstraction as a structural monumentalist and decorative artistic language. In Grachev's tapestries of the 1970s the dynamic of abstraction determines the structure of composition and the decorative and expressive structure of geometric elements (Tapestry, "Circles," 1972-1973).

His departure from Russia for New York via Italy marked another key point, one which determined the entire second half of Grachev's biography and creative life. The time in New York was the culmination and concluding period of the artist's life and creative activity. The more than 600 graphic works and some 100 paintings produced in New York in the 1980s and 90s make up the bulk of Yuri Grachev's creative legacy.

The artist's huge body of work was fueled by intense energy, bottled up to compensate for the time in Moscow lost for creative work. The artist worked only in the evenings, after work, and on weekends. The strongest, most "explosive" points lie both the beginning of the New York period, 1980-85, when the artist was intoxicated by drawing, and the end of that time, 1998-1999, the height of creative inspiration and work on his last paintings.

For Grachev discovering New York meant the discovery of an entire world of urban outcasts, bums, beggars, street musicians. The artist observed them on the streets, in back alleys, in the subway ("Old Woman with a Cane: 1983; "Homeless" 1983).

His major subject the tragedy of modern man who, having lost his sense of unity with the surrounding world, is condemned to desperate loneliness was the recurrent theme of the entire New York period. That subject, virtually rediscovered by this Russian artist, represents a huge "layer" of art works awaiting a rapt viewer. The charcoal drawings of the early years, revealing an infinite range of human feelings, form an integral series of destitute, impoverished, homeless and abandoned individuals. They were created in an outpouring of creative tension, and through an artistic device unique to Yuri Grachev, because his spiritual palette was always marked by sparkling, explosive bursts of emotion, imbued with a wealth of intellect and boundless kindness.

He was passionately involved with his characters, whom he also depicted in cycles of large format oils ("By the Garbage Can" 1980; "Homeless in the Rain" 1991). And while the tone of color brush strokes and principles of shading remain constant throughout the entire period, the artist's worldview undergoes a clear metamorphosis, showing a changing attitude towards his choice of motifs. Grachev's actual street "heroes," modern "potato eaters," real people, are transformed into an infinite array incarnating his own spiritual impressions of life with all its good and evil and of the souls of the living and the dead. The postmodernist leitmotif of Yuri Grachev's New York period gradually shifts the realistic vision of the artist to the plane of historical and cultural memory of human feelings and emotional upheavals. This lofty timbre is defined by that sense of service to art which in the last year's of the artist's life merged with an agonizing struggle with death ("Man and Woman" 1998; "An Apparition" 1998).

The paintings of the end of the 1990's depicting two figures, with their active color brush strokes, tone and strong lines reveal images ranging from a quest for harmony to a lasting experience of estrangement from life with all its finiteness and loneliness ("Thinking of You" 1999).

Affirmation of the right to originality, an aspiration to the fullest possible self-expression in art and a passionate desire to manage to find the time for that, the strength of will to keep on working all of these prerequisites for artistic creative truth which make up the unique personality of the Russian artist Yuri Grachev are on display at the exhibition of his works.


Natalya Aleksandrova

The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow