Here and There: Yuri Grachev

The State Russian Museum, in collaboration with the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, is honored to present a major retrospective exhibition of Yuri Grachev, a Russian artist who emigrated to the United States in 1978. The show is part of a series of exhibitions of works by contemporary Russian artists forced to emigrate because their work did not meet with the official approval of the Communist Party.

Yuri Grachev’s oeuvre initially developed within the bounds established by the Soviet authorities. After being accepted into the Union of Artists in 1970, however, he soon began to feel constrains on his artistic freedom, leading him to choose the path of emigration.

Grachev left Russia after making a name for himself as a decorative and applied artist, who had designed a series of monumental abstract gobelins and theatrical curtains. But he wanted to work in easel painting and to serve fine art. He wanted to be a free artist.

What did “free” mean in the social and political climate of the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s, when Yuri Grachev graduated from art school? The death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 signaled the beginning of the Thaw, culminating in Nikita Khrushchev’s speech outlining the dictator’s crimes at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956. The situation was complicated by the sharp exchange of words between Khrushchev and the unofficial artists granted permission to show works at the Manege exhibition celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the Union of Artists in 1962. The following year, Khrushchev was removed from power and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev, ushering in a period of stagnation.

Although Grachev worked in the same environment as the first generation of unofficial artists, his name does not figure in this context – at least not in the perception of the West. His early works nevertheless betray the spirit of the Thaw and the new era of more liberal cultural policies. Many now claim that back then, artists could work without hindrance in whatever style they liked – abstract or realistic, figurative or non-objective – and could even sell their works if they found a willing buyer. Exhibitions, however, were completely out of the question. This meant that there was no public, critics or press. The unofficial artists might not have existed. Yuri Grachev was slightly luckier. He had exhibitions and was a recognized, i.e. official artist.

The ban on exhibitions was a major factor in the lives of the unofficial artists. Dissident masters – many of whom eventually emigrated – were obliged to seek other work. They illustrated books and magazines, painted the interiors of public buildings and designed posters or other Soviet propaganda material. Such work naturally required political conformity of one form or another. The ranks of the official artists, however, included those whose spirits and souls cried out for freedom, if perhaps not so loudly as such supporters of pure art without political ideology as Lev Nusberg, Eduard Steinberg, Vladimir Yankilevsky, Victor Pivovarov or Dmitry Plavinsky – artists born in the same year as Yuri Grachev who also later emigrated.

The presence of the Iron Curtain led to a complete vacuum of information in the Soviet Union. This magnified the importance of three exhibitions of foreign art held in Moscow in the 1950s – French Modernism and Picasso at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts (1956), the show of international art accompanying the World Festival of Youth (1957) and an exhibition of modern American painting from Roy Lichtenstein to Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning (1959). It finally became possible to speak openly about West European and American art – albeit quietly, with a hand over one’s mouth.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Yuri Grachev created many academic drawings, sketches and portraits. Despite the classical content, however, several of them betray the artist’s yearnings for a freer style – Masha Sleeping (1968, sanguine, 42 x 60 cm) from the series of the same name or Veta Reading (1972, charcoal, 50 x 36 cm). The landscapes of this period – Country House (1969, oil, 48 x 69 cm) or Leningrad Motif (1970, oil, 48 x 69 cm) reflect Grachev’s close ties to his homeland and his detailed study of nature. Some early works also betray the influence of European modernism to begin with Picasso. The portrait in the top right-hand corner of Still-life with a Fish (1963, tempera, 42 x 44 cm) recalls Picasso’s works of the 1950s, while the composition and subject of Still-life with a Bust (1972, pencil, 20 x 28 cm) is similar to the Spanish master’s late classicist period. Sunny Day (1975, pencil, 20 x 28 cm) evokes associations with Roy Lichtenstein. Those works reflect influences from which the artist later attempted to escape – and succeeded, particularly in his drawing.

Confident in figurative paintings and drawings, Yuri Grachev worked successfully in parallel in an abstract style, designing theatre curtains and tapestries for public buildings ordered by the state. His large tapestries were not only accepted for official display; two of them – Circles and Moscow – were even acquired by the Ministry of Culture for a foreign exhibitions of Soviet art. In applied art, abstraction was permissible to an extent that was unthinkable in fine art. Just as the members of the Dvizhenie (Movement) group based around Lev Nusberg described themselves as decorative artists, in order to be allowed to exhibit their kinetic art, so Grachev employed applied art as a much-needed source of income and a way to express himself in a non-figurative manner. In the depth of his soul, however, Grachev is a figurative artist. His great talent for drawing became apparent later, in New York. Despite the simplified forms and promise of artistic freedom offered by abstraction, Grachev never turned his back on objectivity.

Like many of his contemporaries, Yuri Grachev was interested not only in employing all the nuances of the complex language of art, but also in achieving an artistic result that might become an object of public dialogue. He saw and experienced too much in 1970s to be able to reconcile himself to the limitations set on Soviet culture. Unable to conform to the set clichés, he and his wife Veta – an artist – decided to move to New York in the belief that capitalism did not dictate to artists. They left after witnessing the end of the Thaw and the dramatic conclusion of the “bulldozer” exhibition in Izmailovo Park in 1974, before the final separation of official and unofficial art and the peak of Moscow Conceptualism and Sots Art.

Emigration – the voluntary departure from one’s native land – always implies a conscious choice. This phenomenon should be regarded, above all, from the sociological point of view. As art is always rooted in socio-political reality and reflects the social conditions of life, emigration is also important with regard to art – in terms of both its creation and its perception. As an interdisciplinary science, migratology works, first and foremost, ideographically. It registers and describes phenomena, defining social and political laws or algorhythms. Yet what does emigration mean for the individual? In the case of the third wave of emigration, beginning in the late 1960s and continuing until the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was also the conscious and voluntary rejection of an oppressive political system, even if this meant forfeiting one’s homeland (the first wave occurred immediately after the 1917 revolution, when many intellectuals and writers left or were forced to leave the country; the second followed the Second World War and mostly involved those who feared persecution or arrest on their return to the Soviet Union, as a result of capture, contacts or collaborations with the West). Immigration to the United States, France or Israel also made an important contribution to Russian émigré culture.

Yuri Grachev arrived in America with the cultural experience of life in the Soviet Union. Most important, however, was the great reserve of spirituality which he brought with him from his homeland.

Grachev had to decide to whom to address his art. He could follow the example of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Victor Nekrasov, Sergei Dovlatov or Yuri Mamleyev, who wrote for Russian readers, despite the difficulties involved in getting their works back inside Russia. Or he could address the native inhabitants of his new homeland. Who would understand him best? Who was his audience? Perhaps even more importantly, he was caught up in the force field between here and there or then and now He himself understood this position, caught between the new and old centers of existence. Whether or not he fully assimilated this new reality, however, is an open question.

A comparison of the works of Grachev’s Russian period and those made soon after his arrival in New York demonstrates the new stylistic and thematical orientation of his oeuvre. Mocker (1981, charcoal, 45 x 38 cm) is not only non-academic; it is free of the influence of Picasso. The same applies to such other works as Two Beggars No. 1 (1981, charcoal, 48 x 68 cm). In the early 1980s, beggars, tramps and the homeless were often the subjects of the artist’s works, bringing together various sources of inspiration and the experiences and impressions of two completely different socio-cultural systems. Grachev closely studied the life of the streets, getting beyond the neon signs to the poverty.

He depicted people eking out a living below the poverty line, playing on a saxophone for a few cents, hiding their faces beneath the rim of a hat or resting on a stick. Such images become the central dramatis personae of Grachev’s art and can be regarded as a free reworking of his own experience of life in Russia. In this sense, Grachev’s oeuvre and the works of the early New York period in particular help to define the artist’s personal stances. This should not, however, be understood in the superficially concrete sense, as a reflection of his own past or financial situation (although he too has experienced poverty), but in the psychological sense – as a demonstration of his inner turmoil and mental fluctuations between depression and emotional rise in such works as Alone (1981, charcoal, 61 x 46 cm), Outcast (1981, brown chalk, 45 x 30 cm), Old Homeless under an Umbrella (1984, charcoal, 68 x 48 cm), Old woman with a Cane no. 3 (1983, charcoal, 61 x 49 cm).

Yuri Grachev enjoys working with charcoal – a soft and flexible material allowing the artist to freely express his or her creative tasks. Embracing a wide range of tones, charcoal also possesses painterly qualities. The figures in Grachev’s works are often volumetric, with the bodies wrapped in lumpish clothes or lost in the strokes of the background or an indefinite space. The artist does not reveal where he first saw these characters. Perhaps they are living memories? Or relevant observations? In all of Grachev’s works, the individual image plays the main role, expressing a sense of lostness and loneliness. Although groups of characters are also encountered, they express the same notes. In Subway No 1, Subway No. 2 (1983, charcoal, 48 x 68 cm) and several other works, the characters are encountered in an anonymous space, evoking unwitting associations with the underground art of the Soviet Union.

Another group of works addresses the themes of friends, businessmen and street musicians: Happy Friends (1983, charcoal, 48 x 63 cm), Old Friends (1983, charcoal, 46 x 64 cm), Clowns (1983, pastel, 48 x 68 cm), Faces (1983, pastel, 48 x 65 cm) and Businessman No. 2 (1983, pastel, 48 x 68 cm). The latter two works reflect in humorist tendency in the oeuvre of an artist who is not afraid to parody a businessman as a clown. Attempting to define Yuri Grachev’s personal likes and dislikes, it is important to address the relationship between the artist and his model and the various scenes set in the studio. Artist (1981, charcoal, 45 x 58 cm), for example, betrays Grachev’s love of caricature. Model in a Black Chair (1982, pastel, 48 x 61 cm) sends the viewer directly back to Picasso, who also varied the artist and model theme. As was the case with the great Spanish master, the erotic element is also present. While Picasso introduced much humour to this theme, Grachev unfolds the subject on an almost burlesque plane: Artist and Pink Model (1983, pastel, 48 x 63 cm). The large figures filling the entire format constantly create an unexpectedly comic sensation; the nude models are fat, round and grotesque: Artist and Grotesque Model (1981, charcoal pencil, 38 x 48 cm).

Grachev regards his decision to move to the West as a landmark event in his career, believing that he only began to seriously develop professionally after moving from Russia to New York. When studying the heritage of an artist, one inevitably examines the sense of continuity in his oeuvre. The works of Grachev’s American period – the main part of his creative heritage – are accompanied by natural questions concerning the influence of Russia. Another question commonly asked in connection with émigré artists is the time and intensity of the assimilation of a foreign culture. In Grachev’s case this is an easy question to answer. The formal assimilation of Western artistic tendencies began before his emigration, continuing naturally in New York. This situation is less clear-cut in relation to those who emigrated against their wills, forced to abandon their native land for political reasons, living among their former compatriots in their new homeland. For them, interaction with their former homeland is always important. Grachev is slightly different. His style, technique and, to some extent, the subject-matter do not hark back to his Russian period. If he has issues with his own past, they are not expressed in his works.

There are, however, certain features that characterize Yuri Grachev as a Russian artist in New York, rather than a pure New York artist. This concerns not the formal parameters or surfaces of his works, but the content of his oeuvre as a whole, which is dominated by man and man’s inner, psychological life. This quality has been a feature of Grachev’s works ever since the 1950s, when he was still a Soviet artist in Moscow. In this respect, the trajectory of his oeuvre remains unbroken, in contradiction to the changes in his choice of media.

The type and means of artistic expression was directly influenced by the artistic materials and technical execution. Charcoal and pastel gave way to oil paints, reflecting changes in external factors (the artist began working as a set painter for the Metropolitan Opera).

The subjects themselves – and, consequently, their conveyed meanings – remain largely unchanged. Grachev’s works often feature scenes which, even in the absence of any direct references to concrete (figurative) space, clearly reveal their own topographical and socio-graphic origins as images of New York – Shopping No. 1 (1986, oil, 183 x 122 cm) and Shopping No. 3 (1986, oil, 183 x 122 cm). Black boys, musicians, women and children indicate the artist’s growing identification with this new world. In terms of their painting technique, Grachev’s later works are extremely expressive, suggesting parallels with German Expressionism. Expectation (1998, oil, 178 x 127 cm) is reminiscent of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, while Shopping No. 3 is not unlike Emil Nolde.

Although Yuri Grachev is modest, sensitive and completely natural, the aforementioned assimilation of Western stylistic elements (representing, in principle, a rejection of the Socialist aesthetic ideal) gives way to a genuine independence manifested most vividly in several seemingly ungarish drawings – the most expressive works of Album, New York, 1995 – 2000. Here we see an artist who believes in the power of the line, the ability of one line, to convey an imperceptible essence and extremely subtle meanings – abbreviations of a psychological cosmos, the image of which is formed by more than just the life of New York.


Barbara M. Thiemann

Peter and Irene Ludwig Foundation, Aachen