Yuri Grachev: The Path to Liberation

With very few exceptions, the fate of a Russian artist who due to a number of social and political factors found himself between two sharply opposed systems– socialist and capitalist, East and West, was always uniquely dramatic, if not tragic. The inevitable tension between the customary and the new, between the traditional and the innovative, the need to overcome it and to bind all these strands into an integrated whole stretches all the resources of a creative personality to the limit. Yet it is the individual who can cope with all of these elements who has clearly proved himself as a true artist. The creative biography of the Moscow artist Yuri Grachev is one of the interesting manifestations of this kind of formation of a Russian artist in the 70s-80s.

Yuri Grachev's artistic persona was formed at the end of the 50s and in the early 60s. The name of this period in the history of Soviet culture, "Thaw," is the title of Ilya Ehrenburg's then popular novella. Both the political and cultural life of that period were marked by clear shifts and breakthroughs in the monolithic socialist-realist block.

Starting in 1957 the Soviet public and, first and foremost, artists initially gained access to a rather wide-ranging panorama of twentieth-century art. It was in that year that a huge exhibition of young artists from around the world opened in Gorky Park as part of the International Youth and Student Festival. The show was a stunning experience for Moscow artists. For the first time young Soviet artists could see for themselves modern art as represented by artists from 52 countries, and that same year also saw the holding of a retrospective Picasso show.

At the end of the 50s and in the early 60s Moscow artists had their first opportunity to see firsthand abstract expressionism, with its European equivalent, French tachism. A major Moscow event of the summer of 1959 was the American exhibition in Sokolniki Park. American abstract expressionism was represented by such artists as A. Gottlieb, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem De Kooning. Two years later in the summer of 1961 the same park hosted a French exhibition featuring the Paris abstract school. These and other exhibitions of Western art led to the start of a new era in the understanding of modern art in Moscow artistic circles.

And it was within this period that through visits to the A.S. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and through his one-man show that Yuri Grachev, too, discovered for himself the work of the great experimenter Picasso, for the study of his works had a significant impact on the young artist's creative thinking.

A special role, however, in broadening the horizons of young Soviet artists was played by the large exhibition marking the 30th anniversary of the Moscow section of the Union of Artists which opened in the Manezh in December 1962.

A separate show of the works of young Soviet artists, who had worked in the studio of Elii Belyutin, was located on the second floor of the Manezh. For practical purposes this was the first major official exhibition showing expressionist-abstract trends in modern Soviet art. In addition to his work as an artist, Elii Belyutin taught extensively, and during the 1950s worked at the Textile Institute where Grachev later studied.

A visit by top Party officials headed by Nikita Khrushchev to both the classical and the nonconformist section of the exhibit, located on the second floor, ended in an incredible shouting match and the aggressive rejection of the work of the so-called "abstractists," i.e. abstractionists. In 1963 the Manezh exhibition and the encounter of the Party Central Committee leaders with creative intellectuals clearly showed that hopes for liberalization and pluralism in the area of official culture would have to be shelved for an indefinite period of time.

That same year, however, apparently due to the inertia of the "Thaw," the Textile Institute where E. Belyutin had taught continued to hold dissertation defenses on themes of geometric abstraction. It was in that year that Yuri Grachev submitted his thesis project. He showed a series of burnt umber rhombic geometric compositions with dark red glints, all executed with great feeling and striking in their huge scale and expressiveness. These works obviously went beyond the bounds of textile programs and were fully finished abstract compositions. Throughout the 60s and 70, however, in decorative-applied art, as distinguished from easel painting, the definition of "abstraction" paradoxically did not entirely become a bugbear relentlessly flogged by the conservative representatives of Soviet art.

And in 1963, right after graduation from the Textile Institute, several former students exhibited their works in the Polytechnical Museum. Viewers recalled a large number of geometric works. Yuri Grachev showed black and white compositions done on silk fabric and stretched onto frames. These compositions were based on a large rhombus, triangles and squares.

The exhibitions continued throughout the 60s. However, Elizabeth Grachev, Yuri's wife who had been his co-author during this period, recalled that certain adjustments were made to the abstract trend:

"The first works in the enormous Manezh exhibition hall were six-meter long fabrics with popular motifs: black and white, with a clear composition, well executed. At first glance they looked like geometric compositions, but connoisseurs of Russian recognized folklore themes taken from spinning wheels.

Being tied to these themes was depressing, but without them our exhibits could not have taken place. We wanted to work with pure geometric forms, but we were not allowed to go further than these fabrics, with their subtle but obligatory references to popular motifs. On many occasions we submitted abstract works, but these were sharply criticized by the selection commission for the wrong use of folk themes and hyperbole."

Nevertheless, the Grachevs continued to make headway with their abstract works at exhibitions. In 1972 they exhibited in the Manezh a rather large four by five square meter tapestry entitled "Circles." This marked yet another breakthrough into a kind of abstract art. After considerable wrangling and doubts the tapestry was accepted for the exhibition and then purchased by the Ministry of Culture for display abroad. Despite the various bans in effect, abstract works – specifically those in applied art – were acquired by the state for display in the West as modern cultural socialist achievements.

During this period the Grachevs steadily continued their work on black and white geometric compositions. For large exhibitions they tried to execute geometric tapestries with purer forms, including the "monumentalist" seven-meter tapestry "Moscow," again with a black and white geometric composition, done in the 70s. They also worked extensively on theater curtains. The theme of a huge silk curtain done for Nebit-Dag was again geometric, with large bright red, green and white planes.

The example of Yuri Grachev shows how in the applied art of the 1960s there was a rather consistent interest in the geometrisation of forms, structuring, and work with linear-geometric signs and symbols. In easel painting, however, this interest is manifest somewhat later, towards the beginning of the 70s, with the exception of the geometric works of the early 60s of the "Dvizhenie" (Movement) group.

Such an analysis may seem odd, but nevertheless the most interesting shifts in abstract art occurred in the applied art of this period. It is paradoxical that many artists in fact conceived of applied art as "applied" and not as "high" art. Elizabeth Grachev's complaints concerning Yuri's creative development are typical. "His talent for drawing, his artistic soul had no real opportunity for development after graduation from the Textile Institute. Most of the other artist who were graduated from the Surikov and Polygraphic institutes also spent their lives merely making a living, and gradually the flame of creativity sputtered out. Life became a meaningless assembly line."

The result of this creative torpor was the decision to emigrate.

The paradoxical nature of Grachev's Moscow period is particularly striking. Despite all of the bans and obstacles the artist was working with an abstract orientation that was extremely radical for that time. But the lack of an adequate artistic environment, the awareness that the course he had chosen was the right one and an inherent belief and conviction that "high art" was first and foremost classical art forced Yuri Grachev to seek other paths.

In August 1977 together with the wave of mass departures of intellectuals and particularly of artists from the USSR, Yuri Grachev set off with his family for the US in search of freedom, in particular creative freedom. "We were seeking freedom in art, in creative work, we were seeking what we had not had in the Soviet Union. Freedom is a very complex concept. Freedom does not exist anywhere. Man lives in society and must abide by its rules. But the relative freedom of the capitalist system far exceeds that of the socialist countries. In fact, there's too much freedom here."

Having come up against reality in the West, Yuri Grachev concluded that while in the USSR his concept of the west had been rather idealized. "Roughly speaking, I could say that as an artist I find it interesting here, but as a normal, ordinary person I find a lot of things difficult, and there are a lot of bad things. Hardest of all is the constant psychological tension, the difficulty of survival...Heartlessness and rationalism have seeped into the blood of Western civilization. The dollar has eaten away and destroyed everything that could be called the human soul."

It was very difficult to survive. Like many other Russian emigres, the Grachevs felt as though they were strangers from another planet. It was nearly impossible to put down roots and become an integral part of this new world. Even more than most Russian Soviet emigres, they were aware of the tragic contradictions of their existence. American reality revealed itself to them in all of its diversity: "The coexistence of the most contradictory elements in all spheres of life and art, the frenzied neon advertisements and the black stains of garbage, the dregs of society were an eyesore that cut the soul to the quick."

Several years of struggling to survive and seeking employment were needed to be able to engage in creative work. In 1978 Yuri Grachev started working as a textile artist at Burlington, a large textile company. Now things had come full circle, for the Russian reality he had wanted to leave behind had become a reality in America. Elizabeth Grachev recalled that, "in Russia Yuri sat at a loom for up to ten hours a day, while in New York he did that for three hours less, and did that for six years." Regarding his quest for creative trends, she acknowledged that, "All of our credos, our concepts lagged behind; people had gone through all that seventy years ago, and it was very difficult to grasp contemporary trends. Within the chaotic plethora of trends it was almost impossible to distinguish what was right from transient phenomena. Here we are different, virtually strangers, and therefore "old" and useless."

Despite all these difficulties, however, the Grachevs tried to find their way in this complex artistic world. In a letter to his friends in the USSR Yuri Grachev wrote, "So far nothing has changed. Veta (Elizabeth) continues to do geometric compositions. I am also quite involved in this. I understand, that it is not enough, but for now it's very interesting. I can't just drop it. For us this is like music – the infinite combination of lines enthralls me, above all the expression of general harmony which distracts me from reality. In other words, it's possible with complete freedom, totally casting aside apparent reality, to attempt what is most essential, not just harmony, but a kind of specific mood, a kind of triumph and depth of sound. Recently we exhibited geometric painting, and rather successfully... Veta did all the large works... I'd like to do something even bigger, since the bigger the geometry, the stronger the sound. My idea is very simple: one enormous straight line – that's half of art..."

During his first years in the US Grachev did many sketches for geometric abstract canvases, but for the most part these were not completed. He was increasingly attracted by that real life which surrounded him. In a letter to friends he wrote, "In the USSR I didn't know what to draw. I remember how I'd sit in the studio and literally give up. Here I'm eager to draw everything. Everything is interesting."

Grachev arrived in New York at the time of a flourishing trend which in Europe had been called "the new savages," and in America – the trans-avantgarde. This movement was generally characterized by an interest in expressiveness in painting, free composition, and impulsive graphic gesture. This was "sharp," "blunt" art. The bright density of color, techniques of opposition, the "clash" of dissonant colors were borrowed from the French Fauvists and the tense deformation of form and expressiveness of graphic line derived from German Expressionism. The artists of this trend, however, differed from their predecessors through their depiction of the world in a rather alienated and impersonal manner.

Contemporary art was intensely attractive to Grachev because of its expressiveness, daring and vigorous energy. "The dimensions of the paintings are usually large. Sometimes a single brush stroke is a half-meter wide and three meters long. I really like that kind of daubing." But a long road of "liberation" was needed to paint that boldly.

At the beginning of the 80s Grachev's work was characterized by an almost obsessive need to draw. Over and over in small albums he sketched what he was encountering and seeing all around him, in the streets, in the subway, in the parks, and then turned these sketches into large compositions. From 1980-1984 the artist did several hundred drawings. He felt that his most successful drawings of this period were done in charcoal.

The opportunity to engage in graphic art was an unfulfilled dream that, because it could not become a reality, haunted the artist throughout his life in Moscow. Grachev always considered that his special talent, his knack lay in graphic art, "because, naturally, I was always a good student of drawing at the Art School, and I felt especially close to such draughtsmen of ours as Vrubel, Serov, Ivanov, Briullov and others. Among Western artists Leonardo da Vinci was naturally at the top of my list. In those works there is truly unique harmony and a unique subtlety in lines and in chiaroscuro, in sfumato, etc.. The ability to draw classically, having had good school training, is something that can only be helpful. If someone does not have such school training, he is usually worse at deformation. Therefore, even though I had classical school training, I feel completely free with everything and anything. I can turn a figure into a square and circles. ...So I am not put off by my realistic schooling or by anything else. I draw with utter freedom."

In the first half of the 1980s Grachev was employed by a textile firm, but his major work was done at home. Every Saturday and Sunday he drew. In New York, where mere survival was the most important thing, art could only created by fighting the conditions that surrounded the artist. He felt, therefore, that happiness in art to a great extent hinged on a routine of work. The results were almost always better, he felt, when there was a regular routine, when work became a physiological habit. He drew non-stop. "Here there are wandering street mimes and musicians...playing on the most varied, sometimes unbelievable instruments. Sometimes this is a horrible and pitiful sight, similar to the beggars who are everywhere...

The beggars here are special, different from any elsewhere in the world. Their clothes are generally filthy and many are physically devastated (there are also mentally ill people and cripples)... The bystanders don't react to them – they're used to them. Some who are garbed in burlap rags look like majestic Biblical characters, their hair looks frightening, you can't see the faces behind the beards."

As in the works of modern American artists, images of people in Grachev's works often appear in his drawings and then in his paintings in undifferentiated form, like a faceless crowd or alienated human figures deprived of any individuality. And at the same time the majority of his works reveal an expressive intensity of individual, albeit generalized expressive images.

At the end of the 80s Grachev was increasingly attracted to painting. At first he tried his hand at tempera technique on large pasteboards, and often painted street scenes. He did many tempera sketches on this subject, selecting the best ones and doing them in oil. At first he had difficulty working in oil, since he could not simply draw a figure and paint in some color. He needed "to have the background or part of it creep onto the figure, to have the contours of the figure live independently; some blots of the color of the figure also existed independently and somehow spread into the background." These figure compositions are dominated by the expressiveness of color, blunt brush strokes, interweaving and clashing of lines, contrasts, and intensive color blots.

Yuri Grachev selected colors of intense density, linked primarily to expressiveness, to feelings. But in the view of the artist a change in color inevitable entails a number of subsequent changes: "For example, if you've strongly diverged from natural color, then you also immediately have to diverge from natural dimensions. You immediately run up against such things as deformation, etc. If for the sake of expressiveness I change the form, the color also changes; if I change the color, the form also changes. That, incidentally, is clearly visible in Matisse's works."

In such an approach to color and form Grachev was in full solidarity with "neoexpressionism" which, violating the proportions of illuminated planes and blurring the borders of color, moved closer to abstract painting and in particular to abstract expressionism.

Analyzing the works of his last years, Yuri Grachev wrote, "I can boldly place myself in the ranks of such artists as the abstract expressionists or even very strong expressionist realists... I started to work more and more in very large dimensions. I also worked as a scenic artist at the Metropolitan opera. That involved truly enormous dimensions, and perhaps that is where I acquired the habit of using a large brush and a great deal of lush paint. I love strong contrasts. Such as black to white, and intensely dense colors, which are also sometimes dictated by large dimensions. Purely emotionally, such a huge size makes a rather strong and powerful impression. I want my works to be more emotional and I want any emotions in them to be strongly voiced."

The existential question – " Was it worth leaving Russia?" – is one each Russian artist, regardless of when he left, answered in his own way. As far as Yuri Grachev's creative destiny is concerned, the answer is absolutely clear. It was specifically New York which, despite all the difficulties of daily existence, metaphorically speaking, "squeezed out" the artist's brilliant talent as a draughtsman, determined his subject matter of marginal, rejected "outcasts," and forced the artist to master an expressive, modern language. The physical location in which the artist's "I" resounded is of no importance whatsoever. The most important thing is that he succeeded – even if it was in the last decade of his life – in clearly conveying his message about man's existence on this earth, a message which unquestionably will be heeded by future generations.


Larisa Kashuk

The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow