Moscow to New York: A New Voice

Yuri Grachev’s arrival in New York with his wife (and fellow abstract artist) Elizabeth in 1978, marked a new era for the 41-year-old artist. In a written statement of 1997, he observed, “I began to develop seriously as an artist after coming to New York from Russia.” He began by focusing on his drawing and from 1979-84 his entire artistic output assumed the form of figurative drawings. By 1984, he had completed nearly 600 drawings, a remarkably large number considering that he simultaneously held down a fulltime job. Alternately witty and deeply humane, his drawings are notable for their sure-handed, economical technique and their eloquence.

He had been an accomplished draughtsman since he was a teenager while attending one of the most prestigious Moscow’s art schools. In secondary school, a realistic drawing that Grachev had made of a sculpture of the Greek God Apollo was even used for the cover of a textbook on drawing called Drawing in Middle Art School. But this drawing was academic; a time-honored approach associated with classical art training which discouraged personal expression in favor of impersonal technique. Likewise, the tapestries and stage curtains Grachev designed during his life in the Soviet Union had little to do with the drawings he would later produce in New York. These tapestries were abstract, late modernist essays in geometric form and color at a time when official Soviet painting was largely figurative and abstraction had fallen out of favor with the art establishment in the West.

Grachev’s single-minded focus on drawing after his arrival in New York partly meant, “picking up” his “education” where he had left off after secondary school. This time he would “educate” himself. As his wife Elizabeth noted, “He came here and started to draw all the time.” But he was doing more than making up for lost time. He liked the scale of drawing and the medium’s distilled qualities of expression. There was also the economics of his art practice. When Grachev arrived in New York he possessed little money for art supplies. In early 1979 a box of art materials arrived from Moscow with brushes and, more important, 300 sheets of white, poor quality, drawing paper, with the uniform dimensions of 20” x 28” full sheets. He later supplemented this with sheets of better-quality paper in white, brown and gray-green. Paper quality was never an issue for Yuri who grew up in poverty as a child in the Soviet Union. Thus, he actually preferred the cheaper paper, and as he said: “I draw more freely when it’s cheap paper, then I don’t worry about ruining it.”

In 1982 he acquired a studio in New York, in apartment complex in which he lived and he would soon begin to paint with the same obsessive energy he had brought to drawing. In his early days in New York, Grachev drew almost nightly, after work and dinner, as well as on weekends. He worked at a desk in a spare room and his output was prodigious. He produced five or six drawings in a single evening and sometimes completed one in just 15 minutes. Technical considerations led from one work to another—the problem, for instance, of how a figure emerges convincingly from velvety darkness. Whether working in charcoal or pastels—about 40 percent of his production is in color—he typically began to draw by portraying an artist alone in his studio or with a model. In some instances, the artist is bearded and the elegantly silhouetted rendering of props and still-life elements suggest a tip of the hat to Picasso and Matisse, the godfathers of modernism Other studio-subjects depict the artist as the neckless, heavy-figured “Everyman” that populate so many of his drawings no matter the motif.

The fact that Grachev drew so many scenes of artists and models--these subjects comprise nearly half of his drawings--suggests that it was more than just a way of loosening up for him. What could be more personal, resonant subject matter for any artist? The studio is the equivalent of the Arcadian pastorale of classical tradition. But for the modern artist, nature has been replaced by culture, the woods and stream by the studio. In all of Grachev’s artist-and-model works, the model exists for the sake of the artist. Invariably the model is a female, and she is entirely passive, both subject and object of the artist’s gaze. Unlike Picasso, there is rarely the slightest hint of sex between the artist and model, although the artist often has a certain sardonic smile on his face as he gazes from afar and an almost perverse sexual fascination in his models. His models are all large and clearly do not exhibit any signs of the “ideal beauty” albeit they possess a certain round deep sensuality and are beautiful in their untraditional way. Grachev did not draw directly from live models in a studio, when he made these drawings. These studio scenes are some of Grachev’s most joyous works , such as the gravity-defying, Chagallesque Dance in a Studio (1983), in charcoal. For Yuri, all the studio scenes were what he termed “vacations” or joyous retreats from the demands of everyday life.

This lightness contrasts starkly with the existential darkness that permeates his other three major subjects: beggars, faces, and to a lesser extent the phantasmagoric animals he only occasionally portrayed. The first two categories are permeable and overlapping, and sometimes discernable only based on a work’s title, which was often supplied by the artist’s wife as an organizational device. Grachev most frequently depicted beggars or bums as human haystacks enveloped in relatively undifferentiated clothes and it is these works that are his most authoritative.

Grachev focused primarily on the faces of these down-and-out denizens of the street. The artist’s virtuoso use of darkness and light commands attention. His technique reflects his love of the expressive chiaroscuro of Rembrandt and Leonardo, and Leonardo’s 19th century follower Alexander Ivanov, whose works in the Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery Grachev pored over as a student. Sometimes, as with Homeless #1 (1984) he virtually eliminated the use of line. Here, the rhythm of his sweeping strokes of charcoal is breathtaking; it takes a moment to realize that this is not a wave or a bush, but a sooty-faced person, eyes covered and nose bulbous, peering out from under many layers of abstractly-rendered clothing. Many of Grachev’s street people smile. Their smiles are not the smiles of the insane, but they do comment on an insane inhumane system where both great wealth and abject poverty exist side-by-side.

These keen-eyed drawings do not depict individuals, but the general human condition. The fact that Grachev’s many images titled “Friends,” or “Businessmen,” or “Corporate Friends” differ from the beggars only by the addition of glasses and the removal of the shadowy backgrounds suggests that only a few paychecks may separate them from these beggars. But it is Grachev’s sometimes hellishly dark shadows that gives this work its deep meaning and intensity. The work of George Grosz--the Neue Sachlikeit (or New Realist) painter who took the social inequities of the interwar period in Germany as his subject—comes to mind. Although Grachev’s universalizing approach was less scathingly political than Grosz’s and far more sympathetic, he must have been similarly shocked by the disparities of wealth and poverty one encountered travelling in New York City. Having traveled to India in the mid-seventies, the artist often commented on the differences between beggars there and street people in New York, especially the aggressiveness of the former.

Occasionally Grachev initiated his drawings away from home. He sometimes made tiny drawings or drawn notes, clandestinely on the subway, using them later as art material His images of grotesques and “city faces” bear the freshness of direct observation. Two drawings of 1987, among the last he made, show what may be the same African-American woman, in profile and full-face. They suggest his technical ease and authority, a perfectly blending line—especially in the profile and quickly rendered hair—and richly-nuanced light and shade to expressively distort while avoiding even a hint of dehumanization. Grachev’s subway scenes are among the few that locate his figures in a depicted world, rather than floating against a white backdrop or penumbral darkness. One amusingly titled scene, 1,000,000 Street (1983), reminds us, in Grachev’s humoristic way, that in New York, the “infinite” counting of streets begins in downtown Manhattan at Houston St., which is, accidentally, the border of SoHo, the “epicenter” of the international contemporary art world of the eighties. The work also points to how far uptown, near 238th St, the artist lived, how indifferent he was to his physical distance to the fashionable art scene as well as the artist’s desire to demonstrate his artistic spiritual freedom from the distant art world to which he did not belong. Grachev’s life changed dramatically in 1984. That year, he gained admission to the highly selective United Scenic Artists’ Union. This, in addition, to his new studio, seemed to lure him away from drawing in favor of painting as his new primary medium. (He had no interest in prints or multiples, or any medium that severed the direct and unique connection between the artist and his materials.) Based on the quality and vitality of his drawings, perhaps he felt it was time to turn his hand to a medium at which he was less practiced. An artist of ambition, Grachev worked to make up for the lost decades in the Soviet Union when he had been unable to pursue his lifelong interest in painting.

Interestingly, before he began making plans to leave the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s, Grachev rarely signed his artwork. He was a very modest man and did not want to attach much importance to his talent. By the time of his departure in 1977, he had affixed his signatures to a number of his drawings and paintings he believed were his best which he had to leave behind with friends and associates, and, of course, he did so in order to ensure that his works might later be easily identified. Yet in the U.S., he quickly began to date and sign each drawing on its face, usually with a bold flourish. This practice reflected his new-found confidence in his work, but it is also a symbolic gesture: whether conscious or not, it is the action of a man simultaneously reclaiming his personal identity, and turning his back on an identity imposed by a social system that had thwarted his life-long desire to be a fine—rather than an applied—artist.

Robert Atkins

Art critic, New York