Little Moscow In New Jersey


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This is not to say that art cannot be entertaining. Recently I spent time in the company of Nikolai Filatov, a Russian painter whose work is quite well known in his homeland. He's currently making his residence in Jersey City and engaging in the Manhattan art scene. With Russia and the other former Soviet republics locked into a growing spiral of political and economic chaos, a huge contingent of the Russian avant-garde has settled in Jersey City, attracted by affordable loft space and proximity to Manhattan.


Filatov is quite a character. He's a lanky, lighthearted, muscular fellow with close-cropped silver hair and luminous green eyes who bears a slight resemblance to the actor David Warner. He has a wry and finely tuned sense of humor. We sat and chatted for several hours of a sunny September afternoon over a spread of Russian snacks from a Jersey City market that caters to the large Russian emigre community there.


He was born in 1951, in Lvov, home of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. Lvov's in western Ukraine; it was originally part of Austria. It's one of those border towns in a region where the borders tend to do a lot of shifting around. His was a very cosmopolitan city, with Ukrainians, Germans, Russians and Jews living together comfortably in what's described as an atmosphere free of ethnic conflicts. His family originally hailed from St. Petersburg, but that situation became untenable after his great-grandfather got busted by Stalin's goon squad in 1933 and packed off to the gulags for his involvement with the "Social Revolutionary" bunch. His daughter married Nikolai's grandfather, a rather famous opera singer who sang at the Kirov.


The family left St. Petersburg under a cloud and wandered until they hit Lvov, where Nikolai's father became an orchestra conductor at the local conservatory and medical university. It was assumed that Nikolai would follow in his father's rigidly classicist footsteps, and Nikolai began musical training with the piano in 1954, at the age of three. In 1958, he caught his first tantalizing glimpse of his future home in the pages of a restricted propaganda journal called Amerika, kept under lock and key in government offices.


It was when he was 10 that he discovered Kandinsky and fell in love with painting, enchanted by what he describes as "Kandinsky's free artistic mind and philosophy." This terrified his father. The apparatus of the state took a dim view of any artistic departure from the purely figurative, and his father feared for young Nikolai's future in the gray world of the Soviet Union. By 1968 Nikolai was quite at home with the ragtag bohemians protesting the CCCP tanks as they rolled through Lvov en route to Prague.


The only approved art at that time was figurative, and it's still very big: There is still an aversion to the avant-garde in Russia. The realist canon is embedded. In the mid-1970s, American hyperrealism was all the rage among the elite. Nikolai graduated from art school and took a professorial position, teaching at the Lvov Institute of Applied and Decorative Arts and at the Stroganov Art Institute in Moscow. In 1980 he abandoned teaching, and his reputation as a subversive character in Lvov necessitated a move to Moscow.


He lived illegally in Moscow in squats and transient spaces maintained by the underground. The Moscow underground was quite robust, strengthened by the daily struggle with official repression, unable to display their work in any of the official galleries. The work was instead presented in a network of private apartments whose owners were sympathetic to the cause of new art. At one point Filatov created an outlaw exhibition space in a KGB child care facility that he called "The Children's Garden," hosting some 200 artists and filmmakers illegally, right under the noses of the tight-assed forces of the USSR.


By 1985 things were beginning to loosen up a bit, and Filatov and his associates had their first big legal exhibition in Moscow. The Furmanny Lane scene began to take off, and got going full-throttle with the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev and perestroika in 1986-'87.


The policeman's boot was replaced by the businessman's smarmy handshake and critics missed the point entirely. Filatov had shows in Moscow, London, all over Europe and in the U.S. The work was never seen in context, never presented whole, so the critics only got part. Nikolai burned all but four of his works from the 1970s, and those four survive in the hands of a German spy who was formerly a cultural attache in Moscow?present whereabouts unknown, possibly Brazil. One painting from his 70s work is reproduced in the journal Photorealism (Moscow Galart, 1994). Entitled Autoportrait, it's a romantic action portrait of Beria done in the fashion of a black-and-white tv screen with free painting over the face. Other of his works are very vibrant and ironic futurist commentaries on Soviet realism. Two of his 1987 works, Dusk and Anxiety, are reproduced in the Habsburg, Feldman catalog of the exhibition given at the Puck Bldg. on May 5, 1990.


The "new capitalism" and the concomitant ascent of the plutocrats made Moscow impossible. Filatov came here in 1990 and settled with his psychologist wife and their children in Jersey City, where he maintains an affordable apartment and loft studio. There is a large community of Russian artists living in Jersey City?nearly the entire Russian avant-garde.


The emigres from the former Soviet bloc are even less well-equipped than American artists to cope with the vicissitudes of the market and the politics and economics of the intensely parochial Manhattan art world. But Filatov is confident that he and his cohorts will prevail. They have already passed through the flames of the collapsing empire and the ensuing free-for-all gangster anarchy that is the former Soviet Union today. Still, it isn't easy.


"It's very hard for the artist who is not young," he says, "who is worrying about the kids, to get on track here. You get the kids to school, and then go to studio and work. You cannot think about market tension."


It occurred to me that perhaps the true hidden goal of the Cold War was to implant the seed of the outlaw Russian avant-garde into the jaded neon womb of fin-de-siecle America.


Nikolai and I wrapped up our conversation and I helped him put away the snacks. He needed a ride to Home Depot for some supplies, and I had a borrowed Saab. I offered him a lift. The setting sun slanted into my eyes as we pulled out of the garage, temporarily blinding me. I asked him which way I should go. "Just drive," he shrugged. "We'll find the way."


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