Little Moscow In New Jersey

Written by Alan Cabal on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

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.

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.

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

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."