Catalog cover. Neuhoff Galary 1995
The Sterligovites

Mikhail German

The critic who must introduce the work of the modern “Sterligovites” – followers of the painter Vladimir Vasilevich Sterligov – cannot help but feel a certain amount of confusion: it is difficult to find another group of artists so different from each other and yet so united by their «root system», by a deep, secret closeness. Those of Sterligov's students and disciples now working are easy to recognize in exhibitions. They are linked by an atmosphere of intellectual harmony; they are, of their kind, «Cartesians» of art, for whom clarity and a distinct structure of artistic form are essential qualities in their work. To a certain extent, their world is similar to Hermann Hesse's invented country of Castalia, where initiates into the highest secrets of the master occupy themselves with the mysterious «glass bead game». I do not wish to liken these artists to Olympians or hermits, inclined merely to speculative creativity, but they are nevertheless typified by an intense enclosed ness.

Indeed. To become a Sterligovite it is not sufficient simply to profess a particular doctrine and to labor along the lines of set methods. First and foremost, it means passing through a serious and completely distinctive school; not through words, but through practice coming to understand the founding principles of the Sterligov system; learning much; and, at the same time, finding one's own, particular place, inasmuch as a mere imitator of the Sterligov school in not yet its disciple. And apart from all that – and this is the sine qua non – one must be a true professional. In truth, as the wise Chinese artist put it: only he who has learned the rules can succeed in changing them.

The relationship to the Teacher defines a great deal in the art of the Sterligovites. Not only to his system and artistic principles, but to his personality, too, to one's ability to preserve and realize one's professional convictions. The most senior Sterligovite, Alexander Baturin, was not speaking casually when, on receiving the prestigious Punin prize, he said that everything good that he had done came from Sterligov; everything in which he had failed came from himself. It is, of course, impossible to agree with him: Baturin's talent and originality are unmistakable; but a devotion to Sterligov's system and the ability to evaluate oneself through the prism of the Teacher's ideas are typical of his students.

Baturin (b. 1914) is the oldest of Vladimir Sterligov's students and disciples. An artist with a heroic destiny of his own who spent long years in Stalin's camps, he is entirely uninterested (as is often the case with many worthy people) in turning his former suffering into a stepping-stone to present-day success. An amazing love of life and faithfulness t artistic principles helped him endure terrible ordeals, and even in the gulag he was able to observe the beauty of the surrounding nature.

Baturin first got to know Sterligov in 1931, when the latter's teacher, Kazimir Malevich, was still living, but their next meeting, after all their misadventures, took place a quarter of a century later. There was only one way to grasp the teacher's principles and stay true to them as deeply as Baturin did: to make them completely his own, to fuse them with his own individuality.

The school of Malevich and Sterligov equipped but did not enslave Baturin's eyes. The harmonic logic of the world, indiscernible to the ordinary observer, is an open book to him. He possesses the ability to slow down time in his pictures to such a degree that at times it seems to have stopped altogether. The artist sees in nature the simplicity of the complex and the complexity of what appears to be simple. The smooth surface of water reflecting a calm sky may be nuanced in the subtlest way, while the intricate bulk of the crown of a tree is rendered with the crudest visual formula. The artist reveals to the spectator the true possibilities of the human eye and mind, its particular intellectual an aesthetic optics, attainable only by a «happy few», to use Stendhal's favorite expression. Baturin's paintings are constructed delicately and powerfully with colored planes defined in space, sometimes smoothly intersecting one another. In his universe there are more than three dimensions, but this does not fight with the canvas; on the contrary, the space makes peace with it. Concentrated volumes, vacillating, semitransparent planes, calm colors – warm ashes, darkened gold's, umber rusts, specific, extended splotches like color «swimming» to the canvas – all of these produce the impression of an unprecedented combination of logical calculation and secret, sorcerous wizardry.

Gennady Zubkov (b. 1940) occupies a special place among modern sterligovites. He belongs to a somewhat older generation than the rest and besides which it is he who is at the center of the theoretical and practical studies and joint efforts to which Sterligovites of various generations have given, and continue to give, much time. In this sense they are continuing the traditions of GInKhuK, where, as is well known, problems of color, space, and so forth were studied intellectually at the same time as they were investigated in a practical way. Zubkov also concerns himself with the young, «beginner sterligovites».

Zubkov's work, of course, does not consist only of putting Sterligov's ideas into practice. Within his own art Zubkov enters into a dialogue with the teacher. The mind does not stay in one place, and, indeed in today's circumstances Sterligov's ideas have undergone a change from fascinating sedition into just one of the contemporary variations of artistic thought with an equal right to be heard.

Zubkov's world is not simple. There is no coziness in it, the tension of color is hidden from a superficial glance; the outward calm of balanced tones and muted colors produces a sense of the malleability of time (and here there is a certain similarity to Baturin); in fact this is a characteristic of the Sterligovites in general, of a world asleep, devoid of fond details or of that mysteriousness, packed with many meanings, so fashionable in our time. There is no aggression in his paintings, no settling of scores with the past, no political allusions, no belated dissidence. They have texture, color, intelligence, a deep link with tradition. And rare flashes of severity, felt, paradoxically, in even the most daring experiments.

The art of the Sterligovites, which is sometimes characterized by the critics as purely formal, is, in fact, primarily about content. Bursting with ideas and deeply rooted in theory, it can be seen as a kind of oversaturated solution in which the ideas of the artist crystallize in an abbreviated visual form. Elena Gritsenko (b. 1947) met Sterligov a year before she finished art school. Her solid academic grounding enabled her to throw herself into the Sterligov system with serious awareness. It was as if the Teacher's principles had «revealed» – structured – her gifts. The «boiling color» on her canvases is channeled into bright, hard forms, planes are sharply delineated, mysterious figures take shape inside quite real faces, bodies, and objects in a magical way. And only the disturbingly smoldering flicker of the delicately nuanced splashes of color, seems to feel cramped in the precisely ordered compositional space, and oriented less toward the world of objects than toward another, secret reality.

Alexander Nosov (b. 1947) belongs to the same generation as Elena Gritsenko, but he got to know Sterligov considerably later, in 1967. Nosov is inclined even more, perhaps, than his colleagues, to explorations in the area of pure form, «through» which, from time to time, shapes from the material world appear dimly. He seeks (and finds) that same “coincidence” of abstract and real concepts that Sterligov spoke of. Nosov, an artist of rare imagination, is, on top of that, exceedingly emotional. At times the «color clots» literally explode on the canvas; at others they subside into a deceptively threatening quiet. In a trait characteristic of Sterligovites of every generation, he experiences art not as a goal but as movement; and change is his natural element.

Larissa Astrein (b. 1941) is another artist who cannot simply be seen as a master working only within one system and group of conventions. She seems to interpret in her own paintings the highest achievements of her renowned predecessors: experiments by Malevich and Matyushin; she admits even the devices of the pointillists through her individual experience, builds her own world, slow and fragile, where «color covers all with a dark veil», as Astrein herself has remarked, where dreaminess and poeticism in no way preclude pictorial energy. The «energy field» of Astrein's canvases is truly a great one, though it is hidden, and acts on the spectator in a way that is simultaneously powerful and unnoticed.

Larissa Astrein and Mikhail Tserush (b. 1948) have worked together for a long time and exhibited together many times. Their influence on each other, if it exists, appears in an extremely mediated, complicated form. It is more like a dialogue in which the artists, while learning from one another, become more and more themselves. Tserush is more logical: his canvases seem constructed in the imagination; his carefully organized compositions are brought onto the canvas sequentially and precisely. Yet in Tserush's logic lies his lyricism. His paintings are saturated with a shining mist, a bright coating that sometimes disintegrates into subtly nuanced molecules of color; the elegantly controlled brushstroke finds an ephemeral lightness without ruining the carefully considered structure of the canvas. At times Tserush's floating, weightless planes take on a distant resemblance to objects; at times they return to the nonfigurative world, and the dialogue between the seen and imagined gives his pictures a particularly bewitching charm.

The youngest of the exhibitors, Alexei Gostintsev (b. 1950), studied with Sterligov and Glebova in the 1970s and exhibited in their studio. An artist with a powerful style, he strives to attain that tension in the layer of color known in the ‘20s as the «humming canvas». Always experimenting, using differing brushstrokes and unusual methods of laying down color, he achieves wonderful, varied results, while retaining an epic if not elegiac calm in the motif itself. This «visual paradox» in Gostintsev's work endows his paintings with a singular effect: a sensation of strength, of a restrained intellectuality, of harmonious chaos infiltrating the stream of logic and equilibrium.

Yuri Gobanov (b. 1941) seems something of a loner among the sterligovits. Trained in language and literature, he turned to painting seriously only after meeting Sterligov in 1970. Accustomed to working with words, he succeeded in transforming his reasoning into pure visual effect. His «world model», despite its outward abstractness and precisely regulated structure, possesses a tender lyricism. The surface of Gobanov's paintings seems to vibrate: the pure flow of time is palpable; “explosions” of ultramarine in the calm, light pictorial haze lend the feeling of a secret, festive holiday.

It is undoubtedly no accident that the word bird frequently occurs in the titles of his paintings. The evocation of air, as an eternal, cosmic substance, does not exclude entirely concrete associations – metaphorical if not material. And the contact of the nonobjective visual and philosophical world beyond with living, associative memory lends Gobanov's work a particular intellectual acuteness.

An especially austere and intense quiet fills the paintings of Alexander Kozhin (b. 1949), who met Sterligov as a twenty-year-old art student and took part in many «unofficial» exhibitions. He developed his own style slowly, gradually, and persistently, laconic in the extreme, highly balanced, built on paradoxical and spellbinding compositions of light colors and rigid visual structures. His paintings possess no marked spatial expanses, but, owing to their thick, complex texture (the artist often uses sawdust in priming), they acquire a shadowy, barely graspable depth of meanings, a kind of visual «beyond the looking glass», finding its own kind of «intellectual stereotypes». The world of Kozhin is filled with quiet mystery; the complex and exceedingly painterly texture of his works imbue the mystery with its own kind of monumentality.

Much of what has been said about each of the Sterligovits can be applied to the others. A clear, energetic eye is required to assess the individual qualities of any of these artists. But the spectator's attention is rewarded a hundredfold: the outward resemblance seems to dissolve, revealing delicate distinctions, individuality connected not by a superficial common method but by a unity of ideas, visual and moral.

Michail German
Yuri Gobanov Alexe Gostintsev Mikhail Tserush