Bringing Art from Odessa to Light

by Theresa C. Watson, Communications Coordinator at the Zimmerli Art Museum

The Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, recently opened “Odessa's Second Avant-Garde: City and Myth,” its first exhibition devoted to artists from Ukraine. It focuses on nonconformist artists who worked in this fabled seaport on the Black Sea from the 1960s through the late 1980s. The project has been a fascinating experience for Olena Martynyuk, a Dodge Fellow at the Zimmerli and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Art History at Rutgers, who organized the exhibition. 

 “As a cosmopolitan harbor at the far edge of the Russian Empire, Odessa embraced residents and transplants from distinct backgrounds – Jewish, Ukrainian, Greek, Russian – and united them in their creative pursuits,” Olena observes. “These artists experimented together, searching for a local identity that combined diverse ethnicities and cultures, as well as an understanding of their place in the broader context of art history. In contrast to the harsh social and political circumstances throughout the Soviet Union at the time, the sunny climate of Odessa became – and continues to be – a metaphor for autonomy and possibility.”

Olena selected more than 50 works – many on view for the first time in the United States – from the Zimmerli’s Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, which is the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of this kind. The late Norton T. Dodge (1927-2011), an economist and Sovietologist, assembled the collection during two decades of travel to and from the Soviet Union during the 1950s and 1960s, in the process saving countless works from destruction. Works from the 1970s and 1980s were later assembled with the help of numerous friends he had made during his earlier visits.

In 1991, Dr. Dodge and his wife Nancy Ruyle Dodge donated to the Zimmerli some twenty thousand works – by nearly a thousand artists – from Moscow, Leningrad, and the former Soviet republics. In addition, the Zimmerli offers a unique academic component in conjunction with the collection: Dodge Graduate Assistantships for doctoral candidates in the Department of Art History who study unofficial art of the former Soviet Union. Established in 2002 with a generous endowment from the Avenir Foundation, in honor of the Dodges, the program provides full academic financial support and an annual stipend, allowing students the freedom to pursue independent research and develop exhibitions, from conception to installation.

Olena’s development of “Odessa’s Second Avant-Garde” began in 2011. When she came to Rutgers, she knew that she would focus on Ukrainian art, but had not selected a particular area of study. As she began to explore the Zimmerli’s holdings in the Dodge collection, she recognized that Odessa was prominent among the various regions represented from Ukraine. In addition, she was invited that year to present a talk about the Zimmerli and the Dodge Collection at the Odessa Museum of Modern Art. While there, she met many of the artists who had known Norton Dodge. They shared their stories about the positive impact of his support when they felt overlooked within their own country, not to mention the rest of the world. Olena realized just how underrepresented they were – and how important it was to introduce their work to broader audiences.  

Among the artists represented in the exhibition are Aleksandr Anufriev, Sergei Anufriev, Yuri Egorov Aleksandr Freidin, Liudmyla Yastreb, and the collective Inspection Medical Hermeneutics (S. Anufriev, Yuri Leiderman, and Pavel Pepperstein). Olena also had the opportunity to meet with Lucien Dulfan, who lives in the New York City metro area. Because he was fortunate to emigrate with his collection (many artists were forced to leave works behind if they left Odessa before 1985), he loaned some of his earlier works to the exhibition.

Lucien Dulfan Reflection of the City, 1978 Oil on cardboard Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Soviet Nonconformist Art (Photo Peter Jacobs)

The exhibition has provided multiple opportunities for Olena to collaborate with colleagues, which has become an increasingly important component of planning exhibitions, especially those at academic institutions. For the opening reception on April 30, she invited Myroslava Mudrak, Professor Emeritus from Ohio State University and a renowned specialist in Russian and Ukrainian avant-garde art, who presented “From Lucidity to Freedom: On Color and Light in the Intrepid Art of Modernist Odessa.” Other guests traveled from several states in the Mid-Atlantic region (despite a torrential downpour that day!), as well as from Eastern Europe. Artists Lucien Dulfan and Noi Volkov attended, as well as Dr. Semen Kantor, Director of the Odessa Modern Art Museum, and representatives from Arts Trend Company, which is based in Riga, Latvia.

Olena already has arranged an event for September 14, shortly after students and faculty return for the fall semester. The Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers hosts the public program "Inventing Odessa: Jewish Culture on the Edge of the Russian Empire" at the Zimmerli. Following a guided tour of the exhibition, Olga Litvak, a leading scholar of Jewish Eastern Europe at Clark University Massachusetts, explores the powerful connection between the city air of Odessa and the Jewish revival that it inspired. Through the eyes of some of its most famous Jewish residents – both the city’s admirers and detractors – we see how the temptations of Odessa changed the course of Russian-Jewish life.

Although Olena first conceived the exhibition three years ago, it has become particularly relevant in recent months, as these works express the ongoing independent spirit of this Ukrainian city. Artists and writers have gravitated to Odessa for more than two centuries, finding inspiration in the dreamlike city. They disregarded politics and artistic conventions, cultivating an atmosphere that has captivated people around the world. Even in light of current events in Ukraine, Odessa stands as an example of a city capable of uniting citizens whose cultures, languages, and opinions differ, but who share the humor and lightheartedness attributed to this seaside town.

“Odessa's Second Avant-Garde: City and Myth” is on view through October 19, 2014. The exhibition and related programs are made possible by the Avenir Foundation Endowment Fund, with additional support from Arts Trend Company, a European firm that supports Ukrainian art internationally. To read the press release about the exhibition, visit the Zimmerli’s website.

 Zimmerli Art Museum is an Institutional Member of ASEEES.