Visiting Michail Grobman

24, June 2011 · interviews

Michail Grobman is an artist, poet and art collector, one of the leaders and an ideologist of The Second Russian Avant-garde. Michail lives in Israel since 1971, where he has founded the group Leviathan and an art periodical. We have visited Michail Grobman and Ira Vrubel’-Golubkina together with Lena and Oded Zaidel. In the video, Michail reads his poetry, Lena and Oded read from Lena’s translations to Hebrew.

Video: Lena end Leonid Zeiger

Leonid Zeiger: Back in 2004 the Israel Museum presented a comprehensive exhibition of Russian art of the 1920s and 1930s, called “Great Hopes: The Art of the Russian Avant-garde”. I have asked several artists for their opinion regarding the exhibition, and surprisingly I found out that the Russian Avant-garde is perceived in Israel as quite a marginal, “secondary” phenomenon. Could it be that those who have been raised on the Russian culture tend to exaggerate with regards to the impact that the Russian Avant-garde has had on contemporary art?

Michail Grobman: Following Camilla Gray’s book “The Great Experiment” in 1962, the Russian Avant-garde of the early 20th century had gotten a renewed exposure in the west. Since then thousands of books and millions of papers have been published, numerous exhibitions have been presented worldwide, and this process is still ongoing. The prices of art works of the first and second Avant-garde in the global art world are soaring.

I do not know which artists you were talking to, but I’m afraid that they are simply uninformed, and with regards to that exhibition in the Israel Museum, I vaguely remember that there was such as exhibition. It seems to me that a random collection of works had been brought, known as a “suitcase exhibition”. A typical cooperation between smalltime art curators from the museum and shrewd art merchants from the Russian side. With regards to the second Avant-garde, it was first introduced in the west in 1958 –a feature in “Life” magazine with Russian artists works. Back then they were yet unorganized, and in fact the rise of the second Avant-garde should be recounted from 1962. The movement started to materialize in 1956 following the youth festival and the students there. An extensive exhibition in the festival had featured artists from the west, albeit not the most important ones, but all the leading trends in modern contemporary art were in fact represented: abstract, Dadaism and surrealism. This event connected with an exhibition of French and American painting in the Pushkin Museum, where the impressionism and post-impressionism gained a renewed exposure. And from then on the second Avant-garde started developing…

It seems to us that it is impossible to disconnect the Russian Avant-garde from the socio-politic context within which it was created, in other words an environment containing an oppressive element where the artist has to choose between being a hero or a victim. Doesn’t it seem to you that this is a territory open to conjecture?

Could it be that the interest in this art stems at times from the socio-politic context rather than the quality of the art?

First of all, none of the artists which were key figures in the second Avant-garde had undergone a process of oppression or persecution.

Back then there were attempts at oppressing certain writers but this always ended in scandal. Of course the KGB weren’t pleased with our presence, and indeed could and did perform isolated attacks, but in fact you can’t say that we were oppressed or persecuted. There was an artist among us, Oscar Rabin, whom is the subject of a feuilleton “Garbage dump No 8”. The social situation was significantly present in his works and the critique turned at him indeed derived from the social aspect, but I don’t recall other incidents.

What about Arefyev?

I’m talking about artists which have left an impression on the history of Russian art.

But Arefyev did leave an impression…

Let’s not argue now about who did leave a mark and who didn’t. “Staying” and “making an impression” don’t mean just being a good artist or an admired one; it means an artist whose art is of weight and his contribution meaningful from a universal point of view.

I am reluctant to give out grades but I think that it is no coincidence that Leningrad artists are absent from the second Russian Avant-garde.

What about your friend, Ilya Kabakov? Why, his artistic work is indistinguishable from social context.

Those are his later works. But once it was different. His earlier works were more philosophical.

There was in Soviet Russia a phenomenon called “dip art”, which was commercial art created for embassy employees and tourists. Wasn’t there a desire to become favorable in the eyes of the western spectator?

Of course there was this desire. The second Russian Avant-garde was made up of different and diverse artists. Some of them only lasted three years. When we speak about a contribution to Russian art it’s not sufficient to drop names, the period is important as well.

Avant-garde – by definition – is innovation but there comes a point when the obsessive chase after innovation is the prominent trend in art – the “Avant-garde” becomes a mainstream. What do you think about that?

The truth is that the attempt to find innovation forcibly is an impossible move. The innovation derives from the person’s character and the character of his actions. Recently the number of fame-thirsty artists has grown, artists who take provocative steps in order to take a place in the art sphere and find that the road to heaven is blocked. There are different branches to this path and of course it’s important to remember that any innovation in art was perceived in it’s time as provocation, even the impressionists in their first steps. Laymen feel that artist performs actions that are meant to annoy or shock them, while in fact these actions have nothing to do with those people. If we were to quote Ionesco: “yesterdays’ Avant-garde is today’s major trend”.

The word provocation doesn’t exist in my vocabulary. Art should be piercing, sharp and if it’s made right it serves us with a new insight on the world – if it doesn’t, there’s nothing to talk about. The real things are free and not dependent on anyone. For example: Schwarzkogler mutilates his body and we call it body art, it is indeed body art, that’s his stance. He doesn’t perform these acts in order to shock, I didn’t know him personally, he may very well be emotionally unstable but he listens to his inner voice, and brings the phenomenon of body art to an extreme, perhaps repulsive place, but it’s a complete place.

It seems to me that the question is not about the state of contemporary art but about the possibility to break beyond its boundaries, to come out of the box that we have all crowded into.

There are those who define you as a provocateur and a hooligan in art…

In the relations between the artist and the spectator there is no room for provocation, it’s a completely different process.

When Kamensky, Burliuk and Mayakovsky were strolling around town with their spoons in their jacket pockets and their foreheads painted (how naïve it sounds today!) everybody was dumbstruck – it was considered a provocation back then. Only afterwards it became clear that it was a much more serious matter, and which later on developed to performance art, body art and more. And anyway, utterances like provocative behaviors are meant for laymen.

It happens to me a lot, I am often in situations where people do not interpret my work correctly. For instance, I once built an installation in Ra’anana which was demolished the next day – I was fortunate enough to have had it documented. People were alarmed – it was a political work and in that time there were many terrorist attacks.

I had built a kind of farm – a fence colored in the Palestinian flag colors and in it broken chairs which reminisced of bus seats or a classroom subsequent to a terrorist attack. Around them I ran a recurring inscription in Arabic: “Cut the Jew! Cut the Jew! Cut the Jew!”

Would it be correct to call your work ‘conceptual art’?

I have linked two things: conceptual understanding of what is happening and the connection to aesthetics. That’s why people love my works. It’s important to me that the works will be made right with a presence of conceptual elements.

The first image of Stalin in a Russian contemporary art work was made by me in 1964. It is now in the Ludwig museum in Germany. Back then I made things featuring all those heroes which were later present in works of Komar and Melamid.

In the mid 70s it was written, at times, that these works preceded “sots-art” (Soviet pop-art). The problem of the aesthetic and conceptual is one that has existed forever, at least for me.

And with respect to the Israeli period of your work: you employ cabbalist symbols, what is the place of mysticism in your work?

Why should I talk about mysticism? There are so many women who have already brought their children up and are now involved in it, they used to cook in the past, now they deal with mysticism.

Why would I want to rob them of their livelihood? It is better to discuss mysticism with Madonna.

Could you say a few words regarding contemporary Israeli art? What about it interests you?

I am reluctant to name names, but what is happening in Israel today is happening all over the world. Just as everything is reflected in one drop of water.

The level in Israel is like the average European level and I would say that we are more advanced and up-to-date than the Netherlands and Belgium. We are more or less on par with France, but behind the Germans, the English or the Americans.

What is Israeli art to you?

What Israelis do.

So in your opinion such a term doesn’t exist?

No, there is no such term. Globalization in art in this respect has already occurred.

Do you think contemporary art is on a crossroads? What is to happen next?

Art has always been on a crossroad. Art in nature happens upon intersections where it is unclear where to turn.

So you think that our era is neither better nor worse than others?

Our era is better. We live both the present and the past, but today we have much more information about everything. On the other hand, it is worse, because historical events in epic proportions take place and we are riding towards our deaths, like in the theatre, dying before the show is over… I would have liked to be able to work out some scheme that would enable me to see the show till its end.

Translation from Russian: Avigail Ferdman

The page of Michael Grobman on

Оставьте ваш комментарий

Поля отмеченные * обязательны для заполнения



Сайт оптимально работает в: Internet Explorer 8.0, Mozilla Firefox 3.6, Google Chrome, Safari 4.0. Если у вас старая версия браузера, вы можете скачать новую на сайте производителя бесплатно.