The concrete portrait
of an abstract painter

Avdotya Ippolitova Article from a catalogue for the Vladimir Zagorov exhibition in
the Central House of Artists, Moscow, year 1992

Abstract painting seems a kind of mystery to those people who lack spatial thought. How does non-figural painting come into being, what are its origins? Where does an arbitrary rule of a fantasy or a mood of a painter cease and non-abolishing pictorial reality itself start? There is specific fascination in the haziness of these questions — impossibility of giving response, having only single meaning, makes quite often the relations of a contemplator and a picture full of spiritual comfort. It is not owing to not obligatory way of interpretation, but thanks to democracy of "terminology" of a painter, making possible coexistence of diversity of impressions, there appears the feeling of a certain elegance, harmony of thoughts, which is characteristic of designers and also of abstract art — its ideas and methods — on the whole.

It happened so that artistic life of Moscow and Leningrad acquired almost contrasting distinctions in the course of last years. Sharp dynamics of Moscow art-business resulted in spasmodic activity of artistic process. A great number of galleries, exhibitional halls, varnishing days in Moscow startle the inhabitants of Leningrad, inevitably feeling themselves as slow provincials. Therefore it is rather difficult to introduce an unknown artist from Peter (i.e. Petersburg) here in Moscow. Moscow has already chosen the northern interlocutors in the persons of the group "New Artists" and is scarcely prepared to accept an unknown name, taking into consideration the swift growing of new names in Moscow itself. Nevertheless the authors of this exposition have decided to take risks and here is our reason for such decision. Several exhibitions in Leningrad during the last two years gave an impression that in this city a new rather serious group of young painters engaged in non-figural painting showed up, the painters being not connected with each other in any official way: Vladimir Zagorov is one of them. By personal exhibition of Zagorov Bureau of experts "Soviet Painting" would like to start presentation of abstract artists from Leningrad in Moscow. Our choice was guided not by belief that Zagorov is the best one of them but by strong conviction that in his works there are all the main qualities distinguishing a new wave of non-figural art of Leningrad. First of all it is professionalism of the painter, variety of methods and techniques, possession of cultural experience and knowledge of accumulated heritage of non-figural art, both the world and specially that of Leningrad and at last advantageous expositional features of the canvases themselves. At the same time Zagorov, having been exposed together with the different artistic groups at the numerous exhibitions, does not belong to any of them and one must confess that it is always a pleasure to exhibit simply a Painter, not burdened with any kind of social and biographic duties.

It is not only by chance that solely non-figural works have been chosen for this exhibition of Zagorov; strictly speaking, it is not only the personal exhibition of this painter, but somewhat an attempt to give an image of a. modern abstract artist, mainly from Leningrad, on the whole, the ideal type, having all the merits and shortcomings of this phenomenon. By no means trying to under-estimate individual achievements of Zagorov, we, nevertheless, hope that his exhibition will become one of a number of such exhibitions, introducing to the artistic public of Moscow the trend in painting, which came into existence, so to say, at the margins of life of Peter. We don’t exclude probability that it is owing to marginal character of abstract painting, the fact that it is unengaged in any way, there lies potentiality of its development. Leaving, pictures of Vladimir Zagorov to the judgment of critics, I would like, though perfunctorily, to introduce this master himself, since Vladimir is the rare case, indeed, the artist and his works being very much alike.

My acquaintance with the painter Vladimir Zagorov made me firmly convinced, once and forever, that the abstract artists are really unusual people, their way of thinking being much more concrete than that of ordinary people. I'll confine myself to giving the impressions from the painter's image, since the purpose of this essay is the description of an abstract artist, living in Leningrad, as a human being.

To begin with, Zagorov does not correspond to any standard canons of a painter, with exception of a beard and three children. He does not drink or smoke, doesn't use strong language and drugs, never wears dirty clothes, serves tea to his guests from clean cups, doesn't scold colleagues of the "guild", doesn't consider himself deprived of anything, is a member of the Union of the Artists, doesn’t join any artistic group, is at the same time fond of the group "Mitky" and Timur Novikov, he doesn’t wear cast-iron crucifix on his neck, he wears neither ear-ring nor leather jacket, and besides, there is one thing particularly pleasant about him — he doesn't loathe art critics and has no scorn towards them. Anyone who is acquainted with the necessary signs of mode of life of a modern artist, can easily continue a list of Zagorov's "negative" features. In addition to all above, he is an extremely nice person, risible, amiable and hospitable.

In his huge studio (relatively huge, of course) at Vasilyevsky Island one can find, apart from painting, traces of occupation with sculpture, tapestry, linotype, perfect order reigning over everything, which makes you suspect that, perhaps, Zagorov is a German. And after his declaration of love towards Kandinsky our suspicion develops into confidence.

Zagorov’s style of speaking is not flowery, but rather gentle. Once, when he was asked a question by an art critic from Moscow I. Zenziper, why he has left figural painting and turned to abstract, Vladimir, having thought for a while, answered: "Probably there are some things and feelings that I can’t convey with the help of figural painting. Well, I don't know for sure, but it seems to me that in such form it is more perspicuous..."

I should say, that, as a matter of fact, Zagorov rarely comments on his works. He even sometimes doubts in the choice of names for his canvases. For instance, the picture "The Stream" was named conditionally and not by an author himself and Zagorov thinks that, perhaps, with such name this work becomes figural and, generally speaking, "may be it is not exactly the thing he himself intended to say." Since Zagorov’s work is lying on the floor while he draws and he himself keeps walking around it, many of his pictures can be exhibited in several positions, and when Vladimir is asked, which one he personally, prefers he replies that any position could be suitable, because it "would be quite a different picture, if turned over."

The most favourite of all Zagorov’s pictures for me is "The Happy Gardens." One day I told Vladimir that it resembles a certain architectural design of an ideal garden. Vladimir immediately objected to my words, saying it was rather concrete impression that made him start working, but since this canvas was created in winter, the flowering was being recollected in the state of happiness, so it cannot be "a design", but only "a recollection." Zagorov's way of thinking is quite concrete and it displays itself somewhat unexpectedly. For example, he is a vegetarian. Answering my puzzling question whether he eats fish, Zagorov said that he eats "nothing that moves." Indeed, one must have very concrete consciousness in order to descry in fish salad living, trembling fish, which is moving and glittering in water. But for Zagorov it is quite natural. Everything is moving, growing in his pictures; it is not accidentally that a frequent motif in his pictures is a grain. Plenty of grains. And since abstract art for him is not a result of freak of imagination, or colours, but the only possible method of concrete, thorough depiction of our world, eating of "moving beings" for Zagorov is, probably, as impossible as for portrait-painter to be a cannibal. Perhaps that is why a psychiatrist-cannibal in the American film "Silence of Lambs" didn't eat a nice girl from FBI: he had created her portrait and it is not easy to swallow anything with what you carry on a dialogue.

One is attracted by absolute lack of tragic elements in Zagorov’s character: for anyone who has given up this or that habit, whether it is meat, Bohemian gaiety, or anything else, it would be, on the contrary, quite natural to feel oneself a bit uneasily. As a matter of fact, Zagorov is always smiling and to my, mind his perception of surrounding world is joyful and he obviously takes pleasure in life. May be that is why it seems to me that in his creative work bright-coloured canvases overcome the dark ones. I have asked him what makes him happy most of all in this life; Zagorov has replied:

— A great deal of things... the first thing to come to mind is verdure, while quivering, and the shining sun, and children's laughter... a lot of things, really. And when you get some clouts and start turning them over in your mind it always can be seen on a canvas. It interferes greatly with my work. Lately I have not been painting any longer if I argue with somebody, and get irritated. I have got one unfinished canvas: I have stopped working over it since there have emerged some black spots on it and I can't explain their origin... Even though they are rather plastic and good, they are being a problem for me — I have to take a rest, keep away from this work. I used to hit the canvases over the wall and in this atelier there are lots of such damaged ones. Now I understand: it is better to withdraw and wait for a while. It’s only about a year or two that my hand began to obey me. But still I often feel that it would be better to stop working. Because sometimes you start one thing and unexpectedly realize that around you there exists something rather different from what you intended to do, this "something" being quite near... well, it's like in a radio — the programm going on, you hear some strange sounds: gurgling, interferences. Doesn't it mean that it is somewhere near in the space, it sounds in accordance with its own laws, at the different waves and you yourself get into these waves and are amazed at hearing quite new sounds, not knowing where they come from. And when such thing happens in my picture, I leave it — for a day, sometimes even for a year, or half a year in order to remember and comprehend it later. This "something" reveals itself almost all of a sudden, reminds of its existence, but this time it is more intelligible, firm. I don't mean "firm" in the sense "static", not in the least. It’s like a tree — here it is, very plastic, everything being in motion, but nevertheless it stands firmly, far from tumbling down, full of life — first blossoming, then losing its foliage, — but at the same time it is steady, calm, full of certitude. And that is the way I want to work.

I ask the master whether there are figural topics, narration in his abstract canvases.

— No. Even when I'm working over figural picture I often don't want to paint a real face — a nose, a mouth, etc. It won't be concrete if I simply represent tears, it takes you away. The green spot on the face seems more concrete to me, means more, is more true than tearful eyes themselves. Such things occur in abstract painting: for me visual sensations, certain sounds, tones are much more valuable, and what is more, concrete than the event itself.

Contact, the moment when you touch an object, tells you more about it, gives more details than its form. Therefore interpretation of somebody else, especially if it doesn't coincide with my own, is of great interest to me and is very absorbing. I never get irritated in this connection, on the contrary, I feel great pleasure, I am amazed at seeing an experience quite different from mine. It’s like talking about a man; various people can have different opinions about one and the same person, because there are all sorts of things in him, good and bad; well, perhaps it’s like the layers on the surface of a canvas... And when I depict impression from something very concrete it is important for me to convince the other people not in its absolute and objective character, but in the fact that it is alive, and is capable of breathing...

As it is known, the first Russian abstractionist to appear was Natasha Rostova: she considered Boris Drubetskoy to be "narrow... grey and light", and as for Pierre Bezukhov, "he was dark-blue, with tint of red and... quadrangular". While talking to her mother she unintentionally formulates, so to say, the main task of abstractionism — "how can I explain it to you?.." One can't always succeed in making other people to understand one's feelings, impressions with the help of exact words — that is, by the figures of speech. Colours, shapes are more convincing, because every figural thing is objective and therefore abstract...