5 key exhibitions curated by Russia’s champion of contemporary art

2011, Practice for Everyday Life. Tanya Akhmetgaliyeva. Source: Press photo

2011, Practice for Everyday Life. Tanya Akhmetgaliyeva. Source: Press photo

On Sept. 21, Joseph Backstein, art historian, critic and one of the leading figures on the contemporary Russian art scene, turned 70. RBTH looks back at Backstein’s track record in building links between Russia and the West.

Joseph Backstein exhibits works by Russian artists in the West and organizes exhibitions by Western artists in Moscow. The long-serving commissioner of the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, he finds time to curate numerous exhibitions all over the world.


1) 1993, Stalin’s Choice: Soviet Socialist Realism 1932-1956; P.S.1 gallery, New York

Iosif Backshtein, Commissioner of the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, during the opening of Bertrand Lavier's "Aftermoon" exhibition at TsUM. Source: RIA Novosti

To bring an exhibition of socialist realism, celebrating communism, to the most avant-garde American gallery was in itself a bold artistic gesture, one that became possible only during perestroika and after the final break-up of the Soviet Union and the fall of the iron curtain. The exhibition was organized by Backstein together with Kathrin Becker and Alanna Heiss.


2) 1999, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid: Collaboration with Animals; Russian pavilion at the Venice Biennale

Collaboration with Animals.Source: Press photo

Komar and Melamid are the founding fathers of Sots Art (short for “Socialist Art”), a parody on the official aesthetic of socialist realism. It was they who introduced Backstein to the small circle of Soviet underground artists. After emigrating to the U.S., the tandem did not turn their back on their motherland and visited Russia for various projects. One of the two K&M projects at the exhibition was called Moscow Through the Eyes of Mikki: The artists gave a camera to chimpanzee Mikki, who then took a series of pictures in Red Square, which were later exhibited at the pavilion. The second part of the project was a series of abstract paintings made by a female elephant.


3) 2005, Angels of History: Moscow Conceptualism and its Influence; MuHKA, Antwerp

Vlad Monroe with his work, StarZ, 1996-2005. Source: Press photo

Backstein and Bart De Baere wanted this exhibition to present the most interesting names in Moscow Conceptualism: Collective Actions, Ilya Kabakov, Yuri Albert, Komar and Melamid. In addition, the exhibition featured works by Oleg Kulik, Anatoly Osmolovsky, Vlad Mamyshev-Monroe and still younger figures on the Russian art scene. In the title of the exhibition, the curators elegantly referenced the central image in Walter Benjamin’s philosophy: His angel of history had his back turned to the future and face turned toward the past, in search of paradise lost.


4) 2010, Lessons of History; Palais de Tokyo, Paris

A work by Andrei Molodkin. Source: Press photo

For this exhibition, held as part of the Year of Russia in France, Backstein involved both well-established masters, including Andrei Monastyrsky, Anatoly Osmolovsky, Alexander Brodsky, AES+F, and young but extremely popular artists like Anna Zhyolud and Irina Korina. The main theme of the exhibition was a critical look at the history of Russia, from communist utopia to democratic reforms to an analysis of the dependence of modern Russian economy on oil and gas.


5) 2011, Practice for Everyday Life: Young Artists from Russia; Calvert 22 Foundation, London

A work by Sergey Ogurstov. Source: Press photo

The exhibition featured works by young artists, mainly graduates of the Institute for Contemporary Art set up by Backstein in the early 1990s. They included Taus Makhacheva, Arseny Zhilyayev, Tanya Akhmetgaliyeva, and Anya Titova. On the UK side, the curator was the famous David Thorp. 

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