As Gosha Rubchinskiy channels the late visionary for inspiration, we trace Timur Novikov’s impact on music, the LGBT movement and Andy Warhol
Last week, the signatures of Russian art’s most influential trailblazer re-entered the cultural consciousness via the sweatshirts and t-shirts of Gosha Rubchinskiy: bright colour blocks, graphical stripes and a simple sunrise are all the markers of 1980s Timur Novikov. For Rubchinskiy, who has previously looked to Moscow’s youth for casting and captured skater crews of the Crimea in his photography, the collaboration signals a shift in focus to a different post-Soviet scene, in St Petersburg. It was there, during the 80s and 90s, that Timur Novikov and his artistic collaborators emerged as leaders of the avant-garde’s renewed optimism during the gradual relaxation of Perestroika and beyond. He was the founder and figurehead of not one but two iconoclastic movements: the New Artists (1982-1991) followed by the New Academy and their concept of Neo-Academism. At the centre of these two groups until his untimely death in 2002, Novikov spearheaded a collective creativity across visual art, performance, film, fashion and music that, with the gradual pulling back of the Iron Curtain, would quickly catch the attention of western eyes and ears.
With Novikov providing a node for so many subcultural undercurrents of Russian culture, why does his own art remain important to revisit? As Rubchinskiy’s tribute highlights, the late artist’s emblematic and elusive designs are eerily poised for contemporary style codes: those graphics are simple but disarming, with a subversion that speaks louder than slogans. A few years before his death in 2002, the artist closed his autobiography, in 1998, with a similarly prescient nod to our own present-day taste for all things “Russia In The 90s”: “The 1990s are drawing to a close. Neo-Academism is currently the most exciting phenomenon in Russian culture. All other modern styles and movements are merely the tails of comets passing through other decades.” From trans-avant-garde to techno, here’s your guide to the artist whose creative currents outlasted the Soviet Union itself.
HE WAS POP ART PENPALS WITH ANDY WARHOL
While the early years of Novikov’s art were necessarily pursued underground – in the late 70s and early 80s, the artist and his friends would put on exhibitions in obscure coastal towns to avoid police raids – by the time of the formation of the New Artists and the relaxation of rules later in the decade, the group was able to exhibit more freely at home and abroad. Initially through the American singer Joanna Stingray, the New Artists were able to tap the creativity of cultural scenes in the west as well as in their own circles. Fans included Keith Haring and John Cage, with Andy Warhol taking a certain liking to Oleg Kotelnikov’s collages and Novikov’s fabric paintings. Warhol returned the favour by sending autographed Campbell's soup cans to the New Artists, as well as a copy of his book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol.
HIS FABRIC ARTWORKS ANTICIPATED COMPUTER GRAPHICS
Among Novikov’s most sustained and accessible series in a nebula of often unrecorded performances and set designs are his early large scale fabrics that placed small appliqued icons in geometric fields of block colour. There’s more than meets the eye with these compositionally simple designs, however, which contain anti-war symbolism beneath the childlike appearance. In his later series Horizons (2000), which Rubchinskiy cites more particularly, Novikov revisited the same motifs, demonstrating their connective role in his life’s work. The work has since been noted for its employment of digitally inspired design, representing the limitless potential of computer graphics to come even while working with textiles.
HIS MOVEMENTS CELEBRATED GENDER FLUIDITY AS A GIVEN
In a contemporary Russia where homophobic propaganda is being forwarded with unprecedented ferocity, the openly gay relationships and free spirited optimism of the New Artists and New Academy Members seems a long time ago. As curator of last year’s Calvert 22 gallery exhibition Yekaterina Andreyeva told The Moscow Times, “The New Artists lived in a trans-avant-garde world, without division.” The gender fluidity of the collective was one that extended to their artistic statements. In the New Academy years, Novikov co-founded a video art project called the ‘Pirate TV’ network. The main presenter was Novikov’s protégé, the late performance artist Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, whose cross-dressing characters and openness about his sexuality made him a hero for many in the gay community.
HE WAS A KEY FIGURE IN RUSSIA'S TECHNO SCENE
“The 1990s ushered in a whole new era,” recalls Novikov in his brief autobiography text. “I began to feel that it was time to move on, time do something new.” The techno movement was that something new. The New Artists were already key figures in St Petersburg’s nightlife scene. From 1984, they were involved with Pop-Mechanika, the cult multimedia orchestra and artistic happening founded by Sergei Kurekhin. And when Novikov and his collective squatted in derelict buildings during the later perestroika years, they held massive, experimental parties in those traditional, old-world spaces. Novikov invited foreign DJs to these parties, which were among the first mass events not controlled by the state. They still played with Soviet iconography, though, as when Yuri Gagarin’s first flight in space led to a series of themed raves. Bringing techno DJs like WestBam and The New Composers to rapt audiences, Novikov may have tired of the scene pretty quickly – as he wrote, copycat versions of the New Artists dampened his spirits – but his influence is undeniable.
THE BEGINNINGS OF NOVIKOV X RUBCHINSKIY WERE ON A SCHOOL TRIP
With Novikov’s technicolour graphics well suited to the digital world, it might be tempting to think Rubchinskiy encountered the work on an Instagram browse. But the designer’s desire to pay tribute to Novikov’s art has actually been growing since a chance meeting, in the former’s teenage years. As Rubchinskiy revealed to AnOther this week, he met him at an exhibition of Victor Tsoy’s art works on his first school trip to St Petersburg in 2000 – just two years before he died. “To me, he is the most interesting person from the 80s Soviet art generation”, he says in the interview, citing Novikov’s work with his favourite Leningrad rock and punk bands. “I have been dreaming about it for a long time and now it can be possible.” Made possible by Novikov’s daughter Maria – “she really liked the idea” – the collection introduces a new generation to the modern idiosyncrasies of the New Academist aesthetic.