Komar & Melamid

Komar & Melamid (K&M) was a prolific tandem (and self-proclaimed 'movement') of Soviet-American conceptual artists Vitaly Komar (b. 1943) and Alexander Melamid (b. 1945), active from 1972 to 2003. Both members of the duo were born in Moscow and studied together at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (1958–60), graduating from Stroganov Institute of Art and Design in 1967. Komar and Melamid immigrated to Israel in 1977, and shortly after moved to the United States and settled in New York City. In 1988, they both became US citizens. After extensively collaborating for over 35 years, Vitaly and Alex ceased their joint co-authorship, and have been working independently since 2003.

Their first joint exhibition, Retrospectivism, took place in Moscow in 1967, soon after Komar and Melamid graduated from the Stroganov Institute. In 1972, the artists founded a new movement called Sots Art, or 'соцарт' in Russian, by blending official 'Socialist Realism' aesthetic doctrine with elements of Pop art and Dadaist references. As commercial illustrators, Komar and Melamid were employed to design brochures and posters for the Young Pioneers' summer camp session. To lighten up the dull assignment, young artists started playing around with familiar imagery and communist icons – K&M replaced Stalin and Lenin with their own faces, repurposed common Soviet slogans and signed them with their own autographs, etc. Many years later Vitaly Komar described in his interviews how Vadik Paperny instantly recognized some of these works as a "Soviet pop art, something we all had been waiting for." While brainstorming different names for the new "art movement," they rejected комарт (communist art) as too similar to Komar's name, while соварт (Soviet art) brought up distracting associations with Savannah. Соцарт (Sots Art) became a perfect fit – 'sots' stood for Socialist Realism, and 'art' referenced to Pop art. Komar and Melamid initially proposed "соц-арт" with a hyphen, the same way as "поп-арт" is spelled in Russian, but eventually the style became known as 'соцарт.' Some of the artists who further developed Sots Art movement include Grisha Bruskin, Eric Bulatov, and Dmitry Prigov.

Explicitly political Sots Art paintings started drawing attention of Soviet authorities. In 1974, Komar & Melamid were arrested at the Art Belongs to the People performance in private Moscow apartment, while their Double Self-Portrait (mocking common Lenin-Stalin dual portraits) was destroyed with other non-conformist paintings during infamous 'Bulldozer Exhibition.'

In 1976, Ronald Feldman Fine Arts hosted debut K&M international exhibition in New York, but Komar and Melamid couldn't attend since the authorities denied them permission to leave USSR, and also rejected their immigration requests. The artists created their own Trans-State country in protest, complete with Constitution and original passports. The following year, Alexander and Vitaly received permission to reconnect with their relatives in Israel. In 1978, the duo moved to New York, and had their first 'in presentio' US exhibition at Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut.

K&M continued developing a new artistic style in the 1970s, described by them as 'Post-Art.' The duo pioneered the multi-stylistic approach in their works, predating many postmodernists of the following decade. Komar and Melamid had been working in multiple genres and across disciplines, creating paintings, sculptures, photography, staging performances and installations, writing music and poetry. For one of the performances, Alex and Vitaly established Komar & Melamid, Inc. corporation for "buying and selling human souls." They ended up having a few hundred clients, including Andy Warhol – his soul was purchased for free, and then smuggled into Russia and sold for 30 rubles. In 1981, their Portrait of Hitler was slashed by an ex-Trotskyist visitor in Brooklyn. Instead of repairing the work, Komar and Melamid named the vandal as co-author. In 1982, Ronald Feldman hosted Sots Art exhibition, which was a commercial and critical success. The following year, Metropolitan Museum Of Art and MoMA purchased some of Komar & Melamid's paintings. They became the first Russian artists to receive grant from the National Endowment For The Arts, as well as the first Russian participants of the prestigious documenta exhibition in Kassel in 1987.

The artists started working on the People's Choice series in 1994. K&M travelled around the world and recruited professional polling and market research firms to organize public surveys on people's preferences in art, including most liked/hated colors, styles, genres, favorite shapes and forms, etc. Based on the results, Komar and Melamid created a series of Most Wanted and Least Wanted paintings for 14 countries: China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Kenya, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine and United States. According to Vitaly Komar, their interpretation of polls became a form of simultaneous collaboration with numerous people around the world, thus undermining a traditional role of an artist as a leader, and giving way to a new dictator – Majority. K&M considered 'vox populi' to be a better judge of art than historical precedence. "If Pablo Picasso was mimicking Stalin, we tried to mimic Bill Clinton" – concluded Melamid. The survey results and reproductions of the series were included in Painting by Numbers: Komar & Melamid’s Scientific Guide to Art book in 1997.

Dia Center for the Arts, which actively participated in the creation of People's Choice series, commissioned K&M to further expand their concept into the realm of music. Together with composer Dave Soldier, Komar & Melamid created The People's Choice Music album. In the spring of 1996, Soldier wrote and posted a detailed poll on Dia's website, and 500 people answered questions about most liked and disliked instruments, singing style, preferred volume/tempo, subject and duration of a song, ideal number of performers, most important attributes in music, desired emotional and intellectual response, etc. Based on the results, he recorded The Most Wanted Song (5:00) – a cheesy love ballad with male and female voices, accompanied by saxophone and guitar, which is statistically predetermined to be unavoidably and uncontrollably "liked" by 72±12% of listeners. The album is concluded with The Most Unwanted Song (21:59) – a cacophonic abstract sound collage, full of dissonant melodies, awkward interludes, cowboy-themed rapping in hysterical operatic soprano, and with children's choir advertising Wal-Mart. According to the K&M and Soldier's conclusion, "fewer than 200 individuals of the world's total population" could enjoy this work. Instead, The Most Unwanted Song became an instant hit among the fans of plunderphonics, musique concrete, cut-up/tape music, mash-ups and other similar experimental genres.

In 1998, Dave Soldier with Komar & Melamid premiered Naked Revolution, an opera about George Washington, Vladimir Lenin and Marcel Duchamp, at The Kitchen, New York City and Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Along with a series of paintings, collages, and K&M's personal collection of Washington memorabilia, this opera became part of the American Dreams exhibition. The same year, Komar and Melamid spent some time in Thailand teaching elephants to paint. A series of paintings were presented in the book, When Elephants Paint: The Quest of Two Russian Artists to Save the Elephants of Thailand, and sold at Christie's first-ever auction of elephant paintings, with all revenues sent to support the animals and their keepers in Thailand. (Perhaps inspired by this project, David Soldier organized his Thai Elephant Orchestra in 2000.) Their last major project, Symbols of the Big Bang, was exhibited in 2002 at the Yeshiva University Museum at the Center for Jewish History in New York.


Komar & Melamid Discography Tracks


DIA 002, MUL002 Komar & Melamid - The People's Choice Music album art Komar & Melamid & Dave Soldier* Komar & Melamid & Dave Soldier* - The People's Choice Music(CD) Dia Center For The Arts, Mulatta DIA 002, MUL002 US 1997 Sell This Version

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