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Soviet Art Emerges From Behind Iron Curtain for New York Show

By John Varoli, Bloomberg News

Feb. 22 (Bloomberg) Ц Soaring prices for Russian classical paintings have thrust them to the top of the saleroom agenda. Postwar Soviet art has remained hidden behind the iron curtain, the poorer cousin struggling for recognition.

The Chelsea Art Museum in New York hopes to rectify this situation with a show opening today. ''Moscow Ц New York = Parallel Play'' features more than 100 works of Russian postwar and contemporary art by nearly 60 artists from the collection of the New Jersey-based Kolodzei Art Foundation.

The exhibition is a mix of top Soviet non-conformist artists such as Eric Bulatov, Ilya Kabakov, the art duo Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, and dozens little known outside Russia.

''Few Americans know that a vibrant art scene existed behind the Iron Curtain from the 1960s to the end of the Soviet Union,'' said Natalia Kolodzei, executive director of the foundation. ''Our mission is to educate the public about this parallel world.''

The foundation, established in 1991, promotes Russian art through exhibitions, publishing, and lectures. With more than 7,000 works Ц paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs and videos Ц it's one of the largest private collections of Russian and East European art.

Bulatov, Kabakov, and Oleg Vassiliev studied art together as teenagers, and all later took official jobs as illustrators of children's books. They also secretly made non-conformist art, careful to avoid Soviet repression.

Among the works in the show are Bulatov's ''Kolodzei Art Foundation'' (1991), a pencil on paper drawing that became the foundation's logo. Vassiliev's ''White Skiers'' (1990) is a surrealistic oil on canvas.

Soul Sale

Komar & Melamid's ''Soul of Norton Dodge'' (1978-79) is a box made of wood, metal, and white string. Inside the box is a red paper certificate confirming the sale of Dodge's immortal soul.

Between November 1978 and May 1979, Komar & Melamid ''purchased'' American souls and resold them later that year in Moscow. The soul of American pop artist, Andy Warhol, sold for 30 rubles ($1.23).

The soul of Dodge, the first major collector of Russian non- conformist art, was the most expensive. It sold for 200 rubles, the equivalent of two month's salary, to Tatiana Kolodzei, Natalia's mother.

Tatiana began her collection in the late 1960s when she met George Costakis, the prominent Moscow art collector of Russian avant-garde and modern art of the first half of the 20th century.

Life Changing

''Meeting Costakis changed my mother's life, and through him she had the chance to meet many famous underground artists -- Plavinsky and Zverev,'' said Natalia Kolodzei.

Tatiana Kolodzei went on to organize shows for Moscow artists. In recognition for her help, they gave her artworks.

''My mother has taken me to Russian contemporary art exhibitions since before I could walk,'' said Kolodzei, 34. ''I got my first artwork from Petr Belenok on my first birthday.''

While private art collections were rare in Soviet times because of laws restricting private property and the sale of art, Russia's current booming capitalist economy has spurred the appearance of a new generation of collectors.

While Russian 19th-century and early 20th-century art often sells at auction for more than $1 million, until two years ago, except for Kabakov, Russian postwar and contemporary didn't perform well, rarely selling over $100,000. Since 2006, prices for this category have risen sharply.

''For many years the art world didn't consider artworks from the former Soviet Union worthy of attention, largely because there was little scholarship available,'' said Kolodzei.

'Skyrocketing Prices'

''Now, when the quality of works is visible, and Russians have a vibrant economy which allows the wealthy to buy art, prices have skyrocketed,'' said Kolodzei. ''The quality of these artworks hasn't changed since they were made. Demand is what has changed.''

The most expensive Russian contemporary artwork at auction is Kabakov's oil on canvas, ''La Chambre de Luxe'' (1981). The record was set in June at Phillips in London, selling for 2 million pounds on a top estimate of 600,000 pounds ($1.18 million).

The previous Kabakov record, set at Sotheby's Russian sale in London in May 2006, was 254,400 pounds for the album on paper ''Where Are They?'' (1983).

The Chelsea Art Museum is at 556 West 22nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011. It opens another exhibition on March 7 featuring about 40 works from the collection of Moscow gallery owner Marat Guelman. Both shows run until May 17. For more information, call +1-212-255-0719 or click on

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