East Is Best: Art From the Former Soviet Bloc Is Having a Moment

Where does New York fit in?

lobanov 0978 East Is Best: Art From the Former Soviet Bloc Is Having a Moment

An untitled, undated drawing by the Russian artist Alexander Lobanov (1924-2003). Courtesy the New Museum and Collection ABCD, Paris

“When the Berlin Wall came down, I understood it was a historical moment, but not really,” New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni said over the phone last week. “I didn’t have the alertness to jump on a train and go see.” Mr. Gioni, now 37 and director of exhibitions at the New Museum, was a teenager at the time, and he sounded wistful describing his youthful mistake. But then he suddenly perked up. “The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and I immediately thought, ‘I cannot miss this one!’ I got in a car with two friends.”

Exactly 20 years after that ride, which stretched from his home in Milan through Slovenia all the way to Lithuania, Mr. Gioni has revisited the region in his new exhibition at the New Museum, “Ostalgia” (an East German portmanteau of ost, German for east, and nostalgia), which presents works by a generation-spanning cast of more than 50 artists who relate to the complicated legacy of the collapse of communism and the fall of the Soviet Union, where many of the artists were born.

He is not alone in his zeal for the art of the region. “Ostalgia” arrives as Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov’s work is on view at MoMA, which also recently did shows with Polish video artist Artur Żmijewski and Slovakian conceptualist Roman Ondák. Artists from across the region are increasingly common in museum surveys and on the covers of art magazines. “There is a huge wave of interest in Eastern European art right now,” said Boris Groys, an art critic and Russian contemporary art expert who teaches at N.Y.U. “The last time it was fashionable was after perestroika.”

The globalization of the art world is not new, but in the rise of Eastern European art, it may be manifesting itself in new ways, particularly in the art market. Rather than just bringing bankable names to a variety of international art fairs, topflight New York galleries are casting a wide net to build the diverse roster of artists that is required to remain competitive in the newly global playing field, and many of the artists they are taking on are from Eastern Europe.

“Most of the art world is mapped,” said Mr. Groys. “But Eastern European art is not so well investigated.” The same could be said of Latin American art, which has also recently received the attention of dealers and curators, he noted. There are also, perhaps, financial calculations. “During the boom, galleries were rushing to pick up artists from emerging art markets,” said Michael Gillespie, a director at the gallery Foxy Production in Chelsea. “Suddenly galleries had new artists from China, and people were curious about Russia for a while, too, with the oligarch money.”

In 2006, Foxy Production began working with the midcareer Russian artist Olga Chernysheva, whose works often depict mundane post-Soviet life in a naturalistic yet eerie style, after Foxy director John Thomson admired one of her videos at the Sydney Biennale. “John mentioned her to me and we just started Googling,” Mr. Gillespie said. “We got a bit hooked with the images online, and we emailed her.” They offered her a show before they ever met in person. “We certainly weren’t looking to get into an emerging market,” said Mr. Gillespie. “Olga’s work was the opposite of that bling aesthetic.” Mr. Gioni has included her in “Ostalgia.”

Foxy Production’s discovery of Ms. Chernysheva is a far cry from how New York dealers once met their artists. Leo Castelli famously had his first encounter with Jasper Johns during a visit to Robert Rauschenberg’s downtown apartment, after Mr. Castelli asked for ice in his drink and accompanied Mr. Rauschenberg to the apartment of Mr. Johns, who owned a refrigerator. The dealer had recently seen the latter artist’s Green Target at the Jewish Museum.

Today, New York art dealers search globally for the next star or the long-overlooked master. Anton Kern, who owns a gallery on 20th Street, flew to Poland to meet an artist named Edward Krasiński, after an alternative space founded by Krasiński organized a show with one of Mr. Kern’s artists. Though Krasiński, who was in his mid-70s, was familiar in certain European circles, “people did not know his work here,” according to Mr. Kern, “and I went there not knowing a lot about Polish art.”

“I was blown away by the authenticity of this man, and the ideas he invented in the ’60s,” Mr. Kern said. Within a few years, he had organized two solo shows for Krasiński, whose stature has since risen in the U.S., though he died in 2004. “Ostalgia” features a series of Krasiński’s hanging mirrors, each marked with a horizontal line of blue tape, the artist’s trademark. “It was so simple and yet so contemporary and so fresh,” Mr. Kern remarked of his initial response.