Arts & Design

Elvis vs. Lenin: A Superpower Confrontation on Canvas

BERLIN — For nearly 30 years, from the 1960s to the early 1990s, the grand front entrance of the Gropius Bau museum faced the concrete and barbed wire of the Berlin Wall. Visitors came and went through a back door.

You now enter through the front, again, but the Gropius Bau’s position on the edge of the East-West divide — now just marked with a double row of cobblestones on the street, tracing the wall’s route — is apt for “The Cool and the Cold: Painting in the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. 1960–1990.” Running through Jan. 9, 2022, this exhibition of 125 paintings from the private Ludwig Collection explores the contrasts, but also the sometimes surprising confluences, of the Cold War’s superpowers, as seen through the work of more than 80 artists.

The exhibition opens with an obvious juxtaposition: Andy Warhol’s iconic “Elvis Presley (Single Elvis)” from 1964, with the singer brandishing a gun and dressed like a cowboy, is hung near an early-1980s portrait of Vladimir Lenin by the Russian artist Dmitri Nalbandyan, which shows the Soviet leader in his library. Both are clichés, but they jolt viewers into thinking about their own preconceptions.

Other old tropes run through the show, too: It pits Western Pop Art that glories in commerce against Eastern propaganda in the service of Communism, and Abstract Expressionism against Socialist Realism. But despite these expected binaries, there is nuance and depth, and lesser-known works, especially from the Soviet Union, fill in art-historical gaps.

Vladimir Yankilevsky was part of the “Nonconformist Group” of artists that worked subversively against Soviet art censorship: He sometimes painted in an abstract style forged by the Russian avant-gardes of the early 20th century, which was suppressed under Stalin and reviled by Khrushchev. His “Nuclear Station,” from 1962, is a five-panel abstract work whose jagged lines create vague topographies through swathes of gray, yellow, brown and green. Hung in the same room as a Jackson Pollock and the familiar gray-gradient American flags of Jasper Johns at the Gropius Bau, “Nuclear Station” seems more similar to Western work than different.

There is sharper disparity in the show’s figurative paintings. Official, government-sanctioned Soviet artists like Boris Nemensky, a Red Army veteran, painted brutally direct images of war and its aftermath: His “On the Nameless Height” (1961) soberly depicts two fallen soldiers, and “After the War: The Fate of Women” shows four pale, distraught widows (one assumes) rendered in dark brown hues.

American grief, however, is filtered through mass-media imagery: Roy Lichtenstein’s “Takka Takka” renders war’s destruction in the artist’s typical dotted comic-book style; Andy Warhol’s “Jackie III” is a collage of press photos taken directly after John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Contrasts in Eastern and Western attitudes to leisure, work and everyday life also weave through the show, which is arranged mostly chronologically. Aleksandr Ishin’s triptych “Sunday” shows accordion players entertaining a gaggle of dancers in a Soviet village, while Tom Wesselmann’s “Landscape No. 4” from 1965 shows a broadly smiling couple in a sedan driving through a vast landscape. Again and again — in works by Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Indiana and Andy Warhol from the United States, and Igor Popov, Sarkis Muradyan and Vladimir Mikita from the Soviet Union — the Eastern world seems dark, moody and woodsy; the Western, shiny, colorful and manufactured.

The superpowers’ similarities come through most clearly in a room addressing the space race, the Cold War’s most visible soft-power conflict. In Yuri Korolyov’s “Cosmonauts,” a group of space-suited travelers beam with toothy smiles and bright faces before a flat pale-blue sky: a prime example of Communist space race P.R. But hyperrealist paintings by the American artist Lowell Nesbitt, like “Lift-Off” from 1970, show that the United States used its artists for propaganda purposes, too. NASA invited artists to attend rocket launches and landings, and interpret them in their works. The most striking work here, though, is an abstract one: Nancy Graves’s 10 panels of bright, colored dots showing lunar landing sites foreshadow the dataset-based visualizations of the internet age.

Among the works on show that were underexposed at the time, many are by women, like Natalya Nesterova and Galina Neledva from the Soviet Union and Jo Baer, Lee Krasner and Lee Lozano from the United States. The curators can put forward a more rounded picture because of the breadth of the collection: Peter and Irene Ludwig, a German couple whose 14,000 artworks are now in or on loan to 26 public institutions on three continents, were unusual among Western art collectors of the Cold War era in collecting Soviet art alongside far more popular American works. They required considerable diplomatic skills to buy paintings from the East, and copies of their correspondence with ministers and ambassadors in the exhibition catalog are a reminder of how opaque the Iron Curtain once was.

“The Cool and the Cold” might hit those who lived through the Cold War with waves of remembrance, or even nostalgia, for a time whose geopolitics seemed binary; those who didn’t might find their ideas of the era and its art expanded and put in a new context. In the exhibition’s last rooms, the two worlds begin to visually converge in a broader mix of styles: Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring’s street-inspired works are here, but so is the collagelike painting of Arman Grigoryan, mixing symbols, images and words.

During the Cold War, art made by Soviet artists outside the official channels “was the West inside the East,” as the art critic and philosopher Boris Groys writes in an essay in the exhibition catalog. Near the conflict’s end, the lines blurred: The show’s final work, by Dmitri Prigov, covers a wall with the word “Glasnost” hand-stenciled on pages of Pravda, the official Soviet newspaper — a use, and critique, of mass media prevalent much earlier in American art. Like the remnants of the Berlin Wall outside the museum, it now seems a simple, powerful memorial to an old world order.

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