Article by Alexander Borovsky

Works of abstract art have always been much more than items of storage at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. The museum's relationship with abstraction is indeed fascinating, the stuff of classical literature, starring fearless and uncompromising knights from the Sturm und Drang period of the avant-garde.

The Russian Museum was one of the first European history museums to actively collect and exhibit non-objective art. Kazimir Malevich noted with an element of surprise: "The new was accepted and corroborated by the supporters of the masters departed into the depths of history. A truly unprecedented fact in the constitution and traditions of museum councils." There then began a period of sore trials. In the face of totalitarianism, museum curators – "the supporters of the masters departed into the depths of history" – attempted the hopeless task of defending the sacred values of the avant-garde. The field of battle was taken by the official art. Defeated and retreating as propagandists and exhibitors, the curators held out as keepers. The Russian avant-garde was, in the literal sense of the word, hidden, protected and saved from physical destruction – wholly possible and even natural in the conditions of ideological battle. The resistance continued underground, in the secret recesses of the museum depositories. Their ranks grew in number and strength. Justice finally triumphed – just like in a book! The plot developed from the first love, though long and dramatic years of trials and tribulations, to the final reward for loyalty. For fifteen years now, the unique entreprise of the Russian avant-garde has triumphantly toured the world's museums. Emerging from the depositories, the avant-garde has been universally accepted and showered with honours and respect. The canons of the genre, however, dictate that the reward for loyalty be more than just living to see victory and recognition. New shoots are needed to continue the family affair.

This was the reason for the recent show at the Russian Museum – Abstraction in Russia: XX Century. While also a gesture of homage to the classics and a mark of respect to the masters of the 1950s and 1960s, who overcame all the difficulties and ensured the second coming of abstraction in Russia, the curators were largely interested in the current state of affairs. Are there any new names? What do they themselves sense? What do they seek in the abstraction? What does abstraction find in them?

Names there certainly are. The most promising of the young shoots blossoming at the Abstraction in Russia exhibition was possibly Natalia Sitnikova. We shall attempt to address the aforementioned questions to this particular artist.

First of all, however, we must ask what is abstraction in the modern art process? This is no easy question. One must agree that abstraction today is, itself, not solely confined to the realms of high art. In analogy to Susan Sontag's definition of modern photography, abstraction is a language environment. Photography can be employed as an object of high art or for purely utilitarian purposes (passport photographs, police mugshots and tourist snaps). Much the same applies to modern abstraction. Remaining part of the language environment, one of its components realises itself as high art, existing in the conceptual framework of new phenomena linked to the development of the art process. Consistently replacing one another or existing in parallel, the lines of modern abstraction thus position themselves, conceptualising new approaches and sens-formative gestures – right up to minimalism and neo-geo, to deconstruction and appropriation (Peter Hally and Sharon Levin and their appropriation of Suprematism). Realising itself exclusively as a language environment – independent of the ambitions of concrete agents – abstraction also pushes out onto the surface such non-art as kitsch, salon, design, auxiliary products and gestures closer to the genre language or neo-cultured, aggressive, emotional splashes (it is quite another thing that in the conditions of definite conceptualisation and the aforementioned framework, they can become material for serious artistic statements, but that is a separate theme).

That is how things currently stand with regard to abstraction – as a whole. Or would stand, were it not for another of its components. The fact of the matter is that a line of abstract art continues to develop, realising itself outside the conceptual framework – and, at the same time, outside "environmental" median impersonalness, for which it is too encultured, designated (referenced) and individualised.

The art of Natalia Sitnikova belongs to this line. Alfred H. Barr meticulously described this line in its most general features as a path "more intuitive and emotional than intellectual, more organic and biomorphic than geometric, more curved in its exaltation of the mystic than classical; spantaneous and irrational."

Returning to one of the previous questions, we ask why did a young artist embark on this particular path? She had no shortage of choices. Firstly, there was Surikov Institute of Art, with its traditional, sub-cultural Moscow painterliness, perhaps unstructured and unreflected in its tasks and overtly sweeping, yet undeniably warm and human. Secondly and thirdly, there was the domestic, family experience. Natalia's parents – Olga Bulgakova and Alexander Sitnikov – were famous Moscow artists of the 1970s. Their painting was called metaphoric; both worked and continue to work with the material of allegory and trope. This term, however, is too general. In terms of poetics and visual realisation in particular, each has his or her own discernable personality. Olga Bulgakova consistently brought her plastic metaphor to the point of a polysemantic formula. In her celebrated portrait of the writer Nikolai Gogol, this was the idea of turning and boring – a corkscrew, a spinning top, the St Petersburg blizzard. All this was read in the plastics of a sharp-charactered Gogolite figure; everything had direct echoes of his phantasmagoric poetics. With his repetitive motif of bulls breaking out into unearthly spaces, Alexander Sitnikov rhymed psychedelic. In short, both artists commanded powerful fields of attraction, which both, let it be said in their honour, appear to have avoided fully invoking when raising a new artist in the family. One can only surmise what it cost them to reject – purely unconsciously, reflectively – translating their own individual experience. One way or another, Natalia found herself in a position where the culture of form-creation weaned at home and at art school did not overwhelm the culture of independent sensation. To employ the title of a textbook novel, education of the eye did not impede education of the feelings.

Russian avan-garde artist Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin once wrote that we had all acquired literacy through Cubism. I believe that something similar was originally implied with regard to abstraction. The inculcated culture of form-creation presupposed that young artists would perceive and pass through abstraction as a stage in their professional training. This was, however, not the case.

Natalia Sitnikova employs abstraction as an adequate tongue for expressing her own emotional experiences. Kazimir Malevich has an extremely apt expression – "the psychology of painting." Sitnikova's abstract painting is, in fact, an extremely delicate procaess that deserves to be discussed in more detail. Thematicising this process, Natalia Sitnikova found her own identity – notwithstanding the overenriched, overpopulated space of the abstract tradition. Tuning into the "psychology of painting" cannot be borrowed or imitated; it is a purely individual process.

What does this individuality consist of? Wherein lies the content of this process? Here we face the question of the tongue of description – always a difficult question with respect to abstract art. One can, of course, fall back on the vocabulary of the psychoanalytical discourse, which became widespread following the interpretative experiences of Rosalind Krauss. Yet this seems, to me, too objective (linguists have the concept of the consolidation of meaning in a language; this is one particular case of superfluous, connecting consolidation). Different words seem the order of the day when describing the delicate texture of the aforementioned psychological tuning. So what psychologically topical, individually defined, new things can a young artist offer through abstraction?

For a start, that same youth, the novelty and freshness of feelings, given in indiscernible levels and states of consciousness. These states are mobile and altered (expanded); possibly meditative or dreamlike, yet always linked to the application of a visual experience onto a psychological experience. This application – that same tuning on which we have just dwelled at lenght – has the nature of an event. One of the artist's works is in fact called Event of Light, which seems to me an extremely exact and intentional title – unlike other, quite optional ones (finding titles for abstract works almost always involves an unallotted return of mimeticness).

All Natalia Sitnikova's finest works give themselves up to description in these terms – the event of the appearance of a yellow patch on the periphery of the mind; the event of the change of inner optics – the tactile qualities of various states of green. These events are, of course, unrelated to any – albeit psyhological, internal – subjects; they develop according to other laws. This is the solemn eventness of finding correspondences between the psychological and the visual.

Such eventness appears to be particularly sharp during one's youth. Perhaps that is what Leo Tolstoy had in mind when he wrote the following lines in War and Peace: "Natasha continued: Don't you really understand? Nicholas would understand... Bezukhov, now, is blue, dark-blue and red, and he is square."

Alexander Borovsky