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Cooper-Union’s decision to postpone exhibition of school of Russian avant-garde sparked protests

An influential New York art college, Cooper Union, has decided to postpone an exhibition dedicated to VKHUTEMAS, the famous Soviet school of architecture and design of the 1920s. According to representatives of the college, the decision was made at light of the ongoing war in Ukraine.

A group of art historians, artists, art critics, curators and cultural scientists released an open letter condemning the decision as “a sinister attack on academic freedom and education”.

Find a balance

The exhibition “Vkhutemas: Laboratoire de l’Avant-Garde” (Vkhutemas: Laboratoire de l’Avant-Garde, 1920-1930) was supposed to open on January 25, but was postponed the same day by the management of Cooper Union .

In addition to archival materials related to the history of VKHUTEMAS, including its teachers and graduates, the exhibition was supposed to acquaint visitors with the work of Cooper Union students.

The exhibition is curated by Cooper Union Associate Professor Anna Bokov and her colleague Steven Hillyer, Director of Archives at the Cooper Union School of Architecture.

The VKHUTEMAS (Higher Artistic and Technical Workshops) have developed new teaching methods inspired by revolutionary ideas. Among the teachers of the school were representatives of several avant-garde tendencies, mainly constructivism, including such major masters as El Lissitzky, Alexander Rodchenko, Lyubov Popova, Kazimir Malevich, Alexandra Ekster and Vladimir Tatlin. Many of them come from Ukraine and Belarus.

The atmosphere of creative freedom that reigned in the workshops did not fit into Procrustes bed of Stalin’s concept of “socialist culture”, and in 1930 VKHUTEMAS was closed, accusing it of “formalism”.

A statement signed by Hayley Eber, Acting Dean of the College, and Alexander Tochilovsky, Chair of the Exhibition Committee, noted that the decision to postpone the exhibition will give Cooper Union time to carefully consider any doubts that have arisen. arose: We are grateful to our colleagues of Ukrainian origin. They help us strike the right balance, with precision and sensitivity, to maintain a scholarly approach to architectural history as the Russian government continues to perpetrate atrocities against the Ukrainian people.

“Intellectual Patronage”

The Cooper Union statement does not mention the article by NYU professor Peder Anker, an expert in environmental architecture, according to Artnews, a well-informed website.

According to many observers, it was this article, published on Archinect, the professional site for architects, a few days before the opening of the exhibition, which prompted Cooper Union to postpone it indefinitely.

“Although a lot of scientific work was done in preparation for the exhibition,” Professor Anker writes, “in the current political climate, it serves as an example of Russian propaganda. Why, in a wartime situation, did Cooper Union actually agree to support her publicly?

As Artnews notes, in the original version of its article, Anker accused Anna Bokova, co-curator of the exhibition, of contacts with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But then the mention of it disappeared from the text of the article on the Archinect website, which reported that Bokova had responded to criticism in his speech, calling it “false and slanderous”, and said that Anker had kept silence on the fact that he had personally known her before this publication.

During the debate, Anker did not deny that he was not a specialist in Russian and Soviet architecture, which, according to him, does not deprive him of the right to express his point of view in an article non-academic. He specifies that he does not question the content of the exhibition, but the moment of its opening, and that it is the “intellectual patronage” of Anna Bokova’s father, the architect Andrey Bokov, close to the authorities. Russians, which allowed him to access archival materials on VKHUTEMAS.

Anna Bokova is an architect and architectural historian. She received her doctorate from Yale University. She worked at ETH Zurich (ETH Zurich) and Princeton. She has taught at Cornell, Yale, Harvard and other universities. Published in major professional architecture and design journals. Anna Bokov is the author of the fundamental research “Avant-garde as method: VKHUTEMAS and pedagogy of space. 1920-1930″ (Avant-Garde as Method: Vkhutemas and the Pedagogy of Space, 1920-1930), released in 2020.

His father Andrey Bokov is one of the leading Russian architects, vice-president of the International Academy of Architecture, in 2008-2016 he was president of the Union of Architects of Russia. In 2015, attending a meeting of the Presidential Council for Culture and Art, he thanked Putin for the annexation of Crimea.

“Sweet Power”?

According to Anker, Cooper-Union should cancel the exhibition and suspend lectures on Soviet and Russian architecture.

“I would have been on the front line for this exhibition ten years ago, but not now,” he wrote. “Now to support Russian architecture is to show moral deafness.”

“Any historical reference is a reflection of the current situation,” continues the author of the article. – Russia commits an aggression against Ukraine, the cruelty of which can be compared to the war of Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union. Dictator Vladimir Putin’s armies not only destroy military targets, but also civilians and national cultural heritage (including architecture). To cover up war crimes, supporters of Russia in New York go to great lengths to present their country as a shining center of high culture. This is a propaganda war aimed at our conscience in order to weaken our politicians’ support for Ukraine. This is called “soft power”.

According to Anker, the fact that Cooper Union is at the center of the Ukrainian community in New York adds bitterness to an already painful situation.

The above-mentioned open letter from a group of scholars and art experts notes that Anker is not an expert on Russian architecture and calls his article “intellectually dubious.”

At the time of publication of this article, more than 745 art historians, historians, teachers, artists, museum and exhibition curators have signed an open letter. Among them are prominent American experts in the field of Russian and Soviet art, professors of leading universities in the United States and other countries.

“This exhibit, showing the work of former and current Cooper Union students,” the open letter continues, “serves as an important reminder of cultural experimentation during the interwar period and their continuing legacy that was and is today in opposition to authoritarianism.

The letter calls on Cooper-Union management to immediately begin “an open and responsible process of discussion in the professional community and among the general public about the proposed opening date of the exhibit.”

“Culture of cancellation”: advantages and disadvantages

Among the signatories of the open letter is Xenia Vytuleva-Herz, Ph.D., architectural theorist, visiting professor at the University of Basel.

“I have a clear opinion on this issue,” Ksenia Vytuleva said in an interview with Russian service media. – Such censorship and such lack of professionalism in the field of education are in principle unacceptable. Especially now. Especially in this case. I am strongly against “cancel culture”. I see all too well what this leads to. It is impossible to cancel, ban, cut, suppress for political and national reasons both research and exhibitions, as well as the work of individual artists.

“VKHUTEMAS is a school that just teaches you to think freely,” Ksenia Vytuleva-Hertz continued. – It was dissolved at the end of the 1920s, when Stalin began to strengthen his personal power in the country. I don’t like that a talented and extremely important exhibition for New York and the world scientific community is canceled because of a slander. I am sure that all signatories of the letter, like me, actively oppose the war. And the curator of the exhibition, Anya Bokova, an architectural historian, wrote an excellent book and defended her thesis at Yale University on VKHUTEMAS. I know Anya, we spoke at the same conferences.

Ksenia Vytuleva-Hertz said that together with her husband, architect Manuel Hertz, she had spent the last two years before the Russian aggression in Kiev, where a synagogue was built last year according to her project in memory of the Babi Yar tragedy.

“Because of the war, my whole soul hurts,” she says. “But cancel the story? – No, it’s not an option, that in itself is very scary. All of us – teachers, historians, curators, artists – were hostages to this extremely unpleasant situation.

“My father, Lazar Khidekel, was close to VKHUTEMAS, its program and its principles,” said Mark Khidekel. – Even the admission card of a student of these workshops has been kept in its archives. But we know that my father returned to Vitebsk and remained a student of Malevich, becoming one of the founders of UNOVIS (avant-garde art association). Canceling the exhibit at Cooper-Union is all the more stupid since the essence of VKHUTEMAS is to serve as a laboratory of the future. The Russian avant-garde largely determined the paths and destinies of 20th century art. It should be borne in mind that the objects of VKhUTEMAS have not been preserved, and the exhibition presents the works of American students of Cooper Union, who reproduce them. Why punish them? It all sounds like a witch hunt. The cancellation of the exhibition means the second, several years later, the murder of the Russian avant-garde. It’s like canceling the periodic table because it’s Russian.”

At the same time, the decision to postpone the exhibition was welcomed by art historian Myroslava Mudrak, professor emeritus at Ohio State University. In an open letter to her colleagues, she called Cooper Union’s decision “courageous and professional.”

“The opening of the exhibition during a full-scale war unleashed by Russia and threatening the very existence of Ukrainian art and culture”, writes Professor Mudrak, “will not only demonstrate the indifference of a part of the current scientific world, but also our professional weakness as historians of Russian and Eastern European art and architecture”.

“A slap in the face of public taste, to paraphrase David Burliuk, who made the East Village his home in the 1920s, can be seen as such a ‘celebration of culture’ in the region where Ukrainians live, the emigrants who fled the Soviet regime, or newly arrived refugees “, – says Miroslava Mudrak.

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