a conversation with Boris “Bob” Koshelokhov

Pushkinskaya-10 Art Center • Saint Petersburg, Russia • 16 October 2006
Interviewers: Thomas Campbell and Nick Teplov

– When did you paint this work?


– Does it have a title?

– Composition, probably. This isn’t the first time you’ve asked me about titles. Every time you ask, I’m going to give you a different answer. They’re probably untitled, though. Just Ecce Homo. That’s it: Composition on the Theme Ecce Homo.

– Is it connected to what you were reading at the time?

– I read all the time, and so I’m always reflecting on the problem of human being. There’s one human being, and another, and another. Look over there, there’s another. [Points to various paintings in the studio.] Via the various stages of composition, I’m trying to pass in a dynamic way through the unfolding, the revelation. And so again it’s “behold the man.” He’s pensive, he’s sad. He might be a two-faced Janus, or anybody or anything else in the end. All these inescapable reflections, that’s what man is. I join Matisse when he exclaims, Who or what could be more interesting than man! This is the meditation you find reflected on the visual level of this painting.

– All your works are bound up with finding an answer to this question?

– They’re more like conversations. Not even questions or answers—but a questioning, yes. They’re a dialogue, rather —a kind of unity, an alter-ego, a putting together of thought and feeling, sensus et ratio.

In other words, what is being? I’ve woken up in the middle of thing. I’m amazed and I try to get to the bottom of it. First, there’s the amazement, then there’s my attempt to explain, to elucidate, to clarify this in the visual realm. I don’t know whether I’m successful or not. That’s for you to judge. What do I care?

– Where do your pictures happen? That is, given the fact you don’t draw from nature.

– Most of what I do is life drawing. More than anything I submerge myself in nature. Precisely by plunging into myself, I feel sensus et ratio, the unity. In the first place this is what is going on at bottom: dialogue, questioning. My self and your self don’t differ in any way. If they were different, then dialogue and clarification would be impossible. Where do the pictures happen? Right here in me, and in you as well. You’re my co-author, my co-creator.

Where are the pictures? Everywhere. Originally, they’re inside me. Where am I, that's where the picture is.

This is really a fundamental inquiry. But my sources aren’t Mr. Heidegger’s sources. No, I have my reasons for disagreeing with Heidegger. At the end of the day he still stands for the strictest sort of order, and order equals death. Chaos: chaos is something we can think, something we can feel, like a sphere without a center. Where I am, that where’s the center is. This reeks of Berkeley and Hume, hardcore sensualism. Maybe this “where I am” business sounds like solipsism. No, that’s not it. Rather, it might turn out that way, but finally I need the world, and the world needs me. I’ve probably put this badly. But if we return to the question of where the pictures are, then most of all they’re in nature. This isn’t the nature you can get at with a camera. It’s not the nature of objects, but rather the nature of feelings—but feelings, I repeat, comprehended as sensus et ratio.

– Bob, maybe you could say a little about how you became an artist.

– Until the age of thirty-two I did all sorts of dumb stuff. I worked and I studied. I worked as a stevedore, an electrician, a power plant operator, and a hospital orderly. I went to medical school; I took classes at a technical college, at the state university. What didn’t I do! Mainly, though, I read philosophy. I worked because I had to eat. Work was a source of physical existence, that’s all. Reading was the main thing.

I was up to all sorts of nonsense until was I thirty-two. And then one day . . . Back then there was this restaurant, the Moscow, on the corner of Nevsky and Vladimirsky.

– Next to Saigon?

– It was Saigon. Saigon was a caf? attached to the Moscow restaurant. Saigon was just a nickname, that’s what it was called in the local argot. All sorts of people from all over the city gathered there. It was a crossroads. It was maybe the only place of its kind in the Soviet Union, a place where folks with all sorts of interests could link up for ten, fifteen minutes, for an hour, for as much as time as they liked from ten to eleven . . .

– Ten to eleven?

– From ten in the morning until eleven at night. A lot of people came there. The Publichka isn’t far away, and people would come to Saigon from the Publichka to drink a cup of tea and chew the fat. Saigon was a club for people with different interests, from different crowds. It was the place where they’d meet. This included philosophers, people who had some kind of interest in philosophy. I was a regular at Saigon. I don’t know how many hours I spent there from the day it opened (in 1965).

– You were already living in Leningrad in the sixties?

– Yes, I arrived here in 1962, when I was twenty. Naturally, I made my way to Saigon via the Publichka. I spent a lot of time in Saigon. I knew everyone there, everyone knew me. It got so that I’d see the “Saigonese” all over the city. You might exchange a word or two with these people, or maybe you wouldn’t, but if somebody was from the Saigon crowd you’d recognize them when you saw them.

One day in 1975 Vladimir (Vova) Poletaev walks into Saigon. He starts asking people whether they know any philosophers. The whole joint was screaming. He asks one guy, then another. They all pointed at me. We became friends.

Vova’s an extremely interesting person. Way back then he was already an Orthodox Christian. A real dyed-in-the-wool Russian Christian. He was trying to get his mind around God, to experience Him. He wrote essays and wanted someone to talk about this stuff with.

He and I became close. We got wrapped up in conversations about Christianity, about philosophy. We wagged our tongues for three days straight without a break. Finally, he says, “I’ve got this friend, an artist, but he’s so reserved there’s no way to get to know him.” Then one day, after our latest meeting at Saigon, this artist walks in—Valery “Clover” Kleverov. After fifteen minutes of conversation, we headed off to Pskov Region, to the Pechora Monastery. We became soul mates.

– You and Clover?

– Me and Clover. We hung out in Pechora for a week. We slept in a haystack and chatted with the monks and with the abbot, the icon painter Father Alipy. He gave us his blessing and we went back to Leningrad. That’s when I felt I had to do something to help Clover.

Back then many artists thought that if they had studios they’d be able to work. They burned themselves out this way. They’d get jobs as designers in exchange for workspace. They’d decorate Red Corners or Lenin Rooms, but this broke them in the end. Clover had a studio like this not far from here.

– You mean from the Union of Artists?

– No, from a company. Each state enterprise had its own housing reserves. Clover had a studio in the enterprise where his wife got a job as a designer. In fact, she was hired as a designer, but on paper she was hired as a janitor. They gave her a room in the basement. There were all sorts of artists there. They were assigned to the Moscow Station, to the railroad. They’d paint posters with Lenin on them, “Glory to the Communist Party!” and that sort of crap. The work didn’t take up much time. The rest of the time Clover would work on his own stuff. His wife didn’t work: she kept house.

I wanted to help Clover because I saw that his work was lovely, just marvelous. I wondered how I could fix it so that people would buy his paintings. At that time I lived in a room not far from here. It was a huge room—twenty-seven square meters. Like this one approximately, only the ceiling was twice as high. It was in a communal apartment. Eleven other families lived there.

I told Clover that we’re going start selling his stuff. He, his wife Linda, and their daughter were living in a nine meter square room. The room was so tiny that Clover could stretch his arms and touch both corners.

Clover was not a “right-wing” artist, a socialist realist, so we couldn’t sell his work on commission at the art shop. I decided to get a crowd together who would buy his paintings. We hung all his pieces in my room in the communal flat. Over the course of a year I had maybe a thousand people pass through my place. It was like a flood.

– You mean you practically turned your room into an art gallery?

– Yes, a gallery that was open twenty-four seven. All the other residents went after me. They said I was carousing with naked broads there, that I was drinking and having obscene sex in front of them. They ratted on me to the local beat cop, and he told the KGB. All the security agencies were putting together a case against me. That was okay because within a year we’d sold a huge number of Clover’s pieces. We made enough money to buy him a room, to move him and his family from Kupchino to a separate flat on the Petrograd Side. Back in those days, it was big money.

– How much did his paintings go for?

– It varied, but the average price was around 125 rubles. That’s what he and I settled on because an engineer or junior researcher at an institute made around 105 to 125 rubles a month. They could afford to buy a smallish piece on the money from one paycheck. We sold a lot. Enough to move him out of his room into a flat, and then we raised money for his emigration.

– But this was totally illegal.

– Of course. Technically, they could have arrested me at any moment for concealing undeclared income. But that didn’t matter to me. If someone bought something at two in the morning (who didn’t I bring over to my room in those days!) I’d rush straight to Clover’s place, even though the bridges over the Neva were going up, to give him the money.

I was hustling for him but I wasn’t taking a cut, and Clover began to feel ashamed. So he announced in this jocular way that he wanted to put together a group of artists. (He did have this idea in the back of his mind.) He said to me: “Why Bob, you’re an artist!” In my na?vet? I believed him. I believed that I was an artist. He had just blurted this out, though. It was an easy way for him to relieve the pangs of conscience he had over the fact that I wasn’t taking any money for my work. I sincerely believed him, though.

– Are you trying to tell us that your entire artistic career is just a horrible misunderstanding?

– Basically, yes. I tip my hat to Clover: he proved to be a genuine Taoist master. He threw me into the ocean. If I surfaced, that was cool. If I didn’t, that was cool, too.

At first, he forbade me to use paints. That was simply a shock to me. Imagine: an artist who can’t use paints! So I thought and I thought and I thought. And then, eureka! There’s color in everything around us. The wall over there is yellow or green. There’s something green that someone’s thrown in the trash, and it turns out you can take it out of the trash and use it. That’s how I proceeded. Later, I found this term for what I was doing: readymade.

But that was later. At first, I was a tabula rasa. I didn’t know anything—only Shishkin’s Three Bears (and that only because it was on the cover of our Russian language textbooks at school), Savrasov’s The Rooks Have Flown In, and Reshetnikov’s Another “D.” Nothing else.

– What did your first attempts at making art consist of, then?

– I was forbidden to use paints. I thought and I thought and I thought. And besides, I kept on reading. I had a bit of an interest in philosophy. There’s color all around us. These things people throw away, things that have fulfilled their original function—I can use them till there’s nothing left of them. I began seeing something in them. For example, the bedpans they use in hospitals—they’re question marks. Question marks or exclamation marks. I can write an exclamation mark, as it were, by attaching a one-kopeck coin to the bottom of a bedpan.

– So at first you cobbled various objects together?

– Yes. I called them “concepts.”

– Concepts?

– Yes. I made a ton of them. Something around two hundred. There was nowhere to put them there were so many.

– What happened to them? Did you exhibit them? Give them away?

– Yes, I gave them to friends, I exhibited them. My friends threw them out. But that was okay. Everything was super, magnificent.

One day I ran into Vova Poletaev. He just looked at me funny. During his latest schizoid attack he had thrown all the furniture out of his room. All of it.

He told me he had seven cans of paint, household paint. He gave me the paint and I covered his whole room with paintings—big pictures, small pictures. It only took me a month.

– You painted the walls of his room?

– No, I painted canvases. He let me work in his room. But after a month he told me, “Bob, you’ve crushed me. Go away.” I was in tears. The situation was critical: there was nowhere for me to paint pictures. Back at my communal flat they couldn’t wait for me to be sent to prison, and I had already sold all of Clover’s paintings.

I didn’t know what to do, so I went to Saigon. There I met Clover. The two of us went to Vova Poletaev’s place. Clover looked at my pictures and freaked out. “Give up the concepts,” he says. But I was totally sincere in my work on the concepts! “Give up the concepts!” I’m like, “Clover, but what about the concepts?” And he’s like, “Yeah, yeah, the concepts.” Then suddenly it dawned on me that he’d told me I was an artist just to have something to say. He’d been treating the concepts as a game, but when he saw my paintings . . . 

It’s then I realized he hadn’t meant me to take him seriously. On the one hand, it sort of hurt me. On the other hand, Vova had kicked me out. So I had to find somewhere to paint pictures.

Where did I paint? I painted in basements. The floors would knee-deep in hot water from the broken steam pipes, so I’d wear boots. There were cockroaches running around—black ones, yay this big. A bloody nightmare. There was steam everywhere, the light bulbs were shorting out all the time, but I kept painting. In endlessly stinky conditions. My circumstances now are heavenly by comparison. I dreamed about having at least a little room of some kind— two meters by two, whatever. I would have been immeasurably happy to have even three square meters. But I had nothing. I painted in elevator machine rooms. Can you imagine? You’re painting away, and the sheave starts spinning and there’s suddenly all this noise. I never could get used to the sound of elevators. But I was painting in machine rooms, in attics, on stairwells. Moreover, I was painting a lot of stuff.

– Has anything survived from this period?

– Almost nothing. The conditions were such that I couldn’t save much. That’s why the concepts didn’t survive. When I showed the Italiansphotographs of them, they’re like, “Oh, where are these concepts?” Forgive me for bragging, but I really did anticipate Figuration Libre by ten or fifteen years. I anticipated the Transavantguardia by ten or fifteen years, and the Neue Wilde, too. It was only later that artists there started painting people masturbating in galleries and whatever. It was much later that artists like A.R. Penck came on the scene, much later.

It was the very conditions of my existence that helped me achieve an extreme expressiveness, an extreme expressionism. Yes, this is na?ve. But I didn’t know anything. I painted my first still life in oil on November 2, 1976. I can see that painting like it was yesterday. I remember how I mixed yellow with blue oil paint. I got green. My jaw dropped in joy, in rapture and amazement.

When did my son Ilya find this out? Any person figures this stuff out when he’s five. When did you learn this? When you were four?

– Something like that.

– But I was thirty-three years old then and I didn’t know. That’s okay, though.

– Did you know words like expressionism in those days?

– I didn’t know anything. I was a tabula rasa. It was later that someone would come over and say, “Oh, that’s like Oskar Kokoschka.” And I’d run right off to the Publichka to find out who Oskar Kokoschka was. Or Paul Klee, or Georges Rouault. In rather short order the circle of my viewers forced me to educate myself. They’d mention someone’s name and I wouldn’t know it. Later, I started to make sense of this muddle of names. After all, studying philosophy enables one to get a sense of the system. To get to the bottom of things art historically: this is expressionism, that’s fauvism, etc. But that was later on.

– So you stopped working odd jobs?

– I gave up everything. I spent all my time on art. I looked for jobs where I could work shifts every few days, as little as possible. At least I wouldn’t be arrested, even if I didn’t have any money to speak of. Because I knew that somehow I’d be able to find a crust of bread in the trash, finally. I just had to make sure I wasn’t arrested for social parasitism.

– So there would be a place of work listed in your work record?

– Yes. Everything had to make way for art. I swept aside everything else, even philosophy. Although I did return to it later on.

– Did you associate with other artists?

– Naturally.

– You made contact with the art world?

– The situation was really curious. The right-wingers chewed me out for being uneducated. The left-wingers were stuck in this same trap. They also chewed me out for lacking “culture,” for this, that, and the other thing. Because the black came out messy in one painting, or for some other mistake. They simply freaked out. They were amazed: they couldn’t accept the way I worked. Some artists were crazy about form and content, while others were bogged down in aestheticism. I wasn’t recognized either on the left (anti-aesthetic work), or on the right (no education, no skill, no craftsmanship). They were right in their own way.

On the other hand, at the end of the day, overcoming all the mistakes, turning them into gains, it keeps you moving along all the time, you’re in motion. Finally, the craftsmanship kicks in, a sense of aesthetics and all that.

– Were the nonconformist exhibitions taking place at this time?

– They were. I participated in all the left-wing exhibitions starting with my very first concept, the “exclamation point.” At the Peter and Paul Fortress, on May 29, 1976. That’s when I . . .

– This was the protest exhibition?

– Yes, it was at the Peter and Paul Fortress.

– What was the occasion of the exhibition?

– The occasion was the death of Yevgeny Rukhin. And of one other artist—I’ll remember his last name later. They both were burned to death in their studios. The exhibition was held in their memory. [It is widely believed that KGB agents deliberately set the fire in Rukhin’s studio.]

– What happened at the fortress?

– The Society of Experimental Exhibitions (TEV) put the word out on the grapevine that there was going to be an exhibition, and Clover told me I had to bring one of my concepts. We arrived, but the cops weren’t letting anyone in. They’d already arrested some of the artists at home, put them under house arrest. Some had escaped through the back way, through the attic. Or the cops didn’t know certain people were artists, including me. I wrapped my concept up in a burlap sack. It didn’t look like a painting. It looked like I was carrying a box or something. The Peter and Paul Fortress was cordoned off. It was surrounded on all sides by cops, soldiers, cadets, and frontier guards. There was no way to get in. One by one, we were loaded into police vans, Black Marias.

– So they nabbed you?

– Yes. First they took us to the Petrograd police precinct. They held us there for several hours, and then they took us to the Chekhov Street station. They held us there until evening and then let us go finally. The cops opened the cell, and all of them, from the lieutenants on up to the starred generals, started teasing me, “What sort of art is this? Michelangelo or something?” I answered, “Who the heck is Michelangelo? I haven’t heard of him. My stuff is cooler.” They all laughed their guts out.

– So they just nipped this action in the bud, but no one was punished particularly harshly?

– No. They held some people for twenty-fours, and other guys got off with misdemeanors—five to fifteen days in jail for disturbing the peace. They let me go. True, my boss at that job I had . . . then I worked in a paramilitary security firm, as a rifleman.

– As a rifleman?

– Yes.

– What does this mean? That you walked around with a gun?

– And once a month we went to the range for target practice.

– If it’s not a secret, can you tell us what you guarded?

– The Leningrad Subway Construction Company. It was all idiots who worked there, or mental retards. Or soldiers who had seen Lenin or fought in WWII. My “ideologues”: they hated me. I had this long, long hair. Can you imagine? I had to wear a service cap, and all this was hair sticking out everywhere. I had a blue jacket and pants with patches that read Make Love, Keep Smiling, and little flowers embroidered on them. They thought I was a total imbecile.

– Did they express their hatred either verbally or physically?

– Verbally and physically. The policemen who worked there or who arrested me on the street would say, “We’re going shave your head!” I’d say to them, “Excuse me, maybe you’ll succeed in shaving my head, but whatever for?” “And you’re literate to boot!” They’d start pulling my beard and my hair until I was bleeding and crying.

It’s just a fright how many times they arrested me. In 1978, I was arrested something like seventy-eight times. They’d lock me in the hoosegow for anywhere from three hours to three days.

– That many times in one year?

– Yes.

– That’s rough.

– Yes, that’s rough. On the other hand, most of the cops were these kind peasant dudes. It was simply charming. If one of them had a thermos or a piece of two-ruble-and-twenty-kopeck sausage, he’d share it with me and pour me a mug of tea. Just fantastic. He’d say to me, “I understand why we arrested that guy, but what are you in here for?” I could find something to talk about with all of them, from the privates up to the lieutenants. But with anyone at the rank of captain or above, it was like talking to a brick wall.

Once I was hauling canvass stretchers at two in the morning (some of them are still here, in this studio). The cops drove by in their patrol car. They stopped, put me in the car, and took me to the station. When we got there, the lieutenant on duty said, “What the fuck did you bring this asshole in for? What the fuck do we need with him?”

– So at some point they started to recognize you?

– Yes, they knew me at all the precinct houses. They all recognized me at all these places, all the inspectors. “What do we need this creep for? Get the fuck out of here!” That’s the peaceable, marvelous way they talked to me. But they would also share a piece of bread with me.

– Do you remember when the police stopped treating you this way? Or did this go on for a long time?

– It went on for a long time, right up until perestroika, probably. When glasnost began, I had this clear sense that things had gotten easier. The police weren’t interested in me anymore. Or they were much less interested.

– Did the way they treated you bother you?

– Philosophically, I would say no. Why? Because I could see immediately whether someone was friend or foe. The world was divided then, it was striped. It was either black or white: that was it. There was less cunning and guile on all sides back then. The left-wing artists were more cunning, of course. There’s no doubt it was more complicated to deal with them and with the intelligentsia. You’d put out feelers, but you didn’t know whether someone accepted you or not. With the ordinary folk (this included cops) it was much simpler: right away they either accepted you as a friend, or didn’t they accept you at all and saw you as an enemy. But you knew where you stood with them, and that really helps when you’re just starting out as an artist.

You figure things out later on, but at first it’s complicated. I’d bring works to show to someone like Anatoly Belkin, and I could see that my way of painting affected him so much that he’d just cross me off his list. He’d hurt me, give me a body blow or a blow to the head, so to speak.

This was painful for me to get over. In the end, it’s okay, though. It’s something you have to go through. People like this were also my teachers big-time. Despite the total rejection, you keep going. And when you keep going, you naturally discover things.

You don’t compromise. Yes, at the age of thirty-three or thirty-two, it’s still not too late to enroll in the Academy and study for three years. You can still take classes, copy the plaster-cast statues, go through this obedience training. In retrospect, I don’t know whether I did the right thing or not, but this is how things have worked out. If I’d gone to school, I’d have had to study for fifteen years, eight years. I’d have prepared for exams for three years, and I’d have probably been accepted. Then I would have had to sit through five or six years in the Academy, go through their monastic training.

I haven’t answered one of your earlier questions. Did I immediately start working as professional artist? Yes, right from the very first piece I made. It’s a paradox, but it’s true. I gave up everything: it was only my art that counted.

– When did you get the idea to put together the Chronicle group?

– When Clover emigrated, I was trying to figure out what an artist was. What are his tasks and goals? What is he here to do? I realized that an artist is like a microscopic knife: he’s supposed to make a microscopic section of being. Unlike the microscopic knife, though, he doesn’t take this section as something given. Instead, he produces a concentrate, a condensation, a sampling. There’s a very strict selection process, then, but all the same the chronicle is the source. A chronicler would write, “Yesterday, Masha was here. The day before yesterday, the prince was here.” Unlike the chronicler who writes down everything, we artists make a very strict selection from this stuff of daily life. We concentrate it and get sensus et ratio.

That was the frame of mind I was in. I thought we needed a group of extremely sincere artists who would paint in a maximally sincere way. Back then I rarely met artists of this sort. When I started out, I was so happy: Oh, artists! They’re all brothers! But then you get over this naivet? and you understand that not all artists are brothers. That’s how I got the idea to create Chronicle.