Vitaly Komar, clad in all black, huffed up the stairs of the Center for Jewish History with a reporter in tow. “I like this place,” said the one half of an internationally known Russian artist team. “It’s like a club house, not white and antiseptic like most museums that can feel like a hospital.”
By the time Komar rounded the mezzanine overlooking the modestly sized atrium and passed through the glass doors into the Yeshiva University Museum gallery displaying his latest drawings and paintings, it becomes clear that hospitals weigh heavily on his mind. The current exhibition of nearly 60 intricate graphical interpolations of ancient icons, titled “Symbols of the Big Bang,” illuminate Komar and his longtime friend and collaborator Alexander Melamid’s attempts to create art with the power to heal.
This investigation, an earnest departure from the duo’s past iconoclastic and Dadaistic art, is a highly personal, idiosyncratic effort to fuse spirituality and science. In felicitous concordance with Tobi Kahn’s recently opened show “Microcosmos” (also at YUM) and the Albert Einstein show at the American Museum of Natural History, this exhibition raises some important questions about how Jews represent the divine through abstraction.
“I couldn’t trust it if I saw the face of God in a Michelangelo. No one can depict God, no one can understand it. That’s why we use symbols,” Komar says. “They’re something in between.”
The series, which Komar, 59, envisions someday illustrating the Book of Job or rendered in stained glass in a synagogue, was sparked by his harrowing treatment with electroshock for heart problems three years ago. When he regained consciousness he imagined he was in the hospital in Moscow where he was born.
“I am not joking, but something miraculous happened with my memory after that. Suddenly I remembered that previously forgotten first flash of light when I was born and first opened my eyes. That was my ‘Big Bang.’ While lying in the hospital for more than a week I thought a lot about all beginnings and endings,” Komar says in an interview with curator Reba Wulkan printed in the exhibition catalogue.
That primal flare, he told The Jewish Week, looked in his mind very much like a six-pointed star. The moment opened a window to lost memories from his childhood, including his early desire to become an astronomer to his grandfather’s reminiscences of losing seven siblings in the Holocaust. But Komar wasn’t sure how to first approach the daunting project of making images to connect personal and universal beginnings.
“I didn’t know how to represent pictorially such a sophisticated subject,” Komar said. So he talked with Berkeley physicists and spent a month in the library at the Israel Museum researching the earliest Jewish use of the six-pointed star.
On large sheets of printed graph paper, Komar and Melamid began to toy with the architecture of this ancient symbol, blending it with images of the hourglass, Ouroboros, yin-yang, dove, and skull. Even the swastika. This shocking fusion of what Komar considers icons of good and evil, a theme which is developed over a number of drawings, might confuse viewers not fully aware of Komar and Melamid’s belief that the fusion of opposites has the potency to heal, much like Moses’ brass snake.
Curator Wulkan says she tried to play down the presence of the repugnant Nazi symbol. “We did avoid using the word ‘swastika’ in the introductory panel,” she says. “It’s really the idea of a spiral, not a swastika, and the generalities of good and evil.” The swastika, of course, has its origins in many ancient cultures before Hitler appropriated it to legitimate his Aryan pretensions.
“The swastika’s sublime form wed to its wicked function has stimulated considerable inquiry into its origins and its future,” graphic designer Steven Heller observes in his recent book “The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?”
Since their student days in Moscow in the late 1960s, Komar and Melamid have been known as idol-smashers. They founded the major 1970s dissident movement Sots Art and had numerous works destroyed by the Soviet authorities. Since emigrating, first to Israel in 1977, and then to the U.S. a year later, they’ve not lost their sardonic humor, making art ranging from lush paintings of Stalin in parodic Socialist Realist style in the early 1980s to ongoing collaborations with elephants and chimpanzees.
The catalogue argues that Komar and Melamid have entered a new, reverent phase, yet a strong element of spirituality has often commingled with irony. In 1978, they commemorated their exodus and arrival in the Promised Land with a performance piece on a Jerusalem hilltop, where they ritually burned their suitcases under a steel temple topped by a five-pointed Soviet star and read from their newly penned addition to the Bible, “The Book of Komar and Melamid.”
On Dec. 25, Komar and Melamid will lead gallery tours at noon and 2 p.m. In addition, on Jan. 30, 2003, they will be giving a slide performance about “The Art of Collaboration.” While most of the experience essential to this new series belongs to Vitaly Komar, the work bears their co-authorship, “like Smith and Wesson,” Komar says.
“Komar & Melamid: Symbols of the Big Bang” runs through Feb. 23, 2003 at Yeshiva University Museum, 15 W. 16th St., Man. (212) 294-8301. Tue.-Thu. and Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. $6, $4.