Komar & Melamid: Symbols of the Big Bang

by Don Goddard


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It's confusing and complicated, but maybe it wasn't always. According to scientific theory, and to religious mythologies of many kinds, the universe began out of one thing (not no thing, because that is impossible to imagine) and almost instantaneously became many things, many things that are seemingly incompatible, awkwardly proximate, like flesh and bone, circle and square, you and me, Komar and Melamid. "The beginning of all mysteries, the mystery of all mysteries, has hypnotized me," says Vitaly Komar in his interview with curator Reba Wulkan for the catalogue. "When I read amateurish books and articles about this topic, the desire to see the face of the enigma, the visual image of the beginning of our universe and our world, intensified. The desire stemmed from my interest to imagine, represent, and see the main hero of history, more powerful than even Lenin or Washington. Thus, because of this desire, these canvases and drawings, Symbols of the Big Bang, came into being."


Symbols of the Big Bang, #117, 2001-2002.
Watercolor, pastel, markers, and crayons,
40" x 30".

Symbols of the Big Bang, #4, 2001-2002.

Watercolor, pastel, markers, and crayons,

40" x 30".

It's confusing and complicated, but maybe it wasn't always. According to scientific theory, and to religious mythologies of many kinds, the universe began out of one thing (not no thing, because that is impossible to imagine) and almost instantaneously became many things, many things that are seemingly incompatible, awkwardly proximate, like flesh and bone, circle and square, you and me, Komar and Melamid. "The beginning of all mysteries, the mystery of all mysteries, has hypnotized me," says Vitaly Komar in his interview with curator Reba Wulkan for the catalogue. "When I read amateurish books and articles about this topic, the desire to see the face of the enigma, the visual image of the beginning of our universe and our world, intensified. The desire stemmed from my interest to imagine, represent, and see the main hero of history, more powerful than even Lenin or Washington. Thus, because of this desire, these canvases and drawings, Symbols of the Big Bang, came into being."

Technically, the beginning here is a blank canvas or a blank piece of paper, but that is misleading since the canvas or paper itself is rectangular and therefore already a defined structure. So the beginning, or the pre-beginning (the art beginning), as mathematics would be for scientific formulations, is a grid for the drawings (of which there are hundreds, including about 60 in the show), and various underlying geometries for the larger paintings (there are four in the show). Most of the drawings and all the paintings are vertical rectangles, like a building or a person, in which the feet are quite distant from, though ultimately connected to, the head. In many of the drawings, however, the imagery is contained in a square in the upper half of the rectangle, elevated on the field of the grid and revealed as though on a scroll that had dropped down. Within these squares is a possibly infinite (but really finite) series of smaller squares, rectangles, triangles, and circles coalesced into six-pointed stars (Stars of David) that in turn encompass or are interlocked with other powerful ancient images--swastikas, serpents swallowing their tails (Ouroboroses), hourglasses, ying-yang--all embodying doubt as well as certainty, division as well as unity and continuity.


The Star of David is a given--it stands at the beginning of life for Komar and Melamid and is associated with the creation of the universe, the first flash of light, intuitively, mythologically, and as it corresponds to descriptions by scientists of the Big Bang theory. One is forced back and back, through one's own life and through the world's cultures and art. There are intimations of this indulgence of origins in the earlier work of Komar and Melamid, including their biographical series of 1972-73 in which Stars of David appear, and most particularly in their "Color Therapeutics" series and advertisements for circles, squares, and triangles, both of 1975. There must powers and reasons for what is and reasons behind the reasons, otherwise what is would not be. Thus the existence of God is proved. There is always something before.


What is for Komar and Melamid is, or was, childhood, youth, and becoming artists in the Soviet Union, the character of which was mediated in large part by Lenin and Stalin, the latter of whom determined that triumphalism and Socialist Realist art served the state best. Those were the givens for young artists, and Komar and Melamid subverted while confirming these givens both by personalizing them and taking them to extremes. Thus it is not unreasonable to assume, as the artists do in The Origins of Socialist Realism of 1982-83, that the appropriate art form for the people's revolution began with a beautiful, ancient (Greek?) partly naked female spirit drawing the shadowed silhouette of Stalin himself. It is one logical interpolation of Stalin's edict. History and time are collapsed to engender a comprehensible story of and attitude toward art and life. In the west, and particularly in the United States, where Komar and Melamid have lived since 1978, the given is the creative energy of Modernism, or at least that idea, though they proved in their opinion polls of the 1990s leading to the "Most Wanted" and "Least Wanted" paintings that most people prefer gentle blue and green landscapes with mountains, water, animals, and some unthreatening, or comforting, human figures (like George Washington) to abstractions (like the Big Bang drawings and paintings, which often involve less-favored sharp angles, darker colors, geometric patterns, and imaginary objects). Going back a bit further in the biological chain, K&M found that the given for endangered Asian elephants was that their survival depended on their usefulness to human beings as workers (hauling timber, etc.), and that since the need for their services is declining they might be better off working as artists. And so K&M taught elephants to paint in Thailand, which indeed might help to save them, and, in a similar vein, a chimpanzee in Moscow to take photographs (they had many years before, in 1978, worked with a dog to create a drawing of a bone).

Symbols of the Big Bang, #224, 2001-2002.

Oil and tempera on canvas,

96" x 48".


It is then natural to return to the very beginning, the distant but necessary presupposition for what is given at this point. Once you are there, at the scene of the beginning, just as at the origin of Socialist Realism, it is possible to imagine, to devise, a great deal, within the bounds of what has been imagined and devised in history. For it is a historical process; it could not do without the intuitions of those who have gone before, up through the surmises of contemporary science. Except for the grid itself, there are very few 90-degree angles in the juxtaposition of shapes and lines. Almost everything is diagonal, and dynamic, in the manner of the Star of David's intersecting equilateral triangles. Even the swastika lies within and follows the angles of the Star in the universal spiraling motion that it suggests (as well as its more recent, more ominous meanings). One has the sense of being there, at the beginning, and of its being inexhaustible as a moment in which everything from then to before then and to now is contained. The star is larger and smaller; swirling in darkness; encircled by the Ouroboros; divided into two triangles, light and dark; composed of squares, triangles, and hourglasses; forming into the head of King David. In some drawings, and particularly in the paintings, the imagery becomes increasingly complicated and historical: draperies that gather space in creases and points of light and dark, beyond three dimensions, like early Cubism; the six-pointed star binding together a circle of skulls, the vanity of life; motifs of architectural perspective, like those of the Renaissance; a towering structure rising from the circle of skulls, through an hourglass, a top hat with a crown of thorns, and finally a jester's hat. There is no end to the creation of form, no matter how ridiculous it may appear.

Donald Goddard © 2003


The exhibition was on view in 2003, at the Yeshiva University Museum, 15 West 16th Street, New York, NY 10011.
Yeshiva University Museum. A fully illustrated color catalogue is available from the Yeshiva University Museum
for $30 + $3 shipping & Handling or you can purchase it at the Museum when you come to see the exhibition.
Reba Wulkan, Curator

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