Featured in
Issue 224

Oleg Tselkov Takes on ‘The Man’

At Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow, the late Russian artist’s paintings of faces consider what it means to be human

BY Valerie Mindlin in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 28 OCT 21

Watching Oleg Tselkov’s round, affable face in Tselkov Walk (2017), the documentary that accompanies the artist’s mini retrospective at Moscow’s Multimedia Art Museum, I couldn’t help noticing that all but one of the 16 works on display depict anonymous, bald men who bear more than a passing resemblance to the late Russian artist. But these flattened, disk-shaped faces are much more than self-portraits. As the film’s narrator, the actress Isabelle Adjani, recounts: ‘In 1960, in Moscow, a young painter had just portrayed a man’s face when he realized that he had unintentionally depicted something else: the face of The Man. Not just a human being, but all of humanity.’

Oleg Tselkov, Portrait with a Flower, 1962, oil on board, 75 x 60 cm. Courtesy: Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow

Titled ‘I’m Not from Here, I’m a Stranger’, the exhibition opens with three works from before this breakthrough. In the brightly coloured, thickly painted, semi-abstract Two Women and Rope Walker (1957), it is easy to spot tell-tale cubist influences in the painting’s deconstructed geometric shapes and planar compositions. Similarly, Flush Toilet and Agave (1956) has echoes of Henri Matisse in its dynamic assemblage of brilliantly hued chequerboards, plants and porcelain. While this assured handling of colour would figure in Tselkov’s work for the rest of his career – becoming brighter, sharper and more brilliant with each passing year – the recognizable influences and affinities give way, after 1960, to pure idiosyncrasy. The first hint of this can be seen here in Portrait with a Flower (1962): a smooth, bold oval of a face that stares down the viewer with an expression at once impenetrable yet profoundly relatable. With the eyes and mouth, those usual signifiers of personality, tucked away at the margins, the blank, open plane of the work’s central section creates an almost mirror-like surface onto which viewers can project their own interpretations.

Oleg Tselkov, 'I'm not from here, I'm a stranger', 2021, installation view, Multimedia Art Museum Moscow. Courtesy: Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow

Walking though the show, it’s clear that the effervescent of Tselkov’s palette, coupled with the airbrush-like quality of his surfaces, play a key role in the work’s contemporary – and Instagram-friendly – appearance. Five Masks (1979) – with its hyperrealist green-and-yellow rope, which appears to dangle from the top edge of the canvas – could well have been painted yesterday. Such clever compositional details – the little nail in the top right-hand corner just above the aubergine stack of Five Faces (1980); the delightfully errant puff of smoke just about to float off the top edge of Smoker (1969) – repeat throughout Tselkov’s oeuvre, allowing the artist to test the form and positioning of the foundational element of his vocabulary: the face, and its myriad ways of being. While Tselkov’s faces bear an unmistakable commonality of origin, they are kaleidoscopically varied by these subtle plays of contextual detail. What you find in these non-portraits is a probing of Emmanuel Lévinas’s assertion, in Ethics and Infinity (1985), that ‘Face is signification, and a signification without context […] Face gives priority to the self […] Face is what one cannot kill.’

Oleg Tselkov, Five Faces, 1980, oil on board, 2 x 1.6 m. Courtesy: Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow

Pressured into leaving the then-Soviet Union due to the ruling party’s dissatisfaction with his work’s ‘bourgeois tendencies’ (as per the exhibition’s wall text) and corresponding limitations on his ability to exhibit – much less profit from – his art, in 1977 Tselkov moved to France where, for the next 40 years, he chose to remain a stateless citizen while continuing his painting practice. Evoking and refuting meaning in the same expression – blank yet loaded, anguished yet emancipated – Tselkov’s faces speak to his own condition: in them, the entire spectrum of humanity’s commonality and individuality is collated in one fell swoop.

Oleg Tselkov's 'I'm not from here, I'm a stranger' is on view at Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow, until 5 December, 2021.

Thumbnail: Oleg Tselkov, Portrait of Group with Watermelon, 1963, oil on board, 1.3 x 1.7 m. Courtesy: Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow

Main image: Oleg Tselkov, Self-Portrait (detail), 1964, oil on board, 1.1 x 1.4 m. Courtesy: Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow

Valerie Mindlin is an art historian, writer, and curator based in Moscow, Russia.