I remember the spell cast by the clearness of vision in Alexander Sitnikov’s "Bulls" when they emerged on the horizon of the Soviet art in the '70s. The most bright, charged with a distinct visual energy, they got impressed on your retina – to use E.T.A. Hoffmann's elevated phrase – "as an hieroglyph of fire inscribed in space". We saw these bulls triumphant, straining "at the leash" – ready for the breakthrough, ready to overcome the routine. We also remembered them in agony, exhausted in the battle against predators and chimeras.

Indeed these images visualized the hopes, aspirations and defeats of a whole generation of artists and their loyal and understanding core audience – the '70s generation. In Alexander Sitnikov's life in art that stage was probably the one most publicly noticed. There have been other stages, no less important but less publicly visible. Accordingly, during his several decades in art Sitnikov has been finding himself alternately in and out of the limelight. He alternately resonated with the audience's expectations and was "plunged into obscurity". But he has never flinched from the aesthetic challenges of the times. Hence the permanence of his presence on art scene. A reliable, confident presence.

Sitnikov's beginning was very interesting; it is a pity that his works at that period – 1966 - 1968 – were hidden from the view of the audience, including me. These works include a series of distemper and oil paintings on wood – "Cassandra", "Gypsy Woman", "Aphrodite and Predator". Absolutely astonishing, these arabesque-cum-ideograms, however, are also marked with an unruliness of graffiti and with African rhythms. One is hard put to name a counterpart for Sitnikov in our art environment of that time; Keith Haring's manner is the closest match. And consider the mischievous if not punk-ish anti-Soviet flavour of those pieces ("Cassandra")… By contrast, Sitnikov's first pieces to be displayed publicly, nearly ten years later, were quite refined aesthetically. These works, through lack of understanding, were filed under the "primitivism" heading – the critics were confused then, failing to find a suitable theoretical label for artworks of illegible mimesis and an elusive genre. All art writers at that time were putting much emphasis on relationship to tradition, setting about their favourite game – guessing visual primary sources. Sitnikov's "Beautiful Girls", "My guests", "Female Students" appeared to follow the Old Russian traditions (elements of icon perspective, proportions of figures, rhythms, and sometimes overt pointers, such as a book about icon painting or the model of a church in the hand of a character). In fact, even if that was the case, the Old Russian traditions were refracted through Henri Matisse's take on the icon in his "Red Room" and other pieces. But this is not so important either. What matters more is the world outlook. In "Female Students" the state of enlightenment, closeness to the beginnings, etc. Still has a situational explanation: the female students have got together at the right time in the right place to talk about things beautiful. Later Sitnikov would cast away situational explanations, as well as the specifics of time, place and action. "My Guests" is nothing but a declaration of the possibility of existence of a beautiful, aesthetically distinct world that has inwardly shut itself off from the actual world, whether it is a politicized world or a down-to-earth world or a theatralized world.

Here I would want to focus on the creative relationship between Sitnikov and the artist Olga Bulgakova – his wife, like-minded companion, and often the artist's sitter. Formally, Sitnikov was not Bulgakova's teacher, although at the first stage he undoubtedly influenced the evolution of her world perception and appreciation of art. His "Female Students" appeared a bit earlier than her pieces addressing a similar subject of aesthetically distinct Arcadian world. The two artists built a mutual artistic understanding so great that they started addressing certain themes nearly concurrently. One would not call it co-authorship, especially as each one of the couple has a recognizable and distinct visual style, and yet, they do have something in common. This something includes not only the possibility, but also the necessity of existence of the world described above. And – the farther in, the more – with the connotations of danger, the need to protect this world. This approach was later to become a thematic focus of Bulgakova's piece "Family", where she, her artist husband and even artist daughter are represented as if mounting an all-out defense.

But let's return to this early world of Sitnikov, the world which is yet unaware of crises and dangers. In this hallucinatory world, where girls graceful as giraffes walked (actually, the African component was not very much noticed, although to me it seems obvious), the categories of unity of style did not work (the artist articulates in the very texture of his painting style that his art is woven from miscellaneous stylistic threads). Nor did it make any sense to look for motivations behind actions or for any narrative plot. This world was created to a different design. In point of fact, Sitnikov externalizes a state of mind. Addressing states of mind for the purpose of artistic effect is something long abandoned by Soviet art (Ideological effects extraneous to art are a different matter: in the 1930s socialist realism was able to carry a potent charge of the sacral that mortified and transformed consciousness, but it is a different thing.) Although it is not something novel for Russian culture. In the '70s they liked to look to traditions, although stylistic factor was reckoned with before all. Not the factor of world perception or a tradition of vision. Sitnikov apparently looked to the experience of symbolists. The symbolist vision.

As the researcher Alexander Etkind writes, "symbolism used as a material for acts of creation deep levels and altered states of consciousness, which previously were as though left out of culture: dream, meditation, narcotics-induced states, hypnotic and protological states". We will not go so far; we will just point out that the young artist made a state of mind itself a material for art. That was quite a lot. Even an art critic so perceptive as Anna Yagodovskaya was confused when she correctly grasped the strategy of addressing mental dimensions typical for the '70s artists (and Sitnikov was a key figure of the generation): "the artist estranges from himself, externalizes his vision of the world, speaking about his perceptions and not about himself. Looking at these instances of dreamy visionariness, you can fathom what the painter dreams about but not what his personality is like". (See "Sovetskaya zhivopis" (Soviet painting, #7, M., 1986, p.176). This paradoxical separation of the artist from "his dreams" is very telling. It belies before all the understandable fears of the older generation, who knew that manipulations with consciousness were the prerogative of the state.

Sitnikov, however, felt very much in his element in his hallucinatory and yet tangible Arcadia, introducing new characters there. As it seems, the red bull first made his appearance (or entrenched himself as naturally as possible) in 1977 in "Walk". The bull would become the backbone of Sitnikov's visual dramaturgy in the '70s - '80s. But back then there was no dramaturgy – there was an Arcadian world, where a bull was quietly walking among beautiful girls amidst pristine nature.

I do not know about the bull's origin in Sitnikov's individual mythology. Undoubtedly his appearance was not unrelated to the classic mythological tradition and the Russian version of its visualization – Valentin Serov's "The Rape of Europe". Yet another symbolist influence, also of Russian provenance, comes from Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin's "Bathing of the Red Horse". One is led to believe that Sitnikov has been affected by Franz Marc with his color symbolism and the powerful "animalistic" and specifically "bullish" metaphors. Anyway, in some of Sitnikov's "Bulls" I see an astonishing counterpart to what can be called Marc's transcendental animalism – the ability to transpose an animal's image to a cosmic world through the arrangements of color and form. For Marc and for expressionists in general the bull was a universal cultural archetype, a carrier of the notion of "force" according to Nietzsche. More than once it has been pointed out that expressionists interpreted the bull as a cultural archetype in the same vein as Friedrich Nietzsche. The bull, according to Nietzsche (Deleuze G. Nietzsche et la philosophie. P.U.F.P., 1962) is "the animal which relieves of burden and asserts life". And further, "Dionysus-the-bull… is an asserting will: he does not drag anything, has no burden, but disencumbers all things living. He is Lightness itself…"

And of course Sitnikov could not have ignored Picasso. At this point I would rather not dwell on the significance of the Picasso myth for Soviet artists of the post-WWII generations. For the officialdom Picasso, to paraphrase one of the American presidents, was "sonofabitch, but he was our sonofabitch": his PR services, to use a modern phrase, to the Communist movement outweighed the fact that for the officialdom Picasso's aesthetics was the same as a red rag for a bull. For artists who were even minimally knowledgeable, Picasso was, to use a modern phrase again, an undoubted cultural hero. And for Sitnikov's generation, the significance of Picasso was, among other things, centered in a specific area – his relationship with cultural codes. As is well known, the '70s artists were fixated on sorting out their relationship to traditions and the primary sources, and they were assisted in that by the enlightened critics, who became skilled in identifying and decrypting reminiscences, allusions and references. Picasso, to the contrary, demonstrated an altogether new and organic pattern of relationship with cultural archetypes. In the language of Claude Lévi-Strauss cultural anthropology that was an aspiration to have "the inner comprehension (autochthonous or at least of an observer with autochthonous experience) translated into the terms of external comprehension" (Claude Lévi-Strauss. The Way of the Masks (La Voie des Masques. M., Respublika, 2000, p.8). In the language of sociological research this is called involvement or immersion. So, Picasso's unbookish lively involvement, his propensity to easily fall in love, to the extent of sexual connotations, with the stuff of culture (and his endless pictures of tauromachy, "Toros and Toreros", not to mention the artist's never-ending obsession with the image of Minotaur provide a perfect example of this) were a source of magnetic attraction for the '70s generation. Sitnikov could not have escaped the charm either. He saw bulls as living creatures if any man did.

But let's return to "Walk", one of the first appearances of Sitnikov's bull. Here the bull – as Nietzsche said – indeed is lightness itself. "Burdened with nothing", he lives in his Arcadia, where, indeed, he "relieves of burden all things living", including, one would assume, the lives of the beautiful girls by his side. But this is just the beginning.

Red is the colour of Sitnikov's bull. In all inflections of the tonality and color intensity. (And only later the bull dying and running out of life would become white. Only his hoofs would remain red). Perhaps the colour itself guided the artist: red is the colour of fire, of sweeping changes. Gaston Bachelard in "Psychoanalysis of Fire" wrote this: "If all that changes slowly may be explained by life, all that changes quickly is explained by fire, which is the ultra-living element… Among all phenomena, it is really the only one to which there can be so definitely attributed the opposing values of good and evil. It shines in Paradise. It burns in Hell. It is gentleness and torture. It is cookery and it is apocalypse". Perhaps the metaphorical evolution of red causes the metamorphoses of the bull: quiet and domesticated in the idyll of the "Walk", in the "Triumph of Red Bull" he appears triumphant and oppressive. From a creature who tames and tramples upon he turns into a creature being tamed and suffering (several versions of the "Taming"). There are quite many similar metamorphoses. But what is really interesting is this: Sitnikov's bull – either suffering himself or causing a suffering – is always alive. People, like in the 1980's "Taming", can be "mechanical", marionette-like. But never the bull. Even when his image is represented emblematically quite in the modernist vein (the "Red Bull", 1980 - 93). Red is live when "carried" by other creatures too. In the "Wounded Rooster" (1979) red is carried by a mauled red rooster. Overall, this piece was very important for the development of Sitnikov’s individual mythology. This mythology undoubtedly has a literary-cultural layer ("Holding a rooster, to come to a fortune-teller by night…" – Ossip Mandelshtam). But what is most essential is the powerful current of individual world outlook, the dramaturgy defined by the artist's inner evolution. The women in poses of keenly anguished mourners are the same lovely characters, once serene and aloofly beautiful, that populated "Beautiful girls" and
"Walks". Now they are irrevocably drawn into a drama. Soon these girls would be painted in red, becoming mourners and victims – in the "Feast of Predators" and "Processions". The subject of things living emerges as a common theme for Sitnikov's pieces – a subject highly important for Russian culture, addressed by Velimir Khlebnikov long ago: "I see equine freedoms and equality of cows". In a word, mythological animals and people have the same blood type. (In his "Healing of Animals" this motif is brought up to the narrative plane: bulls and other mythological creatures reach for the udder of the symbolical woman-mother). And life, at that, transpires under dramatic circumstances. People and animals perish together as well – defeated by the forces of evil. In Sitnikov's mythology the eschatological had at the beginning historical-cultural connotations. In particular, he views the subject of catastrophe and destruction "through the prism" of Spanish themes ("Oh how sad is your day, Granada"). Spanish paintings are perceived as the highest boiling point of intense passions; the mythology of Federico Garcia Lorca's life and art is yet another "piece of glass" in this vision. (Interestingly, nearly at the same time Andrei Mylnikov in his "Spanish Triptych" attempted to look at certain existential situations "through" Lorca and "through" Spain. This piece bespeaks the sentiments of the time: "borrowed air" was felt even by a venerable academician whose use of alien cultural codes was obviously compensatory). Later, beginning from "Feast of Predators" (perhaps the title itself, not to mention the content, contains an allusion to Solzhenitsyn's "Feast of Victors", then soundly prohibited), an autobiographical strain started to surface more and more clearly. The mythology was becoming increasingly individualized existentially: signals from the outside started to pervade ever more forcefully the artistic reality and the artist's mind. Those were signals of danger. In "Feast of Predators" wild animals – recognizable or, at least, zoomorphous – prevail (they are alive, the vitality of the red colour passes to them), and so do chimeras driven away from the consciousness. Everything that the artist holds dear perishes, and first of all the noble bull – he is bled white and "plugged off" from the earthly and cosmic energies that nourished him. The woman, a Sitnikov's traditional figure of mourner and protectress, is bent as if her spinal column is broken: she is still in red, but the colour appears to be chemically dissolving and losing its distinctness. Art, represented with its traditional attributes, is trampled underfoot too: the palette is knocked over, a theatre mask is thrown down and stained with paint, and a toppled torso sculpture seems to be suffering as a live body.

I have already written about a rare mutual understanding between Alexander Sitnikov and Olga Bulgakova: they have been confronting many challenges, aesthetical and reality-based, as challenges for them both. And the challenges were becoming greater. On the one hand, the era saw the continuation of the late Soviet crisis with the inevitable collapse of the system of social values and conventions. Finally, the political regime collapsed entirely, releasing in its wake the energies that obviously did not match the ethical values of the couple. There were also purely artistic problems based on social reversals. The crisis of the traditional figurative painting, a decline of public interest to author's individual mythologies, a collapse of artistic intuitions which the artists were raised on, changes in the conventions of the High and the Low induced by the more radicalized avant-garde trends, and demands for self-sufficing topicality, also generated by the avant-garde – all this greatly distressed the couple of artists, "rocking their easels" in the literal sense. Their reactions to the challenge of the time were similar – it consisted in theatralized social grotesque. It seems that the like-minded artists share even iconography: all these punks' buffooning and milling around are practically identical in Bulgakova's "Representations" and "Dwarfs" and in Sitnikov's "Demos". And the piece "Sinful Judgment" (1986) combines both typically Sitnikovian strains and traits shared by Sitnikov and Bulgakova. All things "quintessentially Sitnikovian" fill the space of the painting: bulls, minotaurs, characters from some fairy tales. Marshaled as if for execution by shooting, they defend themselves against external forces. The characters in the center shield themselves with a palette – a gesture naïve and touching from the point of view of self-protection, but important and meaningful for Sitnikov's individual mythology and ethics. That reminds us of the characters of Bulgakova's triptych "Family" (1983), where wife, husband, and daughter – all of them artists – hold the attributes of their art exactly in the same way, like shields, like armour, defending themselves against dangers from the outside…

(By the way, the reaction from the outside, interference with the private affair of art would continue to affect Sitnikov much later, when the storm and stress of the great post-Soviet swing-round would have calmed down. I am talking about the 1996 piece "Artist and Critic", marked by a completely different poetics and technique. Artist and Critic are mimetically reduced figures of the same type, made to look alike. Only Critic is marked by Soviet-style stars, and has something resembling a photo lens instead of eyes, and a dark aperture instead of heart. And Artist has a live eye, and his heart is where it should be. But on the whole, if I may repeat, the figures are represented as similar to each other, and besides, they play the piano with their four hands. Or is it really four? Or maybe Critic, who has taken his seat close to Artist, gradually edges him out, taking the sole hold of the keyboard? Or do we have here an instance of doubles? Perhaps these connotations are present too. But one is led to believe that the main idea is simpler and, alas, more typical for our Soviet and post-Soviet culture: Sitnikov creates an image of the instance when art's arms are twisted.)

The theme of armour is intentionally mentioned here. No, Sitnikov does not "objectify" the subject of armour, there is no need for this. This appears to be a matter of form – the form is becoming increasingly estranged, distinguished by chilly perfection, and impervious. As a matter of course, the practices of reduction and geometrization at the core of this shape creation originate from a particular world perception. Previously the artist aspired to draw the spectator into the states of his mind – hallucinatory, dreamlike, stamped with the author's individual mythology. The times of Arcadia are gone. What is important now to the artist is keeping a distance.

Sitnikov's inclination to geometrize forms was already noticeable in his "Taming": two tamers, made to look like marionettes, and the tamed bull, who is being reined in, form a nearly regular geometric figure. In the "Demos" the figures of the "mob" are mannequin-like and mechanistic like in an old ballet mécanique performance of the '20s.
But it was in Sitnikov's "Concert" (1994) that geometry prevailed completely: a reduced human figure itself is represented as an agglomerate of complex geometrical shapes, and what is more, geometrical planes and their projections cut the space into regular-shaped fragments. What does this piece mean? I think that Sitnikov here visualizes once again a banal metaphor – "to deliver oneself up to music completely". But what music, precisely? Perhaps Sitnikov kept in mind classical music with its well-developed structural underpinnings that establish a tonality. If so, then the listener is shown under the influence of disciplining, constructive, "regular" structures which overpower and even "break" but eventually elevate him on the wings of harmony. However, because the language of this piece is so expressionist-like, I tend to think that the artist visualizes atonal music. Triumph of dissonance and fragmentation of artistic brainwork in dodecaphony explain the piece's flurried, broken imagery, which seems to be charged with electricity. Sitnikov's relief "Schnittke. Concert", accomplished much later, in 2000 - 2006, indicates that the artist's interest to music is not a fleeting one. This piece is purposefully designed to reveal the foundations of the great musician's poetics, which he himself termed polystylism – an affirmation and, at the same time, subversion of the canon. Juxtapositions of the cross and the bell – an allusion to the classic themes of European symphonic dramaturgy, the contrasts between the linear geometry and the smooth, fluid curves – remind of the eternal problem of proving harmony by algebra. However, the sharp screw-shaped blade at the center of the composition is the sign of new musical consciousness able to "digest" any sources and to create an emotional drive extreme for the entire history of music.

We have mentioned earlier the practices of reduction and geometrization which, beginning from the mid-1990s, were rooted in Sitnikov's world outlook. They became, in fact, instruments that built a state of alienation and distance. Most consistently these instruments were used in a series of collages "Native Tongue", created over many years. The title itself emphasizes the linguistic, textual aspect. And indeed, it appears at the beginning that the artist deconstructs Soviet ideological texts, especially as he frequently uses the Soviet "symbols and emblems": fragments of slogans, stars, sickles, hammers, iron grids, flagpoles, loafs of bread, etc. However, I do not think that Sitnikov's purpose was to deconstruct Soviet mythologies, or parody them, or denounce them by means of language or play, as sots-artists did. He did not aspire to paradox or exposé – he is not very strong at those. Besides, he is obviously unskilled at playing with ideology as a text. His interest is not focused on things Soviet as such or exposé of things Soviet. Rather, he is interested in distancing from things Soviet. "Peruse coolly" – this is perhaps Sitnikov's stance. He carries it through very consistently. Both by the methods described above and by a new one. I would define the new one as a dynamics of distancing. Sitnikov quite obviously references El Lissitzky's "prouns". But what is noteworthy is that the proun attacked the spectator as if from above, from the positions of what can be called ideological globalism, as befitted visual propaganda. Its vector was directed downward from above. In Sitnikov's art, the other way round. Directed outside, his shape creation is a gesture of repulse, brush-off, rejection… A geometrical shape gets permanently fixed on a plane; an object (usually marked with a Soviet symbol) is plunked on it, then another one on top, and then again comes the turn of a geometrized plane. The shapes are fitted into each other without a wrinkle: nothing juts out, nothing disturbs the smoothness of the fluid lineaments.

All this has several denotations. First, as has been said already, is a distance, estrangement from things Soviet. But there is also another equally important message. The shapes of Sitnikov's collage-cum-objects are simplified, geometrized and streamlined. This is a kind of hermetically sealed encasement containing Soviet stuffing. In a word, his aggressiveness is neutralized by this encasement. Together with the metaphor of rejection it conveys that Soviet ideology in a safe capsule is sent away to some other worlds. For instance, to a museum world, where it will quietly live in a hermetically sealed glass case. Or to a linguistic world, where it will remain a figure of speech (keep in mind the title of the series – "Native Tongue"…). Or to a world of home decor…

Sitnikov's collage series, with its interaction of different dimensions of representation – from objectification of objects in found objects to symbolic/emblematic representation – prepared him for a radical step – departure from mimetics. Of course the transition to the zone of the non-representational was the issue of the author's personal quest and anxieties: he has always been concerned with positioning and topography. And now he has discovered it is possible for him to adopt a position, to use Paul Klee's words, "behind the nature's back". The series called "Instincts", especially "#1", paradoxically overcomes the viewer with a powerful sensation of natural force, vitality, blooming self-sufficiency, which distinguished Sitnikov's first pictures of bulls. The mimetic, the exterior copying is gone, but the sense of the corporal remains, and its rhythms guide the artist's hand. (I have already quoted the philosopher Valery Podoroga's idea, which can be used to explain this series extremely well: "…Vision is revealed not through speech, but through writing, more precisely, through the hand that carefully draws the letters to the special rhythms of corporal feeling".)

In parallel to the "Instincts", Sitnikov has been working on another multiyear series – "Pictroglyphs". The artist, in spite of his extensive practice in ideography (something similar to it can be found in his earliest pieces, and in his collages as well, where he abundantly used "the gestures of letters"), felt that he was to some extent a neophyte in abstraction, that is an artist free from the inertia of style. In abstraction, he was looking for something more that a manner of vision to use after departure from representation. It appears that he felt more inclined to approach abstraction as a metaphysical practice – the inclination which was long ago noticed by Clement Greenberg in the works of the pioneers of abstract expressionism, but somehow lost by the later emulators. Anyway, Sitnikov needed some spiritual substance to the method. Accrual of this substance. And the new experience held out promises of this accrual.

Sitnikov's abstractions exist in the form of some color-and-shape hieroglyphs. Sure, he has not been cognizant of the significative aspect of hieroglyphic script, nor does it interest him in this case. The "body" of the hieroglyphs of his own making resonates with his individual aspirations and the energies of the gestures. Sure, there is also homage to the traditional Far East calligraphy. I believe that Sitnikov's attraction to the calligraphy was inspired by its pantheistic underpinnings, its non-distinctness of the artist's position in the world, non-centeredness of this position. Actually, this is what Paul Klee's topology is about. This stance is based also on Sitnikov's individual experience of self-positioning in the world, as well as his dissatisfaction with this experience. But what is interesting is that in some pieces of the series the classic hieroglyphic dance with its freedom of touch, lucidity and, most importantly, spirituality, disappears. This is not the refined Far East art, but something different, archaic, originating from pre-historic times. Sitnikov's pictography assumes corporality and details; the signs-cum-pictures accrete the flesh of the mimetic to the extent that they become recognizable, gain "resemblance". Besides, Sitnikov stamps the space of his "pictroglyphs" with some sequences of figures and signs which are obviously of modern origin.

This does not mean that he proposes to decrypt the message or assumes that it would be decrypted. This is nothing but a semantic noise. But in the artist's mind this semantic noise, to use Alexander Pushkin's words, is a dark trace with a rich potential for discoveries. Provided, of course, that artist continues asking questions. And Sitnikov does.

Alexander Borovsky

head of the Department of Modern Art State Russian Museum, St.Petersburg