Rutgers acquires legendary Dodge collection of Soviet nonconformist art

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

The Zimmerli Art Museum says it now owns the most impressive collection of Soviet nonconformist art from the 1950s to the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. It’s part of a $44 million donation to Rutgers University from Nancy and Norton Dodge.

“This is the largest, but also most prestigious and inclusive collection of Russian nonconformist art anywhere in the world,” said Thomas Sokolowski, director of the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum.

Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid
Stalin in Front of the Mirror, 1982
Tempera and oil on canvas
Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers
Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union
Photo Peter Jacobs

Norton Dodge was an American economics professor. He collected art from the Soviet republics, some that the communist government commissioned and sanctioned, such as an imprisoned artist creating works to support the government instead of doing hard labor. But some are from artists who risked limb, life, and liberty opposing communism and ridiculing rulers — works that could not be publicly displayed. There is a piece called ‘Stalin in Front of the Mirror’

“Stalin pays tribute to himself and at same time he’s looking in the mirror and can see everything that goes on behind his back. So this composition alludes to the situation of surveillance that he executed over the entire country,” said Julie Tulovsky, curator of Russian and Soviet nonconformist art at the Zimmerli.

Another piece with a chilling title is ‘No Exit’.

Rostislav Lebedev
Situation No. 2 (No Exit), 1979
Painted wood construction
Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University
Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union
Photo Peter Jacobs

“Mentally, they don’t have much room to develop. They cannot escape the rules that the party imposed on them,” said Tulovsky.

The Dodges gifted to the Zimmerli 17,300 paintings, sketches, sculptures, and literary pieces and millions more to care for it. They began donating to the Zimmerli in the 1990s after other donors had entrusted their Russian collections to the same museum.

The donation is the largest in the 200-plus history of Rutgers University and the school invites scholars and students to come and study what it was like behind the Iron Curtain.

“Anyone who wants to study this period, it could be art historians, but it could also be social historians, political science people, If they want to come and study this and then go back to the former Eastern Europe or anywhere in the world and write up their books, and do a documentary, etc. they have to come here. So we are the mountain for Muhammad, if you will,” said Director Tom Sokolowski.

The Zimmerli says it will have more rotating exhibits displaying its vast collection of Soviet nonconformist art, works created in a society that wasn’t free, but whose works can now be seen in a museum for free.