Zimmerli Exhibit Sheds Light on Nonconformist Movement in Soviet Union

Art entertains, inspires, teaches and, as a new exhibition at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick demonstrates, art helps create change. The work of one of the most significant Soviet nonconformist artists, Leonid Sokov, is now on display at the Zimmerli until July 14. Sokov’s work is imaginative and often humorous and colorful.

“Our Soviet nonconformist artist which was given to us by the Dodges is the largest collection of its kind in the world. One of the reason that the Dodges collected this material is because they were so taken when they went to Russia during the Cold War period, that there were these artists that were really risking their lives with great courage to really express their own feelings, so this is really a testament to freedom of expression,” said Director of Zimmerli Art Museum Suzanne Delehanty.


“I think the Nonconformist Movement, this underground movement, was one of the essential components that put an end to the Soviet system because it shattered the system from within, from the inside,” said Associate Curator for Russian and Soviet Nonconformist Art Julia Tulovsky.

The Zimmerli’s new Ironic Objects Exhibition combines this collection with 40 additional works by Sokov, making this show at age 70 and after more than 20 years in the U.S., his first major American exhibition.

Sokov is one of the most significant Soviet nonconformist artists — those who deviated from the mandated style of Soviet realism in the period after Stalin’s death in 1953 until the late 80s.

“Sokov is the artist who works with popular symbols. For example he combines Josef Stalin and Marilyn Monroe,” Tulovsky said. “He was among the artists that were called nonconformists and those artists did not conform to the government restrictions on art.”

Sokov’s work was kept underground to avoid repercussions from the Soviet government.

“But I would have definitely had to face some consequences like having my studio taken away or having my materials diminished,” Sokov said.

But, while works by Sokov and artists like him did inspire change, that wasn’t their sole purpose.

“I made these works to speak to my situation and the situation in which they were made, that is the Soviet Union and Russia today, and I don’t consider myself a political artist and that’s a fact that I’m very willing to admit,” Sokov said.

The Zimmerli sees this not only as an artistic achievement but also as a window into history.

“I think one of the things that is so magical about art museums is I think you just learn in different ways,” said Delehanty. “There are things in this exhibition that mean you have to go back and learn more about the Cold War era, you have to learn more about diplomacy in the 20th century.”

In the end though, it’s all about the art.

“Well they had this creative drive, they had the ideas that they wanted to express, and they expressed them,” said Tulovsky.

“I’m an artist and I wanted to do what I wanted to do at the time,” Sokov said.

Madeline Orton reports from New Brunswick.