‘Illumination’ is one of the most iconic and exciting works by Oleg Vassiliev ever to be offered at auction. It was acquired directly from Phyllis Kind Gallery in SoHo by the present owners in 1989, together with ‘Black Light’ (lot 13) and ‘First Walk After the Winter’ (lot 15). When Phyllis Kind visited the Soviet Union in 1986 she was introduced to a number of underground artists, which led her to mount a series of important exhibitions in her New York space in the late 1980s including ‘Direct from Moscow’ (1987), ‘Behind the Ironic Curtain’ (1989) and a joint show of Erik Bulatov and Oleg Vassiliev’s work in 1989.
As Robert Storr remarks in his essay ‘An Enlightened Man in a Dark Time and Place’, this generation of avant-garde artists were not aiming to cut the viewer loose from earthly bonds as the Suprematists had done, nor propel him into a new future era as per the Constructivist manifesto; rather they had look for ways to criticize the present from a place outside of it. ‘For Vassiliev, as for Kabakov and Bulatov, that place was in the margins and corners of the Soviet and post-Soviet universe, those margins being found at the edge of a town or the edge of tangible reality and beyond that in the interstices of perfect mathematical forms and fathomless voids’ (quoted in ‘Oleg Vassiliev, Space and Light’, 2014).
In the present work one can just make out the red-star-spangled lights of a Soviet street festival which the central figure is leaving behind to occupy exactly this liminal position ‘at the edge of tangible reality’. The window-shaped forms either side are a recurring feature in Vassiliev’s compositions of this period, and although they are perfectly mathematical, cannot fail to arouse in a viewer some sense of freedom, progress and escape.
Vassiliev was one of several artists selected for the Guggenheim’s landmark exhibition ‘RUSSIA!’ in 2005. His painting ‘Before the Sunset’ achieved a record $940,000 (USD equivalent) in 2008 at Sotheby’s London. A visiting artist fund was established in his name at Yale University School of Art in 2012.
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