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Iron Curtain artwork brought in from the cold LIBERATING ART


At the end of the dirt road that runs through the Southern Maryland farm called Cremona sits an early 19th-century farmhouse that looks out over the placid Patuxent River. The owner of the farm, Norton Dodge, a guy with a walrus mustache and a down-to-earth manner, sits in front of the house at an old picnic table talking about his life.

This peaceful scene seems far removed from contemporary art, international politics and smuggling canvases through the Iron Curtain. But in the past 30 years this soft-spoken economist has put together a giant collection of contemporary art from the former Soviet Union. It now numbers some 9,000 pieces by nonconformist artists whose work was condemned by the former Soviet authorities.

In 1991, Mr. Dodge and his wife, Nancy, decided to give the entire collection -- valued at $18 million to $20 million -- to Rutgers University in New Jersey, where it is scheduled to go on display next year.

In recent years some of the artists he collected have emigrated, bringing their works with them, and borders have opened up to allow easier transportation of artworks from East to West. But Mr. Dodge started collecting in the early 1960s, when the KGB watched outsiders closely, and when buying non-conformist art could get you in trouble.

"Norton was one of the first Americans to pay serious attention to underground Soviet art," says Ronald Feldman, a New York art dealer who mounts major shows of contemporary art by artists from the former Soviet Union. "He was way ahead of everybody and took great risks and put in an enormous amount of time and effort. He was brave."

And he wasn't in it for himself, but as a tribute to artists who couldn't help expressing themselves even though their work was condemned in their homeland. "I wanted to show what people could do under such adverse circumstances," Mr. Dodge says. "And how strong the human creative spirit was, and how despite no end of political control and even prison sentences and worse they still couldn't suppress the human spirit."

Since the 1970s, Mr. Dodge has organized shows of works in his collection from New York to Washington to St. Mary's College of Maryland, where he used to teach economics. Now, his gift to Rutgers allows all the world to have access to his collection.

"It's a gigantic collection," says Dennis Cate, director of the Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers, where the collection will be displayed. "In my evaluation of it, in the 21st century when people want to understand the Soviet Union, and specifically in the past 30 years how artists responded to the totalitarian system, this collection will be the means to do that."

Mr. Dodge, 67, began collecting because of a love of art and a profession that allowed him to travel to the Soviet Union when few others could. "I'd been interested in art as a grade-school student. I realized at an early age that I wasn't going to be focused enough and be able to concentrate enough on art that I'd ever make a good artist."

So he became a collector.

As an economist specializing in the Soviet economic system, he began going to the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Entree to non-conformist art circles was difficult, but Mr. Dodge knew the artists must be there. "As more and more literature emerged -- early works by Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak and the underground writers -- I thought if they were doing interesting things in literature and some of the other arts, they must be doing interesting things in painting."

At that time, largely through ignorance, Americans paid little or no attention to such work.

"The dealers weren't showing the art and the critics weren't writing about it, so the museum people weren't going to get interested," says Mr. Dodge. "So the art mechanism that would generate interest really had no way of functioning at that time. So I thought if people who should be doing this aren't doing it, maybe it falls upon an economist like me with an interest in art to try to find some of these artists."

Through a Russian friend of an American friend, Mr. Dodge was introduced to artists, and the world of non-conformist art opened to him.

Some of the artists whose work Mr. Dodge collected, such as Ilya Kabakov and the team of Komar and Melamid, have become successful in the West in recent years, with corresponding rises in their prices. Although Mr. Cate estimates the Dodge collection's current worth at $18 million to $20 million, in the early years of Mr. Dodge's collecting he was able to buy works inexpensively.

"They were a maximum of a few hundred dollars," he recalls. "Many works on paper were $100 or so -- $300 to $400 for major things."

He bought across the spectrum of non-conformist art, and even added some official social realist art to demonstrate the contrast. Among the non-conformists, he found, "In terms of style you had representatives of almost any modern style. . . . There was religious art, which would be anathema to the regime. And then there was surreal art -- a lot of the people were either surrealistic or somewhat surreal in their approach.

"Then you had artists who were doing abstract work, and artists who were doing what was called kinetic art [with moving parts]. And then there was conceptual art, and in that area there would be the so-called Sots Art, the Russian counterpart of pop art, where they would take slogans and images of the Communist hTC Party and convert them into the political equivalent of pop art."

Despite different styles, a common strain ran through the art. "The themes often were rather depressing," Mr. Dodge says.

Moscow and Leningrad were principal centers of non-conformist art, but Mr. Dodge made an effort to include works from other areas, with varying success. "I have a pretty good representation of work done in each of the Baltic states and a fairly good representation of Armenian and Georgian art," he says. "In some areas I never quite was able to make contacts. I was in central Asia quite a bit but never met any non-conformist types there. Nor was I very successful myself in Kiev or Odessa." He has filled in the collection from some areas with works brought out by emigre artists.

Ask Mr. Dodge about the dangers to non-conformist artists, and he's quick to mention those sent away to prison and an acquaintance who died in a fire perhaps set by the KGB. But ask him about danger to himself and he's more reticent.

"Early on I would just roll things up with posters or things like that and carry them out rolled up," he says. "But by the '70s I was in danger of losing things. They began to examine stuff pretty closely. Then I usually would find someone who could get them out for me much more safely than I."

That reticence is typical of the type, Mr. Feldman thinks. "It's like if you spoke to someone who saved people from the Holocaust. They were just doing their thing. That's what he was doing. But you can't do this without great passion."

After he organized a major exhibit of several hundred works in Washington in 1977, Mr. Dodge felt it was better not to continue going to the Soviet Union.

"When I put that exhibit on I knew that my cover, so to speak, would be blown, because people from the [Soviet] embassy came and no doubt took note of everything. So I thought I would wait a little bit for everything to blow over. . . . I could see they were zeroing in on me in a way, developing a fatter and fatter dossier . . .

"Then the Afghan war started, and relations [between the Soviet Union and the United States] were much worse, and each time I was thinking of going back some American had some trouble. So all my collecting now for more than 15 years has been through what emigres have brought out."

But he has always insisted on buying only work that was created in the Soviet Union before glasnost was declared in 1986. Work, in other words, that was done in defiance of the regime.

And he thinks those artists who took the chances of prison or worse to create their work contributed to the coming of freedom in their homeland. "If even one person says the emperor wears no clothes, why, the other people may suddenly realize it. So I think these artists were one of those elements in putting cracks in the monolithic edifice, and ultimately when you add enough cracks the whole thing comes tumbling down."

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