New York art school Cooper Union has postponed the exhibition “Vkhutemas: Laboratory of the Avant-Garde,” originally scheduled to open on January 25. The Moscow art and architecture school Vkhutemas, considered to be the Russian equivalent of the Bauhaus school, was operational between 1920 and 1930 before being shuttered by Joseph Stalin, who cast it as a breeding ground for “formalism.” Among those who taught there were Aleksandra Ekster, El Lissitzky, Lyubov Popova, Kazimir Malevich, Aleksandr Rodchenkov, and Vladimir Tatlin.
Cooper Union cited Russia’s ongoing unprovoked attack on Ukraine as behind the postponement. However, the delay immediately sparked concern, with a number of artists and architects signing an open letter that read in part, “We stand in full solidarity with the people of Ukraine and all those who oppose Russia’s unjustified and brutal invasion. To conflate the work of an architectural school based in Moscow a century ago (and shut down after just one decade in a wave of cultural and political suppression) with the actions of the Russian regime today, however, represents both a profound misunderstanding of the history of Vkhutemas and a troubling instance of censorship and historical erasure.”
The missive’s writers pointed to the fact that “Vkhutemas was also a multi-ethnic and multinational space, with its members and affiliates coming from all over the Soviet Union, and beyond. Among its many Ukrainian-born faculty and students were Natan Altman, Iosif Chaikov, Olga Deineko, Daniil Fridman, Kazimir Malevich, Anatol Petrytsky, Isaak Rabinovich, David Shterenberg, Aleksandr Shevchenko, Nikolai Sokolov, and Lydia Zholtkevich, to name just a few.”
Among those signing the letter were art historians Claire Bishop, Yve-Alain Bois, Hal Foster, David Joselit, Rosalind Krauss, and Joachim Pissarro; artists Adelita Husni-Bey, Alfredo Jaar, and Amy Sillman; architects Steven Holl, Rem Koolhaas, and Eyal Weizman; and Flavin Judd, who helms the foundation that oversees the legacy of his father, Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd. Among the Cooper Union alumni who signed the letter were David Diao and Devin Kenny.
Haley Eber, Cooper Union’s acting dean, and exhibition committee chair Alexander Tochilovsky in a statement said they had postponed the exhibition in order to take time to assess whether holding it “amidst the present-day conditions” was appropriate. “We are grateful to our colleagues of Ukrainian descent who are helping us to work through this matter as we seek to balance, with accuracy and sensitivity, the scholarly study of architectural history amidst the current atrocities being exacted on the people of Ukraine by the Russian government,” wrote the pair.
Artnews notes that the postponement came in the wake of an op-ed by Peder Anker on the website Archinect in which the New York University professor denounced the exhibition as a form of Russian soft power. Anker initially contended that the exhibition’s curator, Anna Bokov, was affiliated with Russian president Vladimir Putin, but he has since retracted that claim. Anker, whose field of practice is the history of science and environmental philosophy, told Artnews that he still questioned the timing of the exhibition, and that he wanted to bring to light the fact that the “intellectual patronage” of Bhokov’s father, architect Andrey Bokov, allowed his curator daughter to obtain Vkhutemas-related material for the show.
The writers of the open letter urged Cooper Union to establish a “timely date” for the show’s opening, concluding, “This exhibition, which showcases work by former and current Cooper Union students, is an important reminder of the cultural experiments of the interwar years and their lasting legacies that stand in opposition to authoritarianism—both then and now.”
Eber in her statement affirmed that “Cooper Union leadership is continuing to have instructive discussions with our students and faculty, as well as with members of Cooper’s Ukrainian community.”
Update [February 6]: Cooper Union leadership announced that it will mount “Vkhutemas: Laboratory of the Avant-Garde,” in spring 2023. The institution confirmed that the exhibition will be accompanied by expanded programming, and that an opening date will be made public in the coming weeks. The statement, cosigned by Laura Sparks, Hayley Eber, Alexander Tochilovsky, is excerpted below:
On January 25, The Cooper Union made the difficult decision to provisionally postpone the opening of Vkhutemas: Laboratory of the Avant-Garde, 1920-1930 . . . The Cooper Union fielded questions, both privately and publicly, when the exhibition was first announced in early January, with individuals expressing anger over what was perceived as a celebration of Russia’s contribution to architecture and the timing in light of Russia’s ongoing brutal invasion of Ukraine. The groundswell of uncertainty and distress that occurred in advance of the public opening made it clear that more time was needed to listen and assess before moving forward with this presentation.
As a result, over the past two weeks, President Laura Sparks, Acting Dean Hayley Eber, and Exhibitions Committee Chair Alexander Tochilovsky have conducted a series of individual and group discussions with the exhibition’s co-curators, the students who contributed work to the exhibition, the School of Architecture Faculty, and Ukrainian members of The Cooper Union community. Leadership also carefully reviewed letters and fielded outreach from colleagues, peers, and individuals from throughout our community. These conversations have been important and instructive, and have underscored both the significance of this exhibition and the need to frame this work within the broader geopolitical context, both then and now. . .
It is in this spirit that, together with the exhibition’s co-curators, The Cooper Union will open the exhibition later this spring, supported by additional contextualizing material that will provide different frameworks for understanding these issues and the exhibition’s original pedagogical research and intent. The School will also host a series of sessions with Cooper Union students as well as a public roundtable in conjunction with the exhibition’s opening to unpack the multidimensional issues relating to the exhibition and its presentation—including the importance of uncovering a history lost to political suppression and an exploration of how histories can be instrumentalized for political gain today. Details and dates will be shared in the coming weeks as they are finalized.
Thank you to all those who have offered constructive feedback, engaged in critical discourse, and offered suggestions as the School has crafted an approach for moving forward.