Someone with a greater knack for personal marketing would probably explain my path to Duke and the Nasher Museum as a carefully orchestrated part of a master plan. I, on the other hand, am perfectly content to call it serendipity. When I finished college and entered the work force with that most coveted of degrees, a Bachelor of Arts in Art History and Russian, I quickly discovered a gap in the job market where my skills and knowledge might have come in handy. Unfortunately, this was not a gap that needed filling (say, by me) but instead a simple gap in employment opportunities for a candidate like me. Eventually, I managed to find work in spite of my degree, if not because of it, but—hey—a job’s a job, and recently matriculated beggars with degrees in the humanities can’t be choosers, as the old adage goes.
All of this is to say that I truly couldn’t believe my good fortune when first Duke University and then the Nasher Museum agreed to have me in their fine institutions, as a graduate student in Russian Studies and an intern working with the registrar, respectively. Even more surprising, the Nasher Museum seemed pleased to have me on board. My delight teetered on the brink of suspicion, a byproduct, no doubt, of my studies of Russian literature and culture. As fate would have it (heaven knows, when I applied to graduate school at Duke, I had no idea), the Nasher Museum has a large and impressive collection of Russian and Soviet art, including remarkable works by unofficial Soviet artists (i.e. artists who worked within the Soviet Union but outside of the official Soviet system). Not only would I be working at the Nasher Museum, but I would be working directly with objects I had fallen in love with during the course of my studies!
In this way, working at the Nasher Museum has been an incredibly enriching experience. I’ve benefited immensely from hands-on, behind-the-scenes interactions with works by some of the biggest names in Russian contemporary art as well as with knowledgeable and experienced scholars and museum professionals. Examining paintings by Yuri Albert and Komar and Melamid in total darkness, save for the art conservator’s UV-light, was equal parts really cool and really disorienting.
And then there were the Dabloids (pictured): beneficent, vaguely metaphysical beings with big feet and tiny heads created by Leonid Tishkov, an unofficial artist and trained medical doctor(!). I have spent most of my time at the Nasher helping to sort through and catalogue dozens of pieces by Tishkov, whose multifarious works––ranging in media from painting to sculpture to theatrical performance—were featured in a 1993 exhibition at the erstwhile Duke University Museum of Art. In the process, I’ve riffled through countless documents, unfurled entire football fields’ worth of handmade paper banners, and made the acquaintance of a number of Dabloids, great and small, while wrapping and tagging them for storage.
The history of Russian art—and, in particular, the history of unofficial Soviet art––often feels like a strange and lonely field of study (as though Russian and art history weren’t esoteric enough as discrete disciplines, I’ve seen fit to combine the two). Thanks to my time and experience at the Nasher Museum, I have a renewed and increased enthusiasm for the art and artists I study as well as the reassurance that my passions for art, Russian, and Russian art may not be so useless after all.
Leonid Tishkov, They Took Their Dabloid Away, 1990, pencil and watercolor on paper. 18 x 13 1/2 inches (45.7 x 34.3 cm). Museum purchase. 1993.8.4.