Komar and Melamid is an artistic team made up of Russian graphic artists Vitaly Komar (born 1943) and Alexander Melamid (born 1945). In an artists’ statement they said that “Even if only one of us creates some of the projects and works, we usually sign them together. We are not just an artist, we are a movement.” Both artists were born in Moscow and -- being Jewish -- they emigrated to Israel in 1977 and subsequently to New York in 1978.
Komar and Melamid graduated from the Stroganov Institute of Art and Design in 1967; they began working together shortly thereafter. After 36 years they separated in 2003.
Komar & Melamid’s first joint exhibition, Retrospectivism, was held at the Blue Bird Cafe in Moscow, 1967. The following year, they joined the youth section of the Moscow Union of Artists and began teaching art. In 1972, Komar & Melamid founded a movement they called Sots Art, a unique version of Soviet Pop and Conceptual Art that combines the principles of Dadaism and Socialist Realism. In 1973, they were expelled from the Artists’ Union for “distortion of Soviet reality.” In 1974, they were arrested during a performance (in a Moscow apartment) of Art Belongs to the People. Later that year, their Double Self-Portrait (similar to dual portraits of Lenin and Stalin) was destroyed by the Soviet government, along with works by other nonconformist artists, at what became known as the Bulldozer Exhibition (because bulldozers were used to destroy the artwork, which had been displayed in an open-air setting).
In 1976, Komar & Melamid’s work became more widely known. Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, hosted their first international exhibition, but Soviet authorities denied them permission to attend. In 1976, they also made their first attempt at emigrating, but permission was denied. In response, they created their own country, “Trans-State,” complete with passports and a constitution. In 1977, they received permission to join relatives in Israel. In 1978, they moved to New York; in the same month, their first museum exhibition opened at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut.
Throughout the 1970s, Komar & Melamid also worked in a style they called “Post-Art,” pioneering the use of multi-stylistic images, prefiguring the eclectic combination of styles in post-modernism, which became popular in the 1980s. They collaborated on various conceptual projects, ranging from painting and performance to installation, public sculpture, photography, music, and poetry. In one such performance, they established a corporation, Komar & Melamid, Inc., that had as its purpose “the buying and selling of human souls.” They bought several hundred souls, including Andy Warhol’s, which was smuggled into Russia and then sold for 30 rubles.
Melamid moved to New Jersey in 1980. He continued to work with Komar in New York. In 1981, their Portrait of Hitler was slashed by an ex-Trotskyite disc jockey in Brooklyn. They did not repair the work, considering the attacker a co-author.
Ronald Feldman hosted the exhibition Sots Art in 1982, which was a commercial and critical success. In 1983, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased paintings. From 1981-1983, they continued to develop Sots Art in the series Nostalgic Socialist Realism, and from 1984-1990 they further developed Post-Art in the Diary Series, Anarchistic Synthesis Series, and Bayonne, N.J. Series.
Throughout the 1980s, many prominent writers and critics discussed their work, and they were invited to participate in numerous exhibitions. They were the first Russian artists to receive funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. They were also the first Russian artists to be invited to Documenta (Kassel, Germany, 1987).
Komar & Melamid created their first public art sculpture in 1986, a bronze bust of Stalin, which was installed in the red light district of The Hague, the Netherlands. In 1988, they became US citizens. In 1989, a monograph about them, written by Carter Ratcliff, was published by Abbeville Press.
In the early 1990s, Komar & Melamid created two icons for the Holy Rosary Church in Jersey City. In 1992, they began the series, Monumental Propaganda, in response to the destruction of Socialist Realist monuments in Russia. At Komar & Melamid’s invitation, more than 200 Russian and Western artists created projects for the preservation of monuments. Prolific press coverage of the project forestalled destruction of monuments in Russia.
From 1994-1997, the artists worked on the series, People’s Choice, whereby they created the “most wanted” and “least wanted” paintings of various countries based on the results of surveys conducted by professional polling companies. The book, Painting by Numbers: Komar & Melamid’s Scientific Guide to Art, published in 1997, explains the statistical underpinnings of the polling process and provides the results of each country’s preferences. Komar & Melamid used the same process in 1996-1997 in a collaboration with composer Dave Soldier to create The People's Choice Music, consisting of "The Most Wanted Song" (a love song with low male and female vocals, of moderate duration, pitch, and tempo) and "The Most Unwanted Song" (in part: an operatic soprano raps over cowboy music featuring least-wanted instruments bagpipes and tuba).
In 1998, Naked Revolution, an opera about George Washington, Vladimir Lenin and Marcel Duchamp, was created by Komar & Melamid with Dave Soldier and performed at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, and the Kitchen, New York. It became part of the exhibition American Dreams, along with a series of eight paintings, forty collages, and the artists’ collection of George Washington memorabilia.
In 1998, the artists also went to Thailand to teach elephants to paint, resulting in the book, When Elephants Paint: The Quest of Two Russian Artists to Save the Elephants of Thailand. In 2000, Christie's auction house held the first-ever auction of elephant paintings. The revenue generated supported the elephants and their keepers.In 2001, Komar & Melamid began work on their last major project together, Symbols of the Big Bang, first exhibited at the Yeshiva University Museum, Center for Jewish History, New York. Using abstract symbols, the artists explored their spirituality and the connection between mysticism and science. In 2003, they began to turn some of the symbols into stained glass, which Russian authorities refused to exhibit during the Moscow portion of the exhibition, Berlin-Moscow/Moscow-Berlin (2004). Komar & Melamid ceased collaborating in 2003.[1