Koulkov, the Italian Years

To define the complexity of the artistic and cultural universe in which Koulakov acts, critics who have recently reviewed his works produced in Italy - for instance, Crispolti and D'Amico - have emphasized the continuous patterns involving his interest in the East, his links with the ancient figurative tradition in Russia, and his reflections on the methods of informal art and some of its derivatives. But in all this, and in other passages too, it is difficult to find a prevailing element since Koulakov's painting acts rather like a "container" for a wide variety of suggestions; this makes understanding it less immediate and direct than might appear at first. What is certain is that he belongs in every respect to that world of abstract-physical art which, during the course of time, has renewed itself by accepting external stimuli, reworking then through a rigorous internal sense of poetry: the gesture, knot and action are always subordinated to a search for self, to the definition of a mystical space (chiefly, space to think), situated at the apex of the Zen search for self - a discipline that Koulakov has always practised as a complementary activity to painting.

Even though he comes from the same cultural background as Kabakov, Boulatov, Komar and Melamid - whom Crispolti reviewed in preglasnost days in his brilliant series "unofficial prospects" - Koulakov has chosen a different position with respect to the avantgarde realistic-objectivist type. Rather, he is an artistpoet in the sense that the space and time of poetry carry a certain emphasis in his work; he concentrates on the classic nature of pictorial language, the problems posed by the medium of painting, from analysis to formal construction, from the dilution of movement by superimposing decorative patterns to the coded emphasis of his personal calligraphic trademark. Unlike the other ex-soviet avantgarde milieus, Koulakov's field of discussion is not the poetic aspect of reality, the limit of objectivity that takes on an ideological form as it unfolds, but rather his own interior space which he defends with firmness and discretion.

This is the sense that defines the stylistic precision of Koulakov's works from his so-called "Italian years", from 1978 till today, which he himself regards as the "third period" of his artistic commitment. The most interesting formal innovation concerns a new permeability in Koulakov's painting with respect to a landscape that has rather special characteristics - lower Umbria, around the Amelia district, where his art attempts a fresh interpretation of the informal universe by means of direct observation that is more lyrical, more relaxed in terms of space, and more meditative than the surrounding countryside. In other words, he analyzes the prevailing theme of "informal" Europe stirred by the wind of change that came from American action painting in the 1950s. The tangled mass within a brief poetic space as in Wols, and the movement and dripping action in Pollock, become the two main coordinates with which to investigate a gentler style of painting linked to the earth, whose dramatic features are softened by a deep sentiment of nostalgia. Koulakov takes inspiration from Burri's slashed materials, Mafai's experimentalism, and the knotted materials in Leoncillo's sculptures. This important exhibition of Koulakov's works at Moscow's Pushkin Museum provides an occasion for critical reflection on the new features that this artist has introduced in his most recent works. Beginning with "Physical Space" (1976-78) which, against a strong . background of informal Zen, makes one think mainly of Mathieu's rapid calligraphic strokes, where the two styles previously mentioned (European and American) come into contact at a pictorial level which emphasizes the movement of the brush as an immediate and automatic stroke. Or else, in slightly later paintings with the same title, one detects a sort of mysterious code which constitutes a primitive alphabetical system. Here, the key figure is the circle (and we are still within the mainstream of the Zen tradition) which defines the surroundings of a mental space wholly taken up with solitary meditation, against an extended monochromatic background. The most important works painted by Koulakov ten years later all carry oriental titles, such "Tao sign" (1988): here the colours burn brightly, the artist's liberty of expression seems to shake itself free of the image, which is clearly based on informal inspiration. In a certain sense, the painting has an "energetic" three-dimensional quality which both summarizes previous experiences and which returns to multiple stratification in order to weave the narrative warp and weft, overflowing and liberated once again, just as in the case of Joaquim Falco', the young Catalan artist.

As we said at the outset, contact with an extremely well-defined and communicative environment determines the style of painting; this is clearly evident in Koulakov's contemporary pictures such as "Evenings on the outskirts of Moscow" (1988): the painting is more romantic and evocative, and the influence of Italian landscape complicates the informal tradition which, in a sense, he still refers to. The recognition of this debt to Italy is more evident in a work such as "Protuberances" (1988) which shows his interest for multi-materialism; this involves the inclusion of "extraneous objects" from real life to create a fabric that is balanced between human drama at a high level, and the same at a rather more sentimental level. Another moment of extreme concentration in Koulakov's work is evident in his drawings on paper. Again there is the depiction of a free, almost magical space, where the movement of the line becomes one with the author's mark - like a signature or a monogram, which is included like a conventional reference code in his drawings and later paintings.

Finally, there is the renewed problem of moving way beyond two-dimensional painting in his most recent works, for instance the cycle entitled "Seasons" (1990-91), which exemplifies Koulakov's latest approach; that of not displaying pictures in pre-defined spaces, but rather, stimulating and challenging one to observe the painting from different, less conventional points of view.