To the Soviet public Mikhail Koulakov belongs to that strange phenomenon commonly known as the "phantom artist. " Indeed, his drawings were reproduced in newspapers and his paintings appeared briefly in a few group exhibitions. In intellectual circles, primarily in Leningrad, he enjoyed a certain fame, while however it seemed that the artist did not really exist. He was not cited by the critics, and the general public never had the opportunity of seeing his paintings included in the vast number of official exhibitions, much less in one-man exhibitions. The artist existed but he was never seen, especially after his departure for Italy in 1976.

The same destiny befell many "non-conformist" artists such as Kabakov, Bulatov, Rabin. It is incorrect to speak of integrity and validity of the artistic process when an entire segment is excluded; indeed, no living being which is mutilated can aspire to a healthy development. About the late 1980s the so-called "phantom art" began to be replaced by an art which sought its own directions and investigations. Having surpassed the period of prohibition, it remains the responsibility of the work of art itself to define "who's who" in art according to individual style.

The work of Mikhail Koulakov is still seeking a place in the artistic life of the country. Thus, this retrospective exhibition is not only a first encounter with something already known, but in a certain sense it represents the completion of the general panorama of the art of our time.

One of Koulakov's unique traits has always been a perseverance and consistency of artistic investigation. Each step in the creation of form is pondered, considered and deeply felt, and his spontaneity can be seen as an unexpected action in an otherwise rigorous system of figuration, rather than just the result of chance enlightenment. For Koulakov the artistic experience of other painters (he often cites Pollock, Tobey and ancient Russian art) never results in reinterpretation or imitation, but rather serves as a pretext to affirm his own independent thought. For this very reason perhaps already in its "phantom" existence the art of Koulakov was not intended as an unrestrained polemic as an end in itself, but as a personal interior meditation where the "artistic form" meant "essence of life. " This type of meditative art usually makes the life of an artist difficult; it leads to isolation, but at the same time it lends a philosophical depth to the work.

Koulakov himself divides his artistic activity into three main periods, each connected to a particular geographical area and to an artistic vocabulary: Moscow, Leningrad and Rome. Each period is distinguished from the others by one small detail, leaving unaltered the continuity of his figurative solutions and in particular his relationship to form. Early in his career the artist chose the Informel as his means of expression, exploiting the dynamic gesture, the spontaneous movement of the brush, and the unpredictable results obtained by the fluidity of the paint. However, his art was never like Pollock's "action painting. " The pictorial structure of Koulakov's works is always more rigid, the relationship between the color fields is rigorously calculated, the construction is controlled more by the movement of thought than by the spontaneous movement of the brush. And this leads to an appreciation of the subject, in particular in his early works, where the Informel coexists with figures and objects, blending them into an abstract composition.

With the passing of time the Informel takes precedence and the color fields blend in harmony with the plastic forms, both in the two-dimensional works and in the three-dimensional panel constructions (these polychrome structures, somewhere between sculpture and painting, appear with increasing frequency in the art of Koulakov). The pictorial value of the works varies according to the artist's preferences, at times reflecting the chromatic violence of Pollock or the rigorous stroke of oriental art, while the nature of the paintings changes very little. The composition is characterized by a rich color, often thickly applied, which creates a rhythmic passage from one emotionally charged zone to another even more intense one.

However, it is neither the chromatic value nor unique composition of Koulakov's paintings which makes them an autonomous whole. His works have something which at first sight does not appear to be so important, but which gradually moves into the foreground to reveal the rich imagery of the artist's world.

Already in his earliest works Koulakov tended to destroy the two-dimensional surface. The buildup of the chromatic layers, the use of bitumen, plaster and nitroenamels applied layer upon layer, created a sort of relief. The image was formed on the surface and then projected into three-dimensional space. This new representation of pictorial space led Koulakov to the creation of multi-paneled painting/constructions which took possession of the surrounding space, including that of the spectator, forming a type of microcosm. These constructions do not improve on nature but rather transform it into a personal, fantastic and uniquely dynamic world of colors and spatial confusion - a world of objects and not of illusion.

With the growth of a new and purely pictorial space that assumes increasingly significant dimensions, Koulakov's artistic conception itself changes. These Informel paintings, these spatial constructions, seem to create a wall that confines the artist to his own personal world. He wanders in these extra-terrestrial constructions (it is not by chance that one of these works is entitled Martian), listening to the pictorial language known only to him, suffering or enjoying the flux and flames of color, but he is not ready to destroy this marvelous and agonized solitude which comes from creating.

It is difficult to say whether this is a gift or a damnation. But it is the destiny consciously chosen by the artist and the road is not easy. The exhibtion of Koulakov's works will undoubtedly have a great effect both as an artistic Phenomenon and as an act of cultural justice so necessary to our era.