One-man rescue mission for Russian avant-garde art

A visit with George Costakis is quite an event - especially if he is in the mood to describe his life in Russia, and most particularly if he is willing to go into detail about how he managed to end up with the world's largest and most definitive privately held collection of Russian avant-garde art of the 1910s and '20s. It's a collection so large that even the loss by theft in the early 1970s of some 1,500 of its watercolors and drawings did not significantly weaken it.

I had, of course, known of Costakis and his collection long before I actually met him at his hotel here. People who had come to know him over the past two decades, and who had seen items from his collection, were full of fascinating stories about the man and the art he had rescued from neglect (and in some instances from oblivion). Other bits of information - as well as wild rumors - had trickled out of Russia since the 1960s. And I had studied the fascinating account, in words and in over 1,100 pictures, of the book ''Russian Avant-Garde Art: The George Costakis Collection'' (New York: Abrams, 1980; $60). And, finally, I had seen the Guggenheim Museum's current 275-work exhibition drawn from his collection.

From all this I knew that Costakis had been born in Russia in 1912 of Greek parents, and that he had lived there as a Greek citizen until 1977. He had begun to collect Russian avant-garde art in 1946 after stumbling upon some of it quite by accident, and collecting it quickly became both an obsession and a sacred mission.

Such determination was essential in the Soviet Union at that time. Most, in fact almost all, avant-garde work was at first difficult to find because of its official suppression from 1932 on. When Costakis did trace it down, he often had a difficult time convincing its owners he was serious about buying such ''junk.'' Even some of the surviving artists had grave doubts about the worth of their art. After long years of being ignored and denounced, they had simply lost faith and confidence in themselves and their accomplishments.

But Costakis persisted, and continued to collect. By the 1960s he was well known internationally for what he had done, and had already made several trips abroad to show and to discuss some of the items from his collection. As a whole, however, the collection was not permitted to leave Russia and was, as a matter of fact, largely ignored in official circles.

By the mid-'70s things had begun to change. Negotiations between Soviet authorities and Costakis in 1977 resulted in an agreement whereby the latter could leave the country with part of his collection if he would give the rest of it to the Soviet people in the form of a bequest to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The authorities also assured him they would exhibit some of the major paintings from the collection - and that they would publicly acknowledge Costakis's gift.

With that settled, and with a large number of works still in his possession, Costakis, his wife, and three of their four children left the Soviet Union to settle, ultimately, in Athens.

I was therefore prepared to meet a man who was, at the moment, pretty much the darling of the art world for having done more than anyone else to rescue the art of Russia's great revolutionary period. I imagined we would talk for a while , that he would give me a personalized version of what I already knew - and that that would be that.

But the meeting turned out to be a delightfully informal session in which he held forth on almost everything, from what had motivated the earliest members of the Russian avant-garde to the quality of Soviet socialist-realist art - he even indicated whom he considered this country's best painters.

My first, strongest, and most lasting impression was that Costakis is passionately involved with his collection and with the artists included in it. Every personal question eventually led back to a particular painter, or to some aspect of the movement. When asked to list his favorites or those artists he felt were the most important, he veered off: Like a parent, he seemed to prefer not to have to pick one ''child'' over another.

With one exception. He showed special respect (and even used a different tone of voice) when speaking of Kazimir Malevich - who is best known in this country for his painting ''White on White'' in the Museum of Modern Art here. Since Costakis frequently describes the avant-garde as an army complete with every rank from general to private, I had the strong impression that in his heart of hearts, Malevich was the commander in chief of this Army of the Russian Avant-Garde and that everyone else ranked in descending order from him. What I found particularly charming, however, was that Costakis seemed as concerned about the lowly and often anonymous ''privates'' and ''corporals'' as he was about the ranking officers. It was the movement and its vision and accomplishments that meant the most to Costakis, not so much its stars.

His passion for collecting often required more of him than merely the payment of money. It meant following leads, unearthing information from friends of friends and from distant relatives of the artists - as well as considerable traveling and arguing.

In one instance, the stepson of Lyubov Popova was using one of Popova's constructions on plywood to close a window! No matter how much Costakis insisted , the stepson refused to let him have the work unless Costakis replaced it with another piece of plywood exactly the same size. Costakis agreed and raced back to Moscow - about 35 miles away - for the replacement. The transaction was completed - with a rather bemused Russian homeowner wondering why anyone would want such a piece of trash.

Costakis several times touched upon the tragedy of those passionately original creators of the avant-garde who, thanks to official intolerance and suppression, as well as public misunderstanding, later tried to forget and even to deny what they had done, or became embittered and lonely. Some switched their talents to the official Soviet art coming into focus with Stalin. While Costakis sees that as a tragedy, he also feels quite strongly that the ''official'' art they produced was often good and true. He feels talent will make itself felt regardless of the form an artist's work takes.

What did he think of American art?

He looked sideways at me and said that I would probably be surprised, but that he thought Andrew Wyeth was one of our very best artists. That did surprise me, coming as it did from a champion of the totally abstract, but he repeated himself and added that, although he didn't really know why, his reactions to Wyeth were highly favorable, that he was an excellent artist - an opinion he also expressed about Mark Tobey.

He said the American division of art in ''fine'' and ''commercial'' (or ''decorative'') has little meaning in Russian, where art is art. Junk - and here his arms swept around the hotel room to include the usual sentimental landscapes and figure studies hotels seem to feel their guests prefer - would simply never be painted in Russia. Not, he added, that there isn't junk in Russia, only that it is not cynically knocked out merely to fill up wall space or to look good over a sofa.

Although willing enough to discuss the art of other places and periods, it was obvious his heart really lay with the Russian avant-garde. Why had such an explosion of originality occurred at that particular time and place? It was a complex matter, he said, but he felt that pride and envy had played a considerable role in it. Russian artists, he said, although talented and proud, were made to feel intolerably inferior by the French and Italian contemporaries. This didn't sit well with them, and before long their envy, frustration, and damaged pride erupted and helped create the energy and focus needed to prove to the world they were equal or superior to everyone else.

Costakis admitted that this doesn't answer the question of talent and originality, but that it does make sense as to motivation. In his opinion, the energies released through suprematism, cubo-futurism, constructivism, etc., were so great and so focused that they had to derive from something more than just a wish for the fulfillment of a vision or an ideal. In other words, the art of the Russian avant-garde was an act of profound emotional as well as cultural necessity.

While shaking hands at the end, he asked what I had thought of the current Guggenheim Museum show of works drawn from his collection. I said I liked it very much but that it would take several more visits before I could assimilate it all - and that I was most impressed by the crowds that seemed to share my enthusiasm for it.

I had been very impressed by this man. I particularly liked the fact that, while he may listen to the advice of others, when it actually comes to buying art he always follows his own inner promptings. He is strongly devoted to certain ideas, forms, and values - and can find them in places others often cannot. He doesn't judge art on externals. And he himself paints - in a colorfully primitive style that bears absolutely no resemblance to the art of the Russian avant-garde.

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