Russian Sculptor Finds Fame Elusive

In his native country, Ernst Neizvestny became well known after an encounter with Khrushchev; he now seeks exposure in the United States

Sergei Khrushchev, the Soviet premier's son, asked around after his father's death for the country's best sculptor to undertake a tombstone monument.

His friends all repeated one name: Ernst Neizvestny, the very man who had publicly sparred with Nikita Khrushchev over modern art. Mr. Neizvestny constructed two interconnecting slabs of marble, one light and one dark to symbolize the good and evil in Khrushchev's character, all topped with a bust of the ousted leader who died in 1971.

``I like what he did,'' says Sergei Khrushchev, who now lives in Providence, R.I. ``All of us, you know, have our bright and dark sides.''

Five years later in 1977, Neizvestny, the preeminent Soviet sculptor of his generation, moved to New York where he has prospered financially, but he has not recaptured the recognition he had in the USSR.

``It is a shame; I would like to be more famous,'' Neizvestny said in his SoHo studio, which is cluttered with modern sculptures and paintings.

By his own account, Neizvestny has gained only limited fame in the United States because he prefers working to the party circuit where he can spread his name. He also says his art - from massive public sculptures such as a 100-meter (328-foot) monument atop the Aswan Dam in Egypt to surrealistic paintings - has attracted a limited audience because he does not follow the latest trends.

``I don't care what others say, even if I respect them,'' he says. ``I can show you the work I did under Stalin and what I'm now doing, and it's practically the same. I don't change, although I do develop.''

``The shortcoming of some Russian artists is that after arriving to the West they change their style, and they are now in poverty,'' he adds, speaking in Russian and seated in the most Russian of gathering places, his studio kitchen. ``But what is in fashion changes very quickly.''

Neizvestny has maintained enough of a following to afford a SoHo studio, a Park Avenue apartment, and a country house with a massive sculpture studio.

Neizvestny fared better than many of his counterparts, who thrived as underground artists in the Soviet Union but languished after coming to the US, where Americans found their work blase.

``It's the context that's really important,'' says Marian Burleigh-Motley, an expert on Russian art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. ``Here it looks less impressive than when one sees it in Russia.''

Sarah Burke, a professor of Slavic languages at Trinity College in San Antonio adds: ``Most of the artists came here and lost their political appeal, and they're clueless about how to market themselves.''

Looking back on his two decades in the US, Neizvestny acknowledges that traditional Russian suspicions hurt the promotion of his art.

``I refused many contracts with big galleries because I was afraid that they would exploit my work,'' says the artist, who wears a pencil-thin moustache and a silver chain bracelet. ``I was so tired of Communism's restrictions that I was afraid of such restrictions from capitalism.''

That was probably a mistake, he says now, one he would like to correct by finding a major gallery or museum to display his hundreds of bronze sculptures and thousands of paintings. That quest and his love for his new homeland keeps him in the US, even though both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin have invited him to return to Russia.

Neizvestny got a head start in establishing his name thanks to a December 1962 encounter with Khrushchev when the Soviet premier visited a modern art exhibition near the Kremlin. Khrushchev derided the art in earthy language.

Neizvestny, so the legend goes, spoke up: ``You may be premier and chairman but not here in front of my works. Here I am premier, and we shall discuss as equals.''

Art critics say that since leaving Russia, Neizvestny's work has never received such prominence.

``He used to be a very famous dissident, and that's why his name came into the chronicles of Russian art,'' says Margarita Tupitsyn, an independent curator and critic in New York City. ``Very few people who were important there have really made it here.''

The World War II veteran still actively creates new work, altering sketches and basic ideas as he sculpts.

His dream is to cast what he calls a ``Tree of Life,'' a massive orb of smaller sculptures representing various aspects of life. This dream may be partially realized if he can find $300,000 to erect a 50-meter (164-foot) version outside the United Nations, hopefully in time for the UN's 50th birthday next year.

Neizvestny still hopes to erect an even larger version of the tree, an explosion of metal images over an urban landscape, yet he realizes this is unlikely to happen.

``The modern world is skeptical of heroic pretensions,'' he says. If the ``Tree of Life'' is never built ``it will be a tragedy, but I'm not the first to [have] such a fate. It also happened to Michelangelo.''

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