Last Call for an Artist Who Uniquely Raised the Bar

Deborah Enten and Stefan Sullivan, right, are among those toasting the life and art of painter  --  and certified character  --  Alexandr
Deborah Enten and Stefan Sullivan, right, are among those toasting the life and art of painter -- and certified character -- Alexandr "Sasha" Zhdanov last night at Madam's Organ. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 25, 2006

He was bar regulars Norm, Cliff and Frasier all in one, and Madam's Organ, the funky blues dive in Adams Morgan, was his Cheers.

Last night Alexandr "Sasha" Zhdanov, the Soviet exile artist, got his longtime wish -- a big exhibition of his work at his favorite saloon. The walls at Madam's Organ were covered with white dropcloths. Zhdanov's paintings, most of them abstracts, were hung. "Bye, Bye Blackbird" by John Coltrane and Miles Davis played in the background.

It was a fitting last toast -- Zhdanov died last week at age 68 -- to one of the city's most reliable barflies.

"He was a character, that's for sure," said Madam's Organ owner Bill Duggan, who organized last night's event. Zhdanov had been coming to the bar since 1992 and Duggan owns more than 140 of his paintings. "The Sashas of life are too far in between," he said.

The burly, brooding bravado of a man who spoke little English, often rambling about "blah-blah-blah-blah," always delighting and shocking customers with his abstract paintings, will be missed. He sat on the corner stool, a glint in his eye. In his buttoned-up shirts and khakis, paintings rolled under his right arm, he sometimes was waiting on the porch before the bar opened at 5 p.m. and was there when it closed at 2 a.m.

Madam's Organ was "his second home," said his wife, Galina Gerasimova, and "his paintings were his children."

Yet, he would sell a painting for $20, or give it away, or barter it for a bottle of Heineken or two shots of Stoli.

He was a tragicomic personality right out of the pages of Chekhov -- flawed, dynamic, brazenly alive. And often drunk. He was like the Holy Fool, a poignant and vital character in the Russian opera "Boris Godunov," the possibly insane guy who sometimes nails horrible, ugly, modern truths through his art so clearly that you can't help but be amazed. In an unnamed mixed-media collage in red, white and blue, circa 1994, he juxtaposes the photographs of the Kennedys (Jack, Jackie, John Jr. and Carolyn) and the Clintons (Bill and Hillary) and photographs of Diet Pepsi, Nancy Kerrigan, the Virgin Mary and Child, and a woman bending over. It's American iconography, Old Glory put through the wringer.

He knew a few English phrases. "Big exhibition" and "big money" were two; most of the rest were unprintable.

Zhdanov also was a Soviet dissident, an important figure in Russian avant-garde art, a nonconformist who painted abstract expressionist works at a time when the communists deemed them unacceptable, said Mark Kelner of the M. Kelner Gallery at last night's event.

"Sasha was a maverick in Russian art, and prolific as he's been, his work is underappreciated," Kelner said.

He was more than a maverick, he was a rebel. Thrown out of the Grekov Art School in Rostov-on-Don, he nevertheless graduated but was deported from the Soviet Union and settled on North Capitol Street in the late 1980s. Sometimes he even got kicked out of Madam's Organ.

Here's a memory, courtesy of Duggan: After a dinner at the White House last November, at around 10 p.m., the Hungarian prime minister and his wife made their way Madam's Organ. At about the same time, Zhdanov, fresh paintings rolled under his right arm, came over to the bar and approached Duggan, hoping to sell some of his art. Duggan remembered telling Zhdanov a few times: "Not now, Sasha. Not now." To which Zhdanov, he recalled, placed his roll of paintings in front of his crotch and -- well, you can imagine.

"I didn't want to be embarrassed in front of the prime minister. So I ran towards Sasha, gave him some money and sent him home in a cab," Duggan said.

Other memories: The time Zhdanov dressed up as Santa, in a vintage 1950s suit, with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of vodka in the other. "He was Bad Santa before Billy Bob Thornton was Bad Santa," said Mike Ryan, one of the bartenders. The time he danced with a chair for hours, performing with Bob Perilla's Big Hillbilly Bluegrass band.

Sometimes you do want to go where everybody knows your name, and at Madam's Organ, everyone knew Sasha Zhdanov.


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