An electric exhibit of modern American art, ranging from Thomas Eakins to Andy Warhol, has opened here at the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum to crowds of intent Russians, many of whom seem most attracted to works showing details of American life.
The exhibit was assembled by Henry Geldzahler, 42-year-old curator of 20th-century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, who has just been chosen commissioner of cultural affairs by Jayor-elect Edward Koch.
The 85 canvases in the show, called "representations of america," bring its Russian audience gently forward in time, from the settled, wonderfully true strokes and hues of Winslow Homer, through Thomas Hart Benton, Georgia O'Keeffe and Edward Hopper, then to the Pop Modernists Warhol, Tom Wesselman, James Rosenquist, and finally, to the Super-Realists, such as Maxwell Handler and Robert Bechtle.
Geldzahler spent two years putting the show together, of which most of the canvases come from the Met, but many from other museums, such as the Hirshhorn, and from private collectors around the country.
In the catalog to accompany the show and provide biographies of the 62 artists featured, Gedzahler said the exhibit's purpose was to "introduce images of the U.S. and convey the wide variety of styles in which American artists have worked . . . if no single image emerges, we will perhaps have succeeded in mirroring the truth."
Unfortunately, the catalog has not yet been reprinted in Russian by the Soviets, who have promised to finish it by January, several weeks before the exhibit closes and heads to Leningrad.
"January?" asked one Russian with a weary shake of her head. "How about February?"
With an eagerness to know about America but no catalog to aid them in their search for insights, the opening day crowds sometimes found themselves confronted by artistry that struck them as enigmatic.
"What is that to mean?" a middle-aged man asked himself as he stood before Jasper Johns' "Two Flags," two large American flags, one above the other, a work widely said in the U.S. now to be an important statement by a modern master.
"That's not art, that's politics," said another.
Andy Warhols protrait of Marilyn Monroe, and his silkscreen quadruple portrait of Elvis Presley seemed to attract little interest. But crowds gathered before Tom Wesselman's "Still Life No. 24," a 1962 acrylic on wood that features a giant, three-dimensional ear of corn, complete with melting pat of butter.
"An Advertisement," one woman pronounced. "What's it made of?" asked another. "Why is it here?" a third demanded.
The canvases that evoked the longest attention were those of the Super Realists, such as Maxwell Handler's "Afternoon Television," and Robert Bechtle's "Alameda Gran Torino," with their obsessive attention to detail. Young people stood before these and other seemingly lifelike representations of America for long moments, studying them as one might a map.
On Wednesday, Geldzaher toured the show with the U.S. ambassador, Malcolm Toon, and other dignitaries, including Yuri Barabash, Soviet first deputy minister of culture, a thin, blond man wit the controlled expressions of the successful - and powerful - bureaucrat.
Geldzahler made sure to halt before George Tooker's 1956 painting, "Government Bureaus," a tempera on gesso panel that shows slouching men in baggy gray clothes being confronted by a series of menacing, identical clerks peering from behind anonymous frosted glass cubicles.
"Americans think those are Russian bureaucrats," Geldzahler said cheerfully. "Russians think they are American. But I think Tooker was saying that bureaucreats are the same anywhere. He took his theme from Kafka," said the man who soon will be a cultural commissar in his own right.
Barabash lifted his eyebrows and found nothing to say.