The artist was dressed a la Darth Vader: black boots, black riding breeches, black leather jacket with winglike epaulets. His shoulder-length hair was streaked with gray. Three broad scars marred his cheeks and chin. He chain-smoked Marlboros.
At the recent opening of his first major show at a gallery in SoHo, the usual crowd of black-tied oglers was at hand, sipping wine, snacking on brie and crudite's.
"He's world-class," murmured the gallery director, guiding a potential customer toward the paintings. "We sold one on Saturday for $24,000."
In the maelstrom of the capitalist art world, Mihail Chemiakin, a Soviet refugee, had finally made it. To be sure, the New York critics would probably ignore him, but no matter. More than 80,000 Soviets have emigrated to the United States in the last decade in the largest Soviet exodus since the 1917 revolution. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Mstislav Rostropovich are household names, but recognition has come far more slowly to Russian painters and sculptors.
Many drive taxis in Manhattan or eke out a spare living in Brooklyn's Little Odessa. "You come to the free world," said Chemiakin, 42, "but that doesn't mean you're free . . . There are more possibilities of succeeding here, but the struggle to make a living is as frightening as it is in Russia."
Chemiakin lived in East Germany as a child, where his father was a colonel in the Soviet Army. There he was exposed to western art and to early 20th-century Russian masters. On his return to the Soviet Union in 1957, he went to art school, but was arrested by the KGB for showing post cards of abstract art to fellow students, he said. Only "socialist realism," a literal style depicting officially approved subjects, has been permitted in the Soviet Union since the 1930s.
"It was a crime at that time even to know about van Gogh and Ce'zanne," he said. "I was considered morally depraved." After two years, he said, he was thrown out of school and then was refused admission to a Russian Orthodox seminary. He continued to paint, socializing with a small group of "nonconformist" artists who wore their hair long and threw wild parties in a communal apartment, he said.
During this time, he said, neighbors informed on him. He played forbidden music -- records of Johann Sebastian Bach.
When he was 18, Chemiakin said, the KGB threw him in a mental hospital. "At least 40 of my friends and acquaintances were put in mental hospitals," he said, ticking off the names of artists, poets and musicians.
For six months, at the Skartsov-Stepanova hospital outside Leningrad and at the Ossipov Clinic, Chemiakin said, he was injected with insulin and experimental drugs. He said he was placed in a room with blinding lights and loud microphones with voices shouting such slogans as "Picasso is no good."
"I was surrounded by naked people who ate their own excrement," he said. "When I got out, I thought I had gone crazy. I couldn't draw at all. I would start shaking and I was covered in cold sweat."
With borrowed money, he said, he took a plane to Soviet Georgia and hid out for a year with monks in the Caucasus mountains.
For 10 years afterward, he said, he painted at night and worked by day as a mailman, a streetsweeper and a handyman at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad, where he studied "subversive" artwork hidden in the vast storage chambers of the museum. In 1971 he was arrested and permitted to leave the country "with only my coat and my dog," a champion boxer named Charlie.
After 10 years in Paris he moved to New York "because everything here is larger, bigger, more beautiful. I fell in love with this city." For a year and a half, he said, he made no money.
However, a Russian e'migre' partner in the Bowles/Hopkins gallery in San Francisco became interested in Chemiakin's work. It sold well in California (Priscilla Presley, divorced wife of the late Elvis, bought four Chemiakins at a Rodeo Drive gallery in Beverly Hills, according to one press clip). Now the artist makes up to $200,000 a year, he said, with a steady contract from Bowles/Hopkins and a regular following in France and Japan.
Chemiakin speaks virtually no English, and only broken French. In his vast SoHo studio, cluttered with animal skulls, African sculpture, photographs of friends long dead, Greek masks in the bathroom, a ceramic Madonna in the kitchen, three cats and a bull terrier, he plays the Modern Jazz Quartet as he works. An assistant translates over a lunch of red caviar and blini as Chemiakin sputters in bewilderment and contempt at the American art world, where galleries pay thousands of dollars to promote canvases filled with broken crockery.
Nonetheless, at Dyansen Gallery, capitalism is at work for Chemiakin. His wild-colored oils of magical carnival scenes in St. Petersburg are listed at $38,500. Bronze reliefs, strongly reminiscent of the aboriginal art he collects, sell for $18,000. A lithograph of a still life is priced at $950.
At the opening, dancer Natalia Makarova, a Chemiakin collector, had made a dramatic entrance in tall boots and a fur hat. An art history professor from the University of San Francisco, where Chemiakin received an honorary doctorate, gave a little talk about the artist's "extraordinary technique . . . a control of line that dazzles the mind."
Albert Shanker, president of the United Federation of Teachers, guided a visitor toward a series of abstract pastels. "Marvelous," he gushed, noting that when Chemiakin got his green card from the Immigration Service, the union had thrown a boat party for him on the East River, with art and music.
Photographers and public relations people hovered. Chemiakin took it in stride. "I'm an American artist, born in Russia," he said.