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by John McPhee

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1994
ISBN: 0-374-24682-3
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A brisk and intriguing, if rather slight, tale of art-world skulduggery before the Iron Curtain was brought down. Under Stalin, any artist who challenged the prevailing Socialist Realist orthodoxy guaranteed himself a bleak and brutally foreshortened future. Under the equally philistine Khrushchev and Brezhnev regimes, however, while abstractionists and other "deviationists" remained subject to the constantly refined black arts of harassment, the Gulag and the bullet in the back of the head became increasingly remote prospects. This relative relaxation bred an initially cautious, then increasingly confident, artistic subculture of satirists, pop artists, and other "parasites." The gradual awareness of artists like Evgeny Rukhin and Vasily Sitnikov in the West owed much to the covert activities of an unlikely hero, Univ. of Maryland economics professor Norton Dodge. Over the course of three decades and some 20 visits to the USSR beginning in the early 1950s, Dodge, first under academic cover and later going AWOL from tour groups, sought out the artistic pariahs. He acquired and smuggled out a collection of dissident art now valued at several million dollars. Dodge's success was spectacular; his motives and methods were mysterious; and his personality was pleasingly eccentric. (Though he stalked the back streets of Leningrad and Kiev, according to his wife, "he couldn't find his way out of St. Louis airport.") McPhee (Assembling California, 1993, etc.) paints his protagonist and the artists themselves -- a colorful, vodka-guzzling crew to a man (and very occasional woman) -- with enthusiasm and brings to the telling his customary conversational style and alert reporter's eye. However, the anecdotal tone and McPhee's tendency to dwell on personalities rather than on the artworks themselves, ultimately gives this more the air of an overgrown magazine piece than a full-fledged book. A picturesque ramble through the margins of the Cold War.