An exhibition at the Cooper Union in New York exploring the legacy of Vkhutemas, a short-lived interdisciplinary Moscow design school that was ultimately dissolved in 1930 by Joseph Stalin just ten years into its existence, is back on after its planned late January opening was delayed—to considerable controversy—in response to public outcry citing insensitivity of the staging amid Russia’s ongoing invasion of neighboring Ukraine. The Cooper Union’s campus in Manhattan’s East Village directly neighbors an ethnic enclave known as Little Ukraine, which serves as the cultural heart of New York City’s Ukrainian community and is home to a significant number of Ukrainian American residents and longstanding Ukrainian American-owned businesses.
Following a three-month period in which exhibition organizers worked to “further situate the exhibition within an expanded study of historical and political context,” Vkhutemas: Laboratory of Modernism, 1920–1930, curated by Anna Bokov, assistant professor adjunct at the Cooper Union’s Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture and author of the 2021 book Avant-Garde as Method: Vkhutemas and the Pedagogy of Space, 1920–1930, will now open Tuesday, April 25 at the Arthur A. Houghton Gallery at Cooper Union’s Foundation Building on East 7th Street. The exhibition, which is free and open to the public, will be on view for a short period, closing on May 5.
“The Cooper Union has always been a forum for courageous public discourse, a place where new ideas as well as opposing viewpoints are expressed and explored to advance a just and thriving world. Since the 19th century, the institution has served as a center of learning and civic engagement to address the critical challenges and opportunities of the day,” said Cooper Union president Laura Sparks in a statement announcing the new opening date. “There is value in examining the teachings of Vkhutemas, and it is critical that we expanded the study to probe and learn from the broader geopolitical circumstances surrounding the formation, operation, and closure of the school to those that confront us today.”
Co-curated by Steven Hillyer, director of the Irvin S. Chanin School of Architecture Archive, the group show, described as a “peer review of sorts,” presents models, diagrams, drawings, and animations that “analyze and reconstruct” the work of Vkhutemas students and faculty, many of whom were persecuted by the Stalin regime following the dissolution of the school. A total of 27 Cooper Union undergraduate and graduate students participated in the exhibition, which was borne from two research seminars and a studio workshop led Bokov with the aim to “highlight the significance of this revolutionary, yet little-known pedagogy,” as the announcement detailed. First established in 1920, Vkhutemas is often likened as the Soviet counterpart to the similarly revolutionary Bauhaus school, which operated during roughly the same time period in three different German cities.
The work on view within Vkhutemas: Laboratory of Modernism will be organized around five central themes: Instruments, Constructions, Objects, Exercises, and Projects, the last of which will present ten diploma works by Vkhutemas students reconstructed by Cooper Union students.
Complementing the exhibition, Cooper Union will also hold a panel discussion entitled War/Art Balance: Deimperializing the Soviet Avant-Garde at the Time of Russia’s War on Ukraine, Its Culture, and People on the evening of Thursday, April 27. Hosted by the college with partners Shevchenko Scientific Society and The Ukrainian Museum, the public program is described as bringing together a “range of voices to speak on the complexities surrounding the histories of the Ukrainian, Russian, and Soviet avant-garde movements.” Registration information can be found here.
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