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  • The Artist As Producer: Russian Constructivism in Revolution
  • Charlotte Douglas
The Artist As Producer: Russian Constructivism in Revolution. Maria Gough. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005. Pp. xi + 257. $49.95 (cloth).

This important and lucidly written book is not a general history of Russian constructivism. The ideal reader should be familiar already with the history and dramatis personae of this moment in Russian art from other more comprehensive sources, such as Christina Lodder's Russian Constructivism,1 before embarking on The Artist as Producer. The focus here is fixed primarily on the work of the theory-inclined Latvian artist Karl Ioganson, and the theoretical writings of Aleksei Gan and Nikolai Tarabukin, during the period from late 1921 to early 1924, when some of the constructivists tried—largely in vain—to turn themselves into something called production artists, the method and meaning of which few of them could agree on. The reader should expect to find little or no discussion of the object-oriented art ordinarily associated with the productivist [End Page 385] rubric: the printed fabric and clothing designs of Liubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova, Vladimir Tatlin's stove and clothing, and Aleksandr Rodchenko's photography; nor is there any mention here of theater costumes or sets, porcelain dinnerware, graphic design, or typography.

As a prelude to the analysis of productivism proper, Gough begins with two chapters that examine a few critical ideas of the varying group of artists within the Moscow Institute of Artistic Culture (INKhUK) who in the beginning called themselves the Working Group of Objective Analysis, then the Working Group of Constructivists, and finally production artists, or Constructivists-Productivists. The kernel of the first chapter is a very detailed and penetrating reconstruction of the well-known "composition" versus "construction" discussions that took place in the first four months of 1921, and segued into the formation of the constructivist group. Based on the extant drawings that were done in exemplary pairs by five artists—Ioganson, Konstantin Medunetsky, Rodchenko, Vladimir Stenberg, and Stepanova—and stenographic transcriptions of the debates, Gough clarifies and theorizes the artists' hunt for a defining distinction between the two terms.2 She rightly concludes that, in fact, their sketches represented five separate theoretical positions, and that the artists proceeded to call themselves constructivists without ever having agreed on the meaning of the word.

Gough then proceeds to analyses of Aleksei Gan's theoretical and polemical book Constructivism,3 and the three-dimensional works exhibited by five of the constructivist group at the Second Spring Exhibition of the Society of Young Artists (Obmokhu) that opened in May 1921. Made famous not least by surviving photographs of their work on exhibit in the Moscow gallery, the exhibition was the most extensive display ever mounted of the spatial structures of Ioganson, Medunetsky, Rodchenko, and Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg. Gough examines it piece by piece in great detail, and arrives at revealing and productive understandings of Ioganson's spatial structures, their architectural context, and the artist's conceptual terms. Her analyses are exhaustive and thoroughly satisfying. But although she brings Ioganson's structural discoveries forward to compare them to Kenneth Snelson and Buckminster Fuller's work from the 1940s to the 1960s, she does not pursue earlier historical or biographical connections.

The second half of the book moves increasingly to concentrate on Ioganson, beginning with the difficulties the productivists confronted in deciding what exactly they should make, that is, what their "product" should be. Should they be "prototype designers, design technicians, production engineers, or rank-and-file factory workers? Or should the Constructivists become agitators and activists among management and workers for, say, the introduction of Constructivist principles into the engineer's office or on the shop floor? Or should they simply be the propagandizers of issues in which the Constructivist endeavor is imbricated, such as the abolition of the division of labor?" (103). As many different answers to this question were proposed as there were people responding, but Gough closely tracks only the reasoning of Ioganson, who in a credo of 1922 wrote that a continual process of speculative, non-goal-directed "invention" is the correct objective of a production artist: "From...


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