Joke Art

UPDATED 09/28/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/28/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT

In 1976, New York City gallery owner Ronald Feldman phoned Russian dissident artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid in their native Moscow to tell them crowds were lining up to see their first U.S. show. But after a translator relayed the message, there was silence at the other end. "They never realized it was a huge success," says Feldman. "In Moscow people had to wait in line for everything!"

These days, Komar, 55, and Melamid, 53, U.S. citizens since 1988, are no longer confused by American cultural habits. In their latest book, Painting by Numbers: Komar and Melamid's Scientific Guide to Art, the irreverent partners have reduced art to its lowest common denominator by taking verbal polls to determine what Americans and people from nine other countries like and loathe. Using data, the pair have produced Most Wanted and Most Unwanted paintings for each country. "There are some people who think we're brilliant and fantastic artists; some people think we're total frauds and jerks," says Melamid. "Both are right."

Geniuses or jackasses, the two, who teamed up in 1972, have sought to marry art and politics. "That's their great gift to art—getting to very serious issues and ideas through jokes," says JoAnn Wypijewski, who edited the art book. The approach hasn't, however, made them favorites everywhere. "I think their jokes are awfully easy and not very deep," says Peter Schjeldahl, a critic for New York's Village Voice. "They're great itinerant entertainers, who lately have been playing on regular people's suspicion of the art world."

It seems to be working. The book, which will be published in paperback next month, grew out of a 1994 poll and has generated global interest. Among the Most Wanted findings: Americans like paintings with people in groups, fully clothed and at leisure. The French don't mind a little nudity. Dislike, though, seems to travel across borders: The majority of Most Unwanteds were abstracts.

There's nothing abstract about their take on art ("We don't believe art is serious," says Melamid), financial success (three of their works have sold for $300,000 each) or offbeat friendship, which began during art anatomy classes at a morgue. Their first radical step was to paint portraits of ordinary people in the stiff "Soviet heroic" style—in effect mocking government-approved art. When they joined other artists for a show at a Moscow field in 1974, officials bulldozed the site, later allowing the show at another location—and the artists, including Komar and Melamid, became local heroes.

Komar and Melamid develop their brand of art in a loft studio in Manhattan's Tribeca. When not working, they lead separate lives—Komar with his second wife, psychologist Anne Halberstadt-Komar, 40, in a Manhattan loft; Melamid with his wife of 27 years, Katya Arnold, 51, in a Jersey City condo.

The satirists' new project: an art school for elephants opens Nov. 19 in Thailand. Until then they will bask in the glow of their current scheme. "This is our third fame," says Melamid of the book. "If fame is 15 minutes, we have 45 already!"

Nick Charles
Debbie Seaman in New York City

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