It is symbolic that the Russian-American sculptor Ernst Neizvestny’s passing in New York City at the age of 91 has taken place amid renewed tensions between Russia and the U.S. The sculptures of Neizvestny (his last name means “unknown” in Russian), who died on August 9 in Stony Brook, New York, brought modernist techniques perfected in Western Europe to the Soviet Union, but his tremendous brutalist-heroic sculptures varied widely in quality and were certainly not to everyone’s tastes. From The Economist:

[Neizvestny’s] paintings, and especially his sculptures, were about: struggle, contradiction, multiplicity, flesh against spirit, all within one unity, the human body. His works turned humans into robots, centaurs, giants or machines, with hard and soft, metallic and organic flowing into and transforming each other.

The Mask of Sorrow, by Ernst Neizvestny (Wikimedia)

Nikita Khrushchev, the former premier of the Soviet Union, once called Neizvestny’s 1962 show near the Kremlin “filth” and “dog shit.” An obit in The Art Newspaper recalls that “Khrushchev’s comments signaled an end to the cultural thaw he started after the death of Joseph Stalin.”

“Why do you disfigure the faces of Soviet people?” the Soviet leader asked Neizvestny. The two became embroiled in an infamous yelling match during which Neizvestny impressed upon the premier of the Soviet Union his force of personality. The incident encapsulated and rehashed 50 years of debates on the meaning and place of art under socialism, which inspired art critic John Berger’s classic book Art and Revolution.

However, when Khrushchev died in 1971 (following his ouster in 1964), his family asked Neizvestny to design a tombstone for his grave at Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery. The sculptor created a bust of Khrushchev starkly surrounded with black marble slabs on one side, and white on the other, symbolizing the premier’s good and bad sides. “We chose Ernst because my father had great respect for him,” Khushchev’s son, Sergei, told Western reporters when the monument was installed in 1974, according to The New York Times.

Neizvestny was born in 1925 in Sverdlovsk, which is now Yekaterinburg, and was highly decorated for his World War II service before commencing his art studies in Moscow and Riga. When he arrived in New York City in 1976, he became a grand figure in the Russian artist émigré community.

Though Neizvestny often spoke openly in interviews of his experience of anti-Semitic persecution at the hands of Soviet authorities, Neizvestny’s family experience was certainly irregular in comparison to that of other Russian Jews. Neizvevestny’s father, a prominent and respected pediatrician had changed the family name after the Russian Civil War to conceal the fact that he had fought for the White Army. No English language appraisal, and few in Russian, ever speak of Neizvestny’s remarkable mother, the aristocratic Sephardi poetess Bella DeJour, who was in her own right an important figure, and lived until the age of 102 in New York City.

Ernst Neizvestny receives the Order of Honor from Vladimir Putin, October 2000. (Wikimedia)

Neizvestny was close to the editorial committee of the legendary émigré dissident journal Kontinent, which focused on the politics of the Soviet Union. His gigantic sculpture “The Mask Of Sorrow,” erected in 1996 in Magadan, commemorated the victims of the gulag system. Yet, like many other Russian artists and writers of his generation, including his friend, Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who had spent decades in the political wilderness of exile, he had already made his peace with the post-Soviet Russian government.

In a public telegram addressed to Neizvestny’s family and friends, Russian President Vladimir Putin described the artist as “one of the greatest sculptors of our times.” It also included the president’s plaintive declaration that his death represented a “grievous loss for world culture,’’ which is much more than mere political boilerplate. As a young man Neizvestny had challenged the Soviet state and Khrushchev; as an old man he socialized with Putin and accepted numerous state accolades. The Russia state became an enthusiastic sponsor in Neizvestny’s late career works. The high-brow channels of Russian television have spent the last week screening documentaries about his life continuously.

Still, as a young man he had challenged the aesthetic and political character of the Soviet regime at its ideological peak. We should strive to remember him at his best: a great independent and irreverent spirit and a moralizing political dissident in the great Russian tradition.