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The geometric lines on the canvas are divided by cracked strips of paint and depict a woman as if through stained glass. She’s looking at another image of a satellite, or maybe a space station, gliding past the sun – but it can’t be. Sputnik will not lift off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome for decades after the paint has dried. The art that adorns this small space is futuristic and also a bit unsettling.
In the bowels of the Armory Denver on Curtis Street, centuries-old masterpieces of the Russian avant-garde hang beneath dusty beams that once held cannonballs. Many are valued at over $20 million and one, a white cross painted on a black canvas and kept in an air-conditioned bank vault, has been estimated at more than $100 million. his siblings, The Black Square, painted by Kazimir Malevich in 1915, is on display at the Tretyakov Gallery in central Moscow. That assumes the works dotted around the armory’s brick walls are even real.
Denver-based collector and architectural photographer Ron Pollard, 64, stumbled across the first piece in his now 180-strong collection almost two decades ago. Browsing eBay in 2004, he spotted a German listing for a painting in the style of Alexander Rodchenko, one of the luminaries of 20th-century Russian avant-garde art movement, for just a few hundred dollars. Shortly after purchasing the Rodchenko – a tangle of polygons merging in and out of the foreground – Pollard, along with his brother Roger, began expanding the collection. With each delivery, the range of artists expanded: they found collages in the style of Ivan Puni, flat sculptures like those of Vladimir Tatlin and angular portraits characteristic of Nadezhda Udalstsova. Eventually, the couple had amassed more than a hundred works through the same eBay seller.
Pollard’s attempt to have his collection authenticated was the subject of his 2010 exhibition. Orphaned paintings, at the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art. In previous years he had enlisted the help of a coroner to examine a play by Malevich; It has been found to be consistent with the artist’s style, but its origins have been said to be inconclusive. Pollard then used state-of-the-art pigment analysis and X-ray fluorescence tools. The tests not only appeared to confirm the art’s age, he says today, they also revealed additional images beneath the painting in question. Nevertheless, he lacked the most important evidence.
Provenance, or official documentation of an artwork’s provenance, is particularly difficult to obtain for pieces dating back to the Russian avant-garde period, circa 1890-1930. Described as a “black hole” by an Israeli art collector, this era is steeped in history: since the 1930s, Soviet authorities have imposed strict guidelines on artists. They created an official style of realism and more classical techniques, discouraging abstract and surreal art and even suppressing what already existed. Possessing artwork that did not meet the guidelines was considered a criminal offense. This makes it difficult—sometimes impossible—to authenticate art from the Russian avant-garde period, and it is with such ambiguity that claims of forgery and forgery have been swirled in collections like Pollard’s.
Pollard, who believes his collection is worth $250 million, says his art is part of an exodus of Russian avant-garde works to the West. his new show I found Malevich, explores this idea; it is both an extension and a departure from the themes of his previous exhibition. “I still want to be confirmed,” Pollard says. In the exhibition he is showing a number of Soviet art books uncovered in 2012 which he says authenticate his collection. But the 14 highlighted paintings are also allowed to tell a story about the present, about artistic expression and political control.
The show culminates with a screening of Pollard’s homemade documentary, aka I found Malevich, a memoir that draws comparisons for the viewer between the Russian art repression of the 1930s and today’s repression of individual thought. “The show is worth doing because I think this work speaks more than ever about what political violence is doing to our culture,” says Pollard.
The exhibit opens tonight at the Armory Denver and runs through October 2nd. Pollard hosts two shows each day and only allows six guests at a time. The show is free, but donations are appreciated. Secure your place online.