The engine of Russian contemporary art Joseph Backstein has died

Joseph Backstein. Photo by Roman Mokrov. Curtesy of Russian Art Archive

After a serious illness, at the age of 78, Joseph Backstein, Russia's most famous art curator and a towering figure in the contemporary art world, who pioneered the Moscow International Biennial, has passed away.

For everyone involved in the Russian art scene, Joseph Backstein "has always been there". He is like the Old Testament Sabaoth who appeared before the established order of things.
He was born in Moscow in 1945. He graduated from the Moscow Institute of Electronic Engineering in 1968 and worked as an engineer in various research institutes for two decades. During this time he was friends with many future famous artists and researchers such as Vladimir Paperny, (b. 1944), Alexander Melamid, (b. 1945), and Vitaly Komar, (b. 1943); was a member of the circle of Andrei Monastyrski (b. 1949) and Ilya Kabakov (1933-2023); took part in the actions of the Collective Actions group, and for a brief period was married to artist Irina Nakhova (b. 1955).

Perestroika gave Backstein a second, or rather, his true life. In 1985 he received his PhD in Philosophy from the Institute of Sociology and moved on to projects in the humanities. He was one of the first to make exhibitions at the Avant-Garde Club (Klava), and an action he organised in Moscow’s Sanduny Bathhouse (1988) is now considered a classic of Russian performance art. Another exhibition-action took place in Butyrskaya Prison which must have required a huge amount of organizational talent.

Among his many achievements are international exhibitions of perestroika era art, such as ´IsKUNSTvo´, held in Moscow and Berlin. Its name already reflected what was to become his main goal: the rapprochement of cultures.

"Joseph is one of the main heroes of Russian art of the last 50 years," says Irina Gorlova, head of the Department of New Trends at the State Tretyakov Gallery. "In the perestroika years he channeled his energy and talent into popularizing Moscow Conceptualism, and in the 'noughties' he turned into an influential international curator. I remember the first time Joseph Kosuth came to Russia when there was talk of his possible solo exhibition at the National Centre for Contemporary Art. Kosuth said that he would like to see Joseph Backstein as its curator."

Backstein was actively involved in many initiatives in the field of contemporary art, serving on boards of trustees and juries, but perhaps his main brainchild was the Moscow International Biennale of Contemporary Art, founded in 2005. He was its commissioner from 2007 to 2016. His authority made it possible to attract the best artistic and curatorial forces both inside Russia and abroad to the Moscow Biennale. Under him, the Biennale grew in status and size, with exhibitions in Moscow by the world's most famous curators, Jean-Hubert Martin, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Peter Weibel, Bart de Baere among others with the participation of similarly well-known artists. He was known everywhere from Stockholm to Bangkok. He curated the Russian contributions at Manifesta 4 and at the 25th Biennale in Sao Paulo. In Moscow, he curated exhibitions of Yoko Ono and Norman Foster, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov and dozens of other colourful exhibition projects.

Back in 1992, Joseph Backstein created the Institute of Contemporary Art in Moscow, first as a research and then as an educational organization. For a long time the Institute for Contemporary Art Problems (IPSI) was based, with the kind permission of its owner, in Ilya Kabakov's studio on Sretensky Boulevard, and has continued to nurture many stars like Viktor Alimpiev, (b. 1973), Anna Zholud, (b. 1981), Elena Kovylina, (b. 1971), Irina Korina, (b. 1977), Olga Kroytor, (b. 1986), Pavel Otdelnov, (b. 1979) and Rostan Tavasiev, (b. 1976). Since 2018, the institute has been named after its founder.

At the same time, Backstein changed his guises like a chameleon. He could be a small man with a shabby briefcase, an inconspicuous state official, a cautious bureaucrat in the position of deputy director of the state-owned ROSIZO. Even in his late and only book, ´Inside the Picture´ (2018), there were no surprises. And at the same time he was a top-class GR-specialist (government relationship), a playboy charmer who rocked the dance floor with Olga Sviblova, and an advanced yogi who, for the sake of fun, could sometimes show a ´crocodile´ at a friends’ get-together, levitating in a plank on his arms parallel to the floor.

He loved, knew inside out and, as long as his health allowed, was interested in contemporary art and artists. It was exciting and easy for him to discover new names.

Along with Backstein, a wonderful era is passing away when Russian artists were discovering the world and the world was ready and willing to open up to them.

This article was first published in Russian on the website of The Art Newspaper Russia on 12 January, 2024.

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