A Portrait of the Artist as a Capitalist

Painter Vladimir Gorsky learned how to work the system in the Soviet Union for personal gain. He discovered that things operate much the same way in America.

Vladimir Gorsky considers the two faces of George Herbert Walker Bush in his living room. One of them, in a painting that hangs unfinished on the wall, is grim, serious, weathered by the years and, judging by the cardigan, clearly retired from the difficulties of public life. The other is on a canvas that rests on an easel next to a table cluttered with oil paints. This Bush wears a dark suit and a powerful red tie, but his face is kinder, gentler, his eyes soft, one side of his mouth upturned into the expression that W. wears as a smirk but that his father can pull off as genuine.

The artist likes the serious Bush better. "He looks like a man, like a real man, a wise man … with power, with experience," Gorsky says in a thick Russian accent. But his friends have told him that Americans don't like things that are serious, so he is frantically finishing the friendly portrait to present to the former president and current patriarch. A gilded frame is waiting in the hallway for that special day. "A portrait without a frame is like a general without a uniform," Gorsky says.

There are portraits of less famous subjects in various states of completion scattered about the apartment. Gorsky says he is trying to preserve the European tradition of family portrait painting, a tradition that has suffered since the advent of photography. Photographs fade, Gorsky points out, and some people who have a lot of wrinkles may not want to be remembered by the too-accurate glare of the flash. Gorsky likes to call his portraits "plastic surgery at no extra charge." He points to a glamorous photograph of one of his clients on the coffee table. This woman wants to be beautiful. The photo, he says, makes her look better than she is. He knows that he has to make her look even more beautiful when he paints her.

Vladimir Gorsky finds character in the friendlier portrait of George Bush.
Vladimir Gorsky finds character in the friendlier portrait of George Bush.
Vladimir Gorsky finds character in the friendlier portrait of George Bush.
Deron Neblett
Vladimir Gorsky finds character in the friendlier portrait of George Bush.

Bush did not make any special requests of Gorsky, but the artist has made him look better than his photograph, too. With paint, he has combed his ruffled hair back into place, warmed up his pasty coloring, smoothed the deep creases that run from his nose to the corners of his mouth and blended his jowls into a strong jaw line.

An artist can fudge physical imperfections, but even more important, according to Gorsky, an artist can put heart and soul into a likeness that a photographer cannot. "Character of person can be found by artist," he says.

What, then, is the character of his most recent subject, Mr. Bush? Gorsky pauses. He doesn't want to talk about politics. He doesn't want to talk about the Kuwait invasion. He doesn't want to talk about Iran-Contra. In fact, he claims he's never heard of Bush's vice-presidential scandal. All Gorsky knows is that he loves the Bush presidencies, past and present, and that America is the greatest country in the world. He has no need for politics; he is a "peaceable artist."

Gorsky grew up in the Soviet Union, where politics meant little more than knowing which way the wind was blowing from Moscow. He still tries to keep a finger in the breeze, but it's more difficult in the United States, where he must please not just the powers that be but every potential client. The pressure has made him apolitical but at the same time a consummate politician: shrewd, expedient, politely controlling, protective of his public image, wary of what might scare off his audience.

"Some people -- it doesn't matter if they are starving -- only want to do things their way," he says. "They are heroes. I am not a hero. I always paint for a living."

Why did you like the Bush presidency?

I am Republican. I do not like big support programs for people who don't want to work.


But maybe that is not so good for the story. Maybe half of people will like me and half of people will hate me.

Nervous laughter.

My art is for everybody. I love everybody.

Vladimir Gorsky was born in Moscow in 1953, the year that Stalin died. His mother, Liza, was a 25-year-old Russian surgical nurse, and his father, John, was a 20-year-old Jewish student at the Moscow Petroleum Institute and a budding dissident. They married when Liza was pregnant and divorced when Vladimir was just a year old. He lived with his mother, but his father was always an influence. When Vladimir was a child, his father came over on occasion to help him with homework and to play chess with his stepfather, also an anti-Communist. Vladimir's stepfather was the director of a big government plant, but he told Vladimir about what the Communist Party had done under Stalin, about the killings. John told him the stories of the West that he learned from the Americans and Brits he sometimes met through his work as an oil engineer. He also told him about the KGB, which questioned and brainwashed John twice a week in 1963. John was lucky he was only questioned; his friend, the prominent refusenik Anatoly Sharansky, was charged with treason and espionage and spent 13 years in a prison camp.

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