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.

Gorsky is complaining about another artist, a Frenchman who takes black-and-white photos of his supermodel subjects, prints them onto a canvas and then adds a little color. To Gorsky, this is not art; it's just technology. It's also competition. And like any good businessman facing competition, Gorsky knows when to seize an opportunity.

Maybe if the story is good, I could buy an advertisement in your newspaper. Maybe some people will remember me from the article.

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.

Not long after Vladimir arrived in Houston, he disappointed his father. It wasn't difficult to do. On John's first day in the United States, he bought a book called Better Résumés for Better Jobs. The second day, he picked up a driver's handbook from the Department of Motor Vehicles. He passed the driving test that same week, using a dictionary to translate the questions into Russian and his answers into English. Soon he had mastered the language and gotten a good job at Schlumberger.

Vladimir lived with his father for six months before looking for work, and he dropped out of English classes twice. "He didn't do anything," says John. "He thought he will be a famous artist and he could afford to have a personal interpreter."

John wanted to set his son straight. He took Vladimir to a frame shop and pointed out original paintings selling for $49.95, frame included. How much money do you think the artist made for this painting? John demanded. How can you expect to make a living as an artist here?

Vladimir wanted to prove his father wrong. He worked for a short while on the docks of the Ship Channel, speaking to the Russian ship captains who came into the port. Then he got a job in a print shop separating silk-screen colors for $5.50 an hour. He talked his boss into paying him his regular wages while he worked at home for a month on an original painting, his interpretation of a Russian fairy tale about George and the dragon. When the print shop went out of business, Vladimir kept painting Russian fairy tales, partly because he was homesick, and partly because he hoped their old-world charm would help him stand out in a sea of American artists. He borrowed money and rented space at the Doubletree Hotel for a show. His friend, a hotel pianist with some society contacts, provided the guest list. Vladimir sold a few paintings, but the income they provided couldn't buy the lifestyle he'd had in Moscow. He was still working the system of connections and influences and favors; he just hadn't made the right connections yet.

In 1990 Vladimir met David Adickes, sculptor of the enormous Sam Houston statue in Huntsville and a personal friend of George and Barbara Bush's. Adickes wanted to visit recently opened Russia; Vladimir offered to accompany him as his guide. It was the perfect partnership: Vladimir showed Adickes around his homeland and arranged for some Russian musicians to play one of Adickes's symphonies. The trip gave Vladimir a chance to see his mother, and his friendship with Adickes would later lead to an important introduction.

The art business was a tough one, even with Vladimir's specialty in Russian fairy tales. Putting on his own shows was expensive, and working with a gallery cost him 50 percent of his profits. So in 1996 Vladimir turned to the art form that has put more bread on the tables of more artists than any other. Portraits, after all, were sold even before they were painted. And Vladimir had heard that there were 80,000 millionaires in Houston. Some of them were bound to want life-size portraits of themselves and their families for their boardrooms and mansions. He charged these clients anywhere from $3,500 to $15,000, depending on the size of the portrait. But he didn't charge Gary Hart anything. Vladimir wanted to paint his portrait to say thank you for the senator's help ten years ago. Gratitude, of course, wasn't his only motive: A Hart portrait would help Vladimir gain entrée into the world of political painting. "Artists get a real shot in the arm to paint someone famous and have that in your portfolio," says Adickes.

In 1998 Vladimir asked Adickes to help him get a commission to paint former president Bush. Bush declined, for the moment. There were already too many portraits of him, he said. Why didn't Vladimir paint Barbara instead? "Barbara Bush was like mother of nation to me," Vladimir gushes. He adopted that warm tone when he painted her, in a red suit with trademark pearls, her arms lovingly around her dog Sadie. The portrait's 1999 unveiling at the Bush Library at Texas A&M was attended by 120 Bush friends from Kennebunkport and covered by Houston Chronicle gossip columnist Maxine Mesinger. The Bushes called it "the finest portrait ever done of Barbara."

Vladimir had arrived. Commissions were bound to come rolling in. The next year, George and Barbara Bush attended the unveiling of Vladimir's millennial Tapestry of the Centuries, a nine- by 18-foot painting packed with 2,000 years of history. The faces of scholars, scientists, martyrs, conquerors, poets, popes, queens and presidents spiral out from the central crucified figure of Christ. A Desert Storm-triumphant Bush graces the lower right-hand corner of the painting. Bush declined to speak to the Houston Press about his portraitist, but on that night he said into the microphone: "Vladimir, you're a great artist. We've known it for a long time, and now other people know it." Vladimir hopes that the tapestry, paid for by an investment group, will make its way to posters and jigsaw puzzles sold around the world.

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