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.

Now, when he is not working on commissioned portraits, Vladimir is painting another large-scale project, this time depicting the history of Las Vegas. He stands in front of the unfinished work in the studio space he rents from Adickes. "It has to be blinking, blinking," he says. Vladimir considers Adickes his only art-world friend. Artists are a jealous bunch, he says, but he and Adickes don't have that problem because they do such different things. They may work in different media, but they are kindred spirits. The parking lot outside their studio is filled with gigantic presidential heads that Adickes plans to install in franchisable theme parks across the country. Vladimir wants to see all of Sin City's tourists buying his Vegas painting on T-shirts, posters, puzzles and coffee mugs. Critics be damned. They want to get rich.

But Vladimir's ambition still can't compete with his father's. John has seen Russian artists who came to the United States after Vladimir achieve greater success than his son. "Even some of them, their art I don't like and Vladimir doesn't like, but I am talking about business success, business success," John says. They met one Russian artist at an art expo in New York who was making $50,000 a month. "Not $5,000," John points out. "Five thousand dollars a month is $60,000 per year. It's a normal salary. But he was getting $50,000 a month. He had an apartment in Manhattan." Vladimir is doing okay, John says, "but as a father, I want him to do better."

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.

It's a Sunday afternoon. The home telephone rings. It's Gorsky in a panic.

Somebody scare me to death about your newspaper. You look like a very nice person. I need something nice. I do not want to be destroyed by this article. I want to be more successful. Do you understand?

The Pig Stand, just blocks from his Heights studio, is Gorsky's favorite restaurant. As he sits in the comfortable, kitschy diner, sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes, he talks about a few more favorite things: the Beatles, Elvis, Frank Sinatra. He especially likes Sinatra's "My Way," perhaps because he's never really had things entirely his way. As for Elvis, Russians have a saying about a meteoric rise such as his: He could get through water and fire, but he couldn't get through copper pipes. Copper pipes? It's Gorsky's rough translation for the trumpets of success. Elvis's success was his doom.

Vladimir Gorsky doesn't think he'll ever have to deal with the dangers of copper pipes. "In art," he says, "it's very difficult to reach this level." His father warned him of that a long time ago.

But Gorsky is a working artist, one of a small percentage who can say that they make their living by their craft alone. His art has allowed him to go back to Moscow and bring his mother to Houston to live with him. Her second husband had died, and she was old and alone in a nice apartment, a dangerous place to be in a country struggling with corruption and capitalism. "You can be killed for apartment," Gorsky says.

He likes painting portraits, he says diplomatically, but it's not his first love. He would rather be doing more experimental work, though he can't specify what that work might be. But experiments don't pay the bills. Experiments don't support his mother or impress his father.

"If I didn't have to make money," says Gorsky, "maybe I could create something very special. I don't know. Nobody knows."

Instead, he looks for his next commission. Perhaps President George W. Bush will need a portrait.

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