A Portrait of the Artist as a Capitalist
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.
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.
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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.
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.
Vladimir was always more of an artist than a dissident. He went to art school and learned brush sizes and brushstrokes, portraits and landscapes, still lifes and stained glass. When he turned 19, Vladimir entered the army as an official artist. He painted generals, politicians and educational posters, but most of all he painted Lenin. Lenin's face had to be everywhere. He painted what he was told to paint. "You could not think," he says. "The Communist Party thinks about you, but you don't need to think."
When Vladimir was in the army, his father came to see him. John was going to be allowed to emigrate as a result of the Jackson-Vanick rider to the Soviet grain trade bill of 1974. Congress had made the release of 35,000 Jews a contingent of trade relations with the Soviet Union. John asked Vladimir if he wanted to go with him to the United States. Vladimir thought it was a weird idea. He didn't want to leave home. "In Russia," he says, "everybody was building communism. I was building my own communism."
Vladimir's communism was a lot like capitalism. After the army, his required official job was doing artwork for a furniture factory, but he made his money on the black market. He became known in Moscow for his copies of Salvador Dali's paintings, which were banned in the Soviet Union because of the Spanish artist's anti-Marxist politics. Vladimir's copies were very much in demand because he could re-create Dali's visual tricks. He could make 1,500 rubles, an engineer's yearly salary, in just one month. He always had a car, an unusual luxury in the Soviet Union, and he lived in the artistic quarter in the center of the city, in an apartment across the street from one of Russia's finest restaurants. He would grease the palm of the maitre d' and have dinner sent over on a silver platter for himself and his guests. Friends say that Vladimir was always good at working the Soviet system of connections and influence and favors.
Life was good until Vladimir tried to visit his father in the United States. He was not a scientist and had no state secrets, but he was not allowed to go. He couldn't even speak openly with his father by telephone or mail. He knew that the KGB was listening to his conversations and opening his letters. He lost his job at the furniture factory because he was attracting too much attention. He was contacting family in the United States, and that made him dangerous. "I felt like I was in a big, huge, comfortable jail," he says.
When Vladimir couldn't go to his father, his father came to him. In 1984 John and his second wife took a cruise of the Baltic Sea that docked in Leningrad. John spoke broken Russian with an American accent and lied to officials about his emigration in order to throw the KGB off track and secure permission for an inland excursion. Vladimir followed the tour bus in his car. When they got to a museum, John put a USA baseball cap on his son's head and smuggled him inside with the group. They didn't look at anything in the museum. They just sat and talked about America. Vladimir asked his father to help him get out of the Soviet Union.
John sent letters to every U.S. senator and 50 members of Congress asking for help. Only one responded. "Gary Hart was my angel," says Vladimir. Before the Donna Rice scandal, the Colorado senator looked like he was going to be the next president, so Soviet leadership was eager to receive him in 1987. Before Hart met with Gorbachev, he invited 12 aspiring emigrants to the American embassy in Moscow for interviews. After speaking with Vladimir and the others, Hart presented a list of names to Gorbachev. Why, he asked, were these people not being allowed to join their close family members in the United States? Vladimir thought he was going to be arrested as soon as he left the embassy, but a couple of weeks later he got word: He would be allowed to emigrate, but to Israel, not America. There is no emigration to the United States from the Soviet Union, officials told him.
Emigrants to Israel were stripped of their Soviet citizenship and passports. If he left this way, Vladimir would never be able to visit Moscow. He would never see his mother again. The KGB gave him another option: He could emigrate directly to the United States if he agreed to become an informant. The prison bars would follow him to his new country. Vladimir says it was the hardest decision he ever made. He chose to emigrate to Israel. He hoped that the officials were wrong, that he might see his mother again. But he suspected that they were probably right.
He left Moscow with $38 and one suitcase. Customs officials broke his shoes looking for diamonds or gold hidden in the soles. Vladimir worried that they would plant contraband on him and ship him to Siberia. When he got to Vienna, technically on the way to Israel, he tried to breathe in his first taste of freedom. The air was the same, he says, but the feeling was different. He felt like a newborn; he was 34 years old. When he got to the United States, he thought, he would create political art, anti-Communist art.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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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