Purvītis in the cellar

Anna Iltnere

Mark Allen Svede is an American art critic of Latvian descent on his father’s side. His professional work has included the study and collection of Latvian art, with an emphasis on the 1980s and 1990s generation of artists. For about a decade he worked as a consultant to Norton and Nancy Dodge, curating a remarkable collection of non-conformist Soviet art. On May 17th, Mark Svede lectured on the non-conformist paradigm at the Centre of Contemporary Art in Riga, in the context of a conference called Unveiling the Unseen Past. Arterritory.com took this opportunity to meet him and invite him to discuss his interest in Latvian art as well as his critical perception of recent developments in contemporary art as a whole. Mark Svede currently teaches at Ohio State University, in the film studies program of the art history department. “Film interests American students far more than art – I had to adapt,” Mark remarked.

When and how did your interest in Latvian art develop?

It began already in early childhood. There were some landscapes by Latvian artists on the walls of my grandparents’ house. On vacation, visiting them, I would sit and gaze at them. I could sense that they were quite different from what we had on the walls at home – my mother was an American, and my father was of Latvian descent but didn’t really take an interest in his ethnic background at that time. My first clear memories are of this sense that paintings from Latvia had an especial value, since they were hung in a place of honour. And that captivated me even when I was a little boy.

Later, when I was ten years old, a massive wooden crate from Europe appeared in the driveway beside our house. It held a large-scale painting by Vilhelms Purvītis from my Latvian great grandfather’s art collection. Fleeing Riga during the Red Army invasion, my great grandparents had removed it from its frame, rolled it into a carpet and taken it with them. The canvas was slightly damaged as a result. The work arrived in America after restoration in Germany. The breaking open of the crate was an intriguing and exciting – it was indeed a thrill to see the painting with my own eyes for the first time. I grew up in a rather small, middle class house, and so my mother immediately announced that there was no place in our home for such a huge work of art. And so Purvītis’s painting was packed up again and stored in the cellar. 

As I was growing up, the cellar possessed a mysterious power to draw me in. I think that played a major role in my interest in Latvian art.

Is that why you decided to study art history?

No, that happened in what you might say is a typical way. I studied architecture, but the college had difficulties and was threatened with the loss of its accreditation. I therefore decided to get my bachelor’s degree and return to architecture for my master’s. But I discovered, quite unexpectedly, that I liked art history. I mean, I expected that I would like it – but not as a profession. I wasn’t sure what exactly would capture my interest, either. I assumed that it would likely be American or Western European contemporary art. I studied under an exceptionally charismatic professor, a Ukrainian. Her mission was underscoring the diversity of interpretations of avant-garde Soviet art. She wanted to prove how many differing communities were responsible for this phenomenon. Having found that one of her students was a Latvian-American, she pretty much drove me to study Latvian art history. I guessed that this might take maybe five minutes – but so far it has taken twenty-five years.

You have developed quite a large private collection in your home. How much of it consists of Latvian art, and what is the primary factor in choosing what work to acquire? Is it the work itself, or a broader factor – the time it was created and the place of origin?

The basis for my collection is an interest in Latvian art. Not counting a few works by American artists who I know personally, the works are all by Latvians. About 80—85% of the collection is Latvian. Some are the works of classic artists – I have two paintings by Voldemārs Matvejs, and from a later period – works by Boriss Bērziņš, Georgs Šenbergs and Zenta Logina. But most of my collection consists of works by those Latvian artists who emerged when Latvia’s independence was restored. The emphasis is on conceptual art – traditional forms are not a requirement for me. For instance, I have certain artifacts from the “Bronze Man” performaces by Miervaldis Polis, which took place between 1987 and 1992. They are  works of art in themselves but are simultaneously personal artifacts.

You’re not afraid to acquire art that cannot be hung on the wall in the traditional manner?

My academic direction has been concerned with those artists who would prefer to drop their work somewhere rather than hang it on a wall. If a work of art is thrown into a corner, floats about or does anything otherwise unexpected, the artist will be of greater interest to me. 


Sometimes it’s a challenge because it can be hard to think of a way to display them at home or at least to find a way of preserving them. The challenge isn’t the first thing I think of when I consider an acquisition, but bearing in mind life with four dogs and six cats – perhaps it should be.

For you to like a work of art – it has to surprise you?

It’s definitely an attraction if a work surprises me. Also – if I feel that the artist has himself found the process of creating the work to be full of discovery. I value the unexpected.

Is the artist as a person a deciding factor when you acquire a work?

It’s natural to take an interest in the artist if an artist’s work speaks to you. For example, if I had personal antipathies toward an author of a work, I wouldn,t be eager to collect that person,s work. Of course, if someone gave me a Futurist painting by Umberto Boccioni as a gift, I wouldn’t reject it. This despite Boccioni having said that he thought the First World War was a good idea. But I might not cling to my principles quite so strongly in such a case. (Laughs.)

What do you think about the global art market? Has it become too influential?

In my view it is exceedingly interesting that objects with such intangible value are among the most secure investments – safer than even real estate. Thank God, I don’t need to worry about such things, since I don’t aqcuire works in order to sell them later. I cannot imagine parting with even a single work in my possession.

It is also interesting that the art market in different countries works differently. It functions differently in Latvia, for example. I can’t say that I am fully familiar with how it operates in principle, but I am repeatedly pleased to see that it survives – that there are buyers, and that there is money with which to purchase art.

Otherwise, when speaking of prices and prestige – it has really always been true that art has offered an opportunity to launder money whilst simultaneously providing an avenue for the acquisition of a respectable status. Some of the greatest art collections in America were developed by robbers who later wanted to appear refined and cultured before society. But I am more fascinated by how an opposition to the art market in the United States was formed by artists themselves, most pronouncedly in the 1970s. Conceptualism, as we know, was a reaction against the turning of works of art into consumer goods.

How these things work in Latvia would be worthy of further study. I am surprised, for example, that the Latvian artist Kristaps Ģelzis and some of his contemporaries could do well in the art market today. 

But they spitefully create works in formats that are nearly impossible to sell. In this way – without being aware of it, of course – they are engaged in a kind of branding, forming a movement.

But there is something that one sees too rarely in Latvia. That is institutional criticism, of the sort one encounters in America – there it is no longer anything revolutionary, as it is so frequent in the United States.

What do you mean by institutional criticism?

We should remember the artist Hans Haacke, who who once created a work for MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In his 1970 “MoMA Poll,” he urged visitors to answer a poll question about Nelson Rockefeller’s politics – Rockefeller was one of the principal donors to the museum at the time, and sat on its board. There were two transparent ballot boxes, revealing that the box containing negative responses to Rockefeller was twice as full as the positive. In this way, Hans Haacke essentially threw paint in the face of the entire institution, highlighting how that wonderful museum was dependent upon dubious financing. That was rather shocking back then, but in Latvia it would be even more dangerous for artists to express themselves in such a way. Apparently such work is possible only in a more developed situation, when it is permitted to bite the hand that feeds you and the other hand will still be politely offered.

What’s the most intense impression you’ve had lately of recent art?

Since I am teaching the history of film, I don’t follow the latest in art as much as I did and spend more time watching movies. One of my most moving recent discoveries is contemporary African cinema. My interest began when I visited Africa a year ago. I was recently quite taken by Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, which was released last year.

Where is contemporary art headed?

That’s difficult to answer, and not only because there are so many different directions art is taking and developments are different in different places. It’s also difficult to respond to because people’s appetite for something new is constantly on the increase, but people’s attention spans are decreasing. There are many fantastic Web-based art projects. Society is starting to abandon books in favour of the Kindle and other electronic reading devices. But I have a premonition that this tendency will soon diminish – people will again turn to real objects in place of the virtual and digital. The return of painting, for instance, recurs. 

Painting is declared dead – then it returns, disappears again, and so on. I think such cycles will always take place.

But I don’t really know. I can’t predict it. I think a good critic is one who can be found a step back – not one who strives to run ahead, offering prophecies.