Notes From Underground

The Ransom of Russian Art

by John McPhee
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 181 pp., $20.00


The big year for the New Journalism was 1965. (A Journal of the Plague Year, Homage to Catalonia, and even Joseph Mitchell’s foretaste of the postmodern, Joe Gould’s Secret, had been published before this momentous date, but that wasn’t the point. “New” was the point.) In the spring, Tom Wolfe hurled a two-part pie in the face of The New Yorker with his sendup, “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of The Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!” It was Wolfe’s thesis that the magazine had devolved into a humorless, genteel museum piece of middlebrow culture living off the literary capital accumulated in the days of Harold Ross. Years later, Wolfe would claim that his savaging of the magazine and the eccentricities of its famously shy editor, William Shawn, was no more wicked or out-of-bounds than Wolcott Gibbs’s 1936 parody of Henry Luce and the syntax of Time. (“Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.”) After having taken his whacks in other pieces at slumming debs, Murray the K, Junior Johnson, and other totems of the Zeitgeist, Wolfe figured that The New Yorker would be just one more overripe target. And why the hell not? Who would take offense if Wolfe administered Eustace Tilley a good zetz? Hadn’t Lillian Ross, in her New Yorker profile of Ernest Hemingway, made Papa out to look like an infantile ass? Fun’s fun, no?

Apparently not. The uproar after Wolfe’s piece appeared in The New York Herald Tribune was across the board, coming from everyone from J.D. Salinger to Walter Lippmann. In the windiest of the attacks, Dwight Macdonald, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, ventilated in The New York Review against Wolfe and what he called “parajournalism.” “It is a bastard form, having it both ways,” Macdonald declared, “exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction.”

A few months later, Shawn made mush of Wolfe and Macdonald both, publishing virtually every word of what remains a classic of nonfiction writing, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Capote’s work was built on the sheer exertion of painstaking reporting; at the same time it possessed all the texture and narrative energy of the best novels. No ladies’ magazine stuff here, Mr. Wolfe. Nothing “para” or quasi or faux about it, Mr. Macdonald. Both sides of the argument, Wolfe and Macdonald, eventually betrayed some regret at their initial salvos. Wolfe never put “Tiny Mummies!” in his collections. Macdonald, who had been touching in his defense of Shawn but hopelessly muddled in his arguments, seemed to recognize his own errors as he added a series of footnotes to the original essay, admitting that, yes, “parajournalism” was, in fact, “a legitimate art form”: witness, he said, Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night, James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and, yes, Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic.

In that same noisy year, 1965, The New Yorker published “A Sense of Where You Are,” a profile of the Princeton University basketball star Bill Bradley. It was, in many ways, a traditional piece for The New Yorker: understated, measured, a sustained work of admiration centered on a Caucasian paragon of Ivy League polish and Calvinist habit. And yet the author, John McPhee, then in his early thirties and a “back-of-the-book” writer at Time, had, in his quiet way, accomplished something of distinction.

To begin with, he had found a perfect subject, one who could articulate his own distinctive character, verbally and physically. Bradley would later go on to win two National Basketball Association championships with the New York Knickerbockers and then a seat in the Senate, and yet his accomplishments were never so pure as they were when he was an undergraduate. McPhee, with Bradley’s help, wrote with insight and precision about the mechanics of basketball, an immensely complicated game that, unlike baseball or boxing, had yet to attract its bard; even the great Red Smith had dismissed basketball as the “up and down” sport.

In Bradley, McPhee discovered a banker’s son from Missouri who was able to overcome the liabilities of winters in Palm Beach and “the white man’s curse” (a limited vertical jump) to become one of the most technically accomplished players in the history of the college game. What was more, Bradley, even as a collegian, was unusually self-conscious, able to move well beyond the standard cliché of the sportsman (“Well, Bud, God blessed me with these talents”) and explain his craft, the economy of his moves, the thinking behind his work habits. In Bradley, McPhee found an artist in absolute touch with his materials (his teammates, the court, his own body), and willing to describe them.

McPhee did not let Bradley merely talk about his sense of the game; he let him show it, detail by detail. By staying close to Bradley for months McPhee accumulated the details necessary to describe Bradley’s quest for perfection. With McPhee’s gift for the telling detail and anecdote, Bradley’s game and his acute awareness of its angles came alive even to a reader who would never think, otherwise, to care:

Last summer, the floor of the Princeton gym was being resurfaced, so Bradley had to put in several practice sessions at the Lawrenceville School. His first afternoon at Lawrenceville, he began by shooting fourteen-foot jump shots from the right side. He got off to a bad start, and he kept missing them. Six in a row hit the back rim of the basket and bounced out. He stopped, looking discomfited, and seemed to be making an adjustment in his mind. Then he went up for another jump shot from the same spot and hit it cleanly. Four more shots went in without a miss, and then he paused and said, “You want to know something? That basket is about an inch and a half low.” Some weeks later, I went back to Lawrenceville with a steel tape, borrowed a stepladder, and measured the height of the basket. It was nine feet ten and seven-eighths inches above the floor, or one and one-eighth inches too low.

Convinced that one of Bradley’s uncanny gifts was his vision, his ability to take in the entire flow of action without betraying his next move, McPhee brought him to an ophthalmologist in Princeton for testing. This is not something that reporters are ordinarily willing to do (nor is it something that hassled and spoiled athletes usually permit), but the results more than justified the appointment.

With both eyes open and looking straight ahead, Bradley sees a hundred and ninety-five degrees on the horizontal and about seventy degrees straight down, or about fifteen and five degrees more, respectively, than what is officially considered perfection. Most surprising, however, is what he can see above him. Focussed horizontally, the typical perfect eye, according to the chart, can see about forty-seven degrees upward. Bradley can see seventy degrees upward. This no doubt explains why he can stare at the floor while he is waiting for lobbed passes to arrive from above. Dr. Abrams said that he doubted whether a person who tried to expand his peripheral vision through exercises could succeed, but he was fascinated to learn that when Bradley was a young boy he tried to do just that. As he walked down the main street of Crystal City, for example, he would keep his eyes focussed straight ahead and try to identify objects in the windows of the stores he was passing. For all this, however, Bradley cannot see behind himself. Much of the court and, thus, a good deal of the action are often invisible to a basketball player, so he needs more than good eyesight. He needs to know how to function in the manner of a blind man as well. When, say, four players are massed in the middle of things behind Bradley, and it is inconvenient for him to look around, his hands reach back and his fingers move rapidly from shirt to shirt or hip to hip. He can read the defense as if he were reading Braille.

In “A Sense of Where You Are,” McPhee was writing a kind of sports hagiography but he was not exaggerating. He was not (Red Smith again) “godding up” the athlete. Instead, he was describing particular physical gifts and an artistic discipline. Bradley’s warm-up sessions, as McPhee portrayed them, were more interesting to watch than most players’ games. With an audience or without one, Bradley worked repeatedly on the footwork for simple, but essential, moves: the pivot, the crossover. He was almost suicidally unselfish. Here was an All-American in the athletically deprived Ivy League, and yet he instinctively gave up the ball to teammates even though their shots from ten feet away from the basket were probably less accurate than his from twice the distance. McPhee’s profile was filled with such precise physical detail and description of his subject’s work habits that it added up, in the end, to a picture of Bradley’s game and, more so, his character.

Read nearly thirty years and twenty-three books later, A Sense of Where You Are also appears to have an autobiographical dimension, a McPheemanifesto on how to approach the difficulty of any art, nonfiction writing very much included. McPhee’s virtues as a reporter and writer parallel Bradley’s as a basketball player: thorough preparation in reading and reporting, an unmistakable sense of structure and form, an elegant and useful economy. McPhee’s reputation is already substantial, far from a secret. He is a favorite of other writers and journalists, and in recent years he has sold enough books to compel Farrar, Straus and Giroux to re-issue a handsome paperback series of all his books. His account of life in Alaska, Coming Into the Country, and his tetralogy on geology (to be published complete as Annals of the Former World) are among his best sellers. All the same, McPhee’s reputation should be higher still. While much of the New Journalism of the Sixties and Seventies has long felt mannered or hysterical in the rereading, McPhee’s work has the quality of permanence. Like Wilson’s Apologies to the Iroquois, Mitchell’s McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon, Mark Singer’s Mr. Personality, or Ian Frazier’s Great Plains, McPhee’s books represent the best of what has been in The New Yorker and are among the innovations in nonfiction writing.

I should come clean. This is not, if there is such an animal, an entirely objective essay. Fifteen years ago, in college, I took a twelve-week writing course with McPhee. I received a “P”—for “Pass.” This was a mercy. To the degree that he revealed himself in the classroom, McPhee showed himself to be not unlike Bradley, conservative about and immersed in the fundamentals of his craft. That is, he is blessedly conservative where it comes to fact. Nonfiction can mimic the structures of fiction, but not its license. A reader has a right to know that a book presenting itself as nonfiction is not permitting itself the liberties of fiction. Books labeled “nonfiction novel” or some such at least admit to the fudge factor.

It was not always thus. By way of commenting on a change in journalistic mores and not to tar any reputations, it’s probably fair to say that with respect to fact the standards of mainstream, non-tabloid American journalism have grown stricter. No editor at The New Yorker, or at any other responsible magazine I can think of, would knowingly tolerate some of the abuses and seeming abuses of the past. Piped quotes, invented scenes, conflated characters were once a matter of regular use and not, as they are now, a subject of scandal.

McPhee could not be more different from such contemporaries in New Journalism as Wolfe or Joan Didion or Michael Herr. He is not a writer of the Zeitgeist. Vietnam, the sexual revolution, racial conflict rarely enter his work; there is no Woodstock exuberance, no post-Altamont dread, no Eighties opulence. His tone, which is at once rather formal and still very much his own, has always been something apart from the current moment. It does not absorb the hysteria or static of the moment. Over the years, McPhee’s less insightful reviewers, even by way of admiration, have said he was too distant from politics, preferring to make something of very little. In the midst of Vietnam or Watergate, it may have seemed that McPhee’s subjects were insubstantial: A profile of a kindly prep-school autocrat (The Headmaster), a journey in the New Jersey forest (The Pine Barrens), a narrative about a bizarre aeronautical experiment (The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed), most famously, a book about a fruit (Oranges).

If the same critics believe that McPhee is somehow aloof from the perils of the real world, that he is some sort of Platonic version of a Yankee magazine staff writer, sweet and oblivious, they have him wrong. McPhee is drawn to craftsmen, it is true, to experts who open up a world for him and his readers, but these voices invariably point their way toward questions large and, not infrequently, political. It soon becomes clear (or should) that amid all of McPhee’s pursuit of personal pleasures in his choice of subjects (canoes, the wilderness, food, sport), he has been steadily, subtly developing a political literature. Over time he has become the most effective literary advocate for environmentalism. The subject has, for one reason or another, spawned one sanctimonious or sensationalist book after another. McPhee does not preach, nor does he shout doomsday in a crowded room. He tells stories—stories that, in the margins, fairly bark the most important ecological questions.

In The Curve of Binding Energy, his subject, the physicist Ted Taylor, presciently raised the specter of nuclear weapons proliferation. In Encounters With the Archdruid, McPhee and the environmental activist David Brower went on three journeys with three different men of industry to provoke debates on issues of preservation versus economic growth. Sometimes the politics is less explicit. In The Crofter and the Laird, describing the daily life on the Scottish island of Colonsay, McPhee quietly poses questions about the preservation of smallscale living, the relationships between the absentee owner (the laird) and the resident farmers (the crofters).

Over the years, McPhee’s writing, on all subjects, has evolved. The characters and narrative structures in his recent work are more complicated and surprising. He is looser, funnier, and at the same time his engagement with the physical world and moral problems has consistently deepened. He writes about the spaces and landscapes of Alaska (in Coming into the Country, 1977) and at the end we are painfully aware of the defilement of the natural world itself. He writes about geology and the reader is forever changed, more aware somehow of historical “deep time,” of the temporary state of the earth’s surface and our fleeting stay on these shifting plates.


McPhee’s latest work, The Ransom of Russian Art, a profile of an eccentric art collector, has the same qualities of precision and praise as in A Sense of Where You Are.

Norton Townsend Dodge is an American original, an eccentric loaded with advanced degrees in Russian studies and a gilded stock portfolio. Between 1956 and the rise of glasnost under Mikhail Gorbachev, Dodge spirited out of the Soviet Union hundreds of underground art works. His collection, the largest of its kind by far, is a phantasmagoric jumble of masterpieces and garbage, art and protest. In their political moment, the art works Dodge made available to the outside world represented a form of contrary spirit that was enormous in its scope; however, that work was far less well known than the more easily distributed manuscripts of the dissident writers. Unofficial art—whether it was Tonis Vint’s erotic lithographs, Ernst Neizvestny’s political sculptures, or Dmitri Plavinsky’s mixedmedia works based on pre-revolutionary history and art—was a vital connection to forbidden knowledge, thought, and pleasures. The canvases and sculpture mocked, reviled, and undermined Soviet reality so profoundly that in one typical, and famous, incident the KGB attacked an outdoor exhibit in Moscow with bulldozers. Much of the work collected by Dodge is now in various museums; the rest is still housed on his 960-acre farm in southern Maryland.

McPhee does not have to invent his Falstaffs and Pips; he is bound to meet them on public transport.

I met him on an Amtrak train in Union Station, Washington, in January, 1993. Casual as that,” he writes of his first meeting with Dodge.

He came into an empty car and sat down beside me, explaining that the car would before long fill up. It did. He didn’t know me from Chichikov, nor I him. His buttondown buttons weren’t buttoned. He wore khaki trousers, a green tie, a salmon shirt, a tweed jacket with leather elbows, and a rubber band as a bracelet. An ample fringe of hair all but covered his collar. His words filtered softly through the Guinness Book mustache. It really was a sight to see, like a barrel on his lip. Two hundred miles of track lie between Union Station and Trenton, where I got off, and over that distance he uttered about forty thousand words.

His interest whetted, McPhee sets off to visit Dodge on the farm in Maryland and, through Dodge and meetings with artists and their hangers-on, he illuminates part of an era that now seems so long ago, the underground art scene in the old Soviet Union. There is no evidence in The Ransom of Russian Art that McPhee visited the former Soviet Union as part of his research, and so it is testament to his skill as a reporter that he has managed to deliver such a vivid picture of a distant and particular world. Relying on Dodge and other interview subjects for information and a sense of place and character, McPhee brings us into rickety artists’ lofts in Moscow, and I swear you can smell the turps and the bad cigarettes and the garbage down the hall. I envy McPhee. He has managed to write an essential and entertaining account of Soviet Russia without ever having had to drink bathtub vodka or eat “Russian salad” (canned peas and a quart of mayonnaise).

McPhee is alternately hilarious and chilling as he evokes the atmosphere of the long era of official repression and impudent protest. He begins by capturing the bizarre day in 1962 when Nikita Khrushchev, now grown tired of the thaw, went to the Manezh exhibition hall, the former royal stables near the Kremlin gates, and confronted a group of young painters.

Viewing some of the work of what would prove to be the developing underground, Nikita Sergeyevich stopped before a canvas and said, “Who painted this picture? I want to talk to him. What’s the good of a picture like this? To cover urinals with?”

The young Boris Zhutovsky stepped forth to be berated.

Khrushchev said, “You’re a nice-looking lad, but how could you paint something like this? We should take down your pants and set you down on a clump of nettles until you understand your mistakes. You should be ashamed. Are you a pederast or a normal man?” In further appreciation of Zhutovsky’s work, Khrushchev said, “We aren’t going to spend a kopeck on this dog shit. We have the right to send you out to cut trees until you’ve paid back the money the state has spent on you. The people and government have taken a lot of trouble with you, and you pay them back with this shit.”

Khrushchev’s tantrum, so human and brutal, marked the end of official patience with unofficial art and sparked a renewed willingness to take Stalinist measures to keep matters in hand. Outside academia, the literature on underground Soviet art of the preglasnost period is not very prominent, especially when compared to the amount of attention paid to underground novels, poetry, and theater. In the past, critics like Jamey Gambrell have described well the underground art scene in the Soviet Union, and Ian Frazier’s profile of the émigré team of Vitaly Komar and Aleksandr Melamid captured their send-ups of socialist realism, but McPhee has added immeasurably to the picture, providing an excellent survey of the artistic worlds of Moscow, Leningrad, and other Soviet cities during the neo-Stalinist deep freeze.

Dodge, the great journeyer in those artistic worlds, traveled in the Soviet Union under academic cover. That is, he studied various issues of Soviet sociology, usually the position of women in various institutions, all the while wandering from Leningrad to Moscow, Yerevan to Tbilisi, looking for subversive art. Always under surveillance, Dodge made the acquaintance of nearly every independent painter and sculptor worth knowing. He trudged up to countless apartment-studios, along creaky floorboards, careful not to crack his head open on the dangling mobile, sympathy in mind and cash in hand. Dodge spent around three million dollars of his own money on the art and then managed, usually through diplomatic friends, to smuggle it past the Soviet authorities. In the end, the collection represented six hundred unofficial Soviet artists—the ironic “Sotsart” movement, the religious paintings, the photo-realism, the pornography, the pop art, the cartoons, the portraits of toilets, heating ducts, Soviet reality—all of it.

In the political sense, there was great virtue in his utter lack of discrimination. “What Dodge had evidently assembled,” McPhee writes, “was not so much of an era as the era itself. It was the whole tree—the growing cambium with the dead wood. If his motive was higher than money, it was also higher than the aesthetic level of any given work. He had released into the general light a creativity whose products had been all the more concealed because they were untranslatable and awkward to move. With it, he had released the creators.”

As McPhee presents him, Norton Dodge cuts a rather strange figure. He has the bad habit of trying to write or read while driving his car down the thruway. He has the housekeeping habits of the Collier brothers. He resembles a friendly walrus—“with his grand obodene mustache, he had everything but the tusks”—and “is absent-minded to a level that no competing professor may yet have reached. He has called a locksmith to come and get him out of a situation that could have been alleviated by a key he found later in his pocket.” He is alternately voluble and secretive, a monologuist who somehow cannot manage to admit that his fortune is the result of some lucky, but perfectly legal and pedestrian, investments. Because of his success as a smuggler, he attracts charges that he was in league with the KGB; because of his travels to the lesser corners of the Soviet Union, he attracts charges that he was in league with the CIA. McPhee tries every which way he can to draw him out on the espionage question, without much success. Mainly, Dodge is a hoot, a comic presence with serious intentions and amazing successes.

Running parallel to the profile of Norton Dodge in The Ransom of Russian Art is a portrait of the late Yevgeny Rukhin, a painter every bit as eccentric as his foreign patron. Rukhin lived in Leningrad and was a legend in the artistic world for his ability to defy the authorities, work tirelessly, and indulge in the pleasures of the bottle and the flesh. Rukhin’s paintings were suffused with irony and protest; he used Russian icons as signets, pressing them into the gesso; he used snippets of Soviet propaganda posters, found objects, nails, screws, bits of furniture. He could be cloyingly obvious. “Like so many others, he could become explicit to the point of journalism,” McPhee points out. “In a collage mousetrap was a tube of paint—its middle mashed down, its contents squeezed out and wasted.”

Rukhin not only advertised his dissidence, he celebrated it. He used to stencil across some of his canvases the words “Dangerous for Life.” He was a womanizer, a party animal. He swam in the freezing Neva if the spirit moved him. It often did. Rukhin was the most brazen of men, meeting freely with foreigners in Leningrad and Moscow, selling them his paintings, ignoring all sense of restrictions and peril. “He was the freest man of all of us,” Melamid tells McPhee. “It seemed that he had no fear. We all knew that he would pay for this sooner or later.” In 1976, Rukhin burned to death in his studio. The overwhelming suspicion among family and friends was that the Soviet secret service, by now grown weary of Rukhin, murdered him, making the fire look like an accident. He was thirty-two years old.

Rukhin’s death stunned Norton Dodge, and the collector began to curtail his trips to the Soviet Union. By the mid-Seventies, fortunately, Dodge had developed so many connections in the underground art world that he was able to arrange the export of paintings without traveling. He also organized exhibitions in New York, Washington, and at various universities. The underground scene was slowly winding down. By the time Gorbachev came to power in 1985, many of the best artists had scattered across the globe—to Paris, Berlin, New York, Jersey City. An auction organized by Sotheby’s in 1988 helped bring fame and large sums of money to the few painters still in the Soviet Union.

These days, the old scene hardly exists, and toward the end of his story McPhee visits one of the exiles, a kind of artistic adviser to the painters of the underground:

In the United States, the former underground unofficial painters live, for the most part, in very tight and overcrammed if not multifamily apartments where art reaches up to and sometimes over the ceilings. The Leningrad poet Konstantin Kuzminsky, friend and counsellor of dissident artists, lives at 78 Corbin Place, Brighton Beach, in Russian Brooklyn, a few doors down from Babi Yar Triangle. He inhabits space no less confined than the space he was accustomed to in Leningrad. His wife, Emma, answers the bell. You enter a short narrow hallway (made narrower by quantities of hung and standing art) and go past a bathroom with what appears to be a large dead borzoi in the tub and then through a small sitting room—its walls dense with art—and out onto a very small deck, where, in hot weather, lies Kuzminsky under trees of heaven, on his back, on a cushioned chaise, his body wrapped from knees to sternum in a black-and-white prison-stripe sarong. Half of the belly is exposed. Half of the belly is nonetheless a dune. His muscular legs suggest an athleticism that he may have left in Leningrad. There are actually three borzois living here—long-bodied, long-haired. The one in the tub is able to breathe without betraying the fact that he is alive. Emma is short and trim. Her hair is short and trim, a little white. She serves Kuzminsky tea. She brings him cigarettes. She and he smoke cigarettes five inches long. Kuzminsky has tumbling brown hair and a split, thick beard. Around his neck in whalebone, or something like whalebone, is a kind of double cross, a patriarchal episcopal cross. There is the faintest glimmer of Eastern Orthodox in his clear and amiable eyes, like light from the edge of the universe. His head is on a pillow and remains there as he lifts a hand in greeting. He appears to be as healthy and comfortable as a pharaoh on a pallet. Norton Dodge being among his favorite subjects, he talks of him for three hours. Dodge, like the chaise, has cushioned Kuzminsky.

This is a typical McPhee passage: funny, tricky, the timing as precise as a Chaplin routine. “Half of the belly is exposed. Half of the belly is nonetheless a dune.” “Nonetheless” and “dune” are little bits of perfect writing, I think, and the book is made up of countless such moments. The picture of Kuzminsky is like a bit of Oblomov as seen not by Goncharov but by someone more precise, like Chekhov. The Ransom of Russian Art is not unlike Chekhov’s longer stories—funny and true. Score one for “parajournalism” and, especially, for McPhee, its master.