Yakov Kalmens: "I surround myself with such things that make me gasp and explode with emotions”


Read our new big interview with the famous Saint Petersburg collector Yakov Kalmens! We asked him about the principles of his collection, favourite artists and the reasons he’ll never overpay only for their popular names.

Yakov Kalmens: "I surround myself with such things that make me gasp and explode with emotions”

Tell us about your education

I graduated from Leningrad Pediatric Medical Institute, now it’s the St. Petersburg Pediatric Academy. Then, after the institute, I left for the Pskov region for four years on assignment. Then I came back here and didn't even think about any art at all. Although, as a decent young man, I took the girls I knew to the Russian Museum and the Hermitage. I even heard that there was such an artist Ilya Glazunov. Don't forget it was the the 70s. Moreover we had his exhibition, for which there was an incredible queue. I visited it. It was new and unusual. I had no idea that such a thing could happen. It made no impression on me. Like, "well, cool." I must say that at that moment, walking through museums, the name of, for example, Dobuzhinsky, wasn’t popular. Not to mention Kandinsky and Malevich. Maybe it's a good thing, the supremacists and others like them did not affect my taste haha.

Was it an act of censorship?

Well, what does censorship mean? They didn’t exist. My social circle consisted of mainly doctors. When I returned from the village to Leningrad I accidentally became friends with the guys-artists. I looked at what they were doing and it caused me some polite dislike and I still don't like what they were doing. Again, no strong emotions: "Well, okay, well, well done guys...". It was much more interesting that they had workshops where they could freely debauch. This is what brought us very close at that time.

One day my friend, after finishing the "Saint Petersburg Stieglitz State Academy of Art and Design", invited me to have a look at the paintings of graduates. He decided to give me a tour and said: "All the paintings that are at the exhibition are divided into three categories: shit, furious shit and furious shit that needs to be immediately torn off the wall and trampled underfoot." I will remember this forever.

How did your acquaintance with art happen next?

In 1982, there were the first exhibitions of the "Experimental Art Association", when the GAB decided that it was better to bring artists together than to catch them one by one. There was mostly surrealism. A friend of mine called this genre "belonging to the contiguous." I really liked this term. In general, I watched this exhibition, everything was nice and interesting, and in 83 my close friend and classmate was invited to participate in this exhibition. I came, looked and saw the work that I had not seen from him before, and it caused me an incredible emotional surge, instantly everything turned upside down in my head. At the touch of an unknown button, I became a completely different person. He gave me, "as a friend", an incredible price of 120 rubles. We had wild debates, skirmishes and everything else. He gave it to someone, and his wife went to take it away. As a result, it took me two years to get this painting at my house. I thought I was going to buy it and that's it. The name of this artist is Vladimir Shinkarev, now he is quite famous and still very expensive. He is such my aesthetic leader. This painting is hanging in a prominent place and I look at it all the time. And with that plot - "One dances", he did, I think, about 20 works, but they are all different and there is not a single one similar to mine, and it seems to me that mine is the best.

So this picture has been with you for 29 years?

I saw her in 1983, and brought her home only at the end of 1984 - the beginning of 1985.

This was the first artwork of the collection, what were the next ones?

The second work - "Beer in winter" was also his brushes, but not for 120, but for 150 rubles. I am glad that he repeated this story only once in '85. And so, the work of the 82nd year hangs at my house, and the 85th - in the Russian Museum. So that the Russian Museum "nervously smokes in the backyard" haha but when they did the exhibition, they still hung not my "One Dances", but their own. And I came in a T-shirt with this picture and a "mute reproach", stood next to it.

How are artists selected for the collection?

I’ve never chosen artists in my life! Only paintings! Can I call my collection a "collection"? Everything is completely different here. I’d rather say that I create a space for myself to live comfortably. Once I looked at the artworks in one gallery and they offered me a very serious artist, and I said, "I don't like it. "They asked: but you are a collector, I said "yes, but..." In response, they told me: "Well everything is clear the , you are not a collector, you are an interior decorator".

Did that sound offensive to you?

Absolutely not, what are you talking about! This is the highest compliment. I surround myself with emotions. When I like the artwork, I come up and close the sign with the artist with my hand. A big name shouldn't put pressure on me, I don't collect surnames. I have some favourite artists and I know for sure that they will not let me down. If I want to get a portion of emotions, then I look at them. I see a color-composition spot, an essence, a visual stimulus. This visual stimulus causes me to release endorphins into the brain. There is a strong emotion, strong emotions are experienced by different people in one way or another - some from smells, some from music, some from food. I think visual and sound stimulation is the strongest. It’s unlikely that you can give your life for the smell of perfume. I surround myself with the things that make me gasp and explode with emotions. For example, that’s the reason I’m not afraid of any kind of lockdowns and quarantines. With great pleasure I can simply lay down on my couch and eyeball around. But there’s one rule: all the artworks must be in front of your eyes. I live in a visually limited space. There are two sofas and once every six months I change the angle. And the newest works that I acquire and that cause me fresh feelings of uncontrollable love, I hang up so that when I fall asleep and wake up, I see them. I remember how my son hid new tin soldiers under his pillow. And I understood him perfectly. I put my hand under the pillow and I feel that they are close. What is the order of purchase? When a picture causes me to release endorphin, I think for a couple more days: can I live without it? If the days pass and I calm down, then you don't have to buy, and if you dream at night, then you need to “get married”. But, of course, there are also prohibitive factors: an incredible price or size.

As my friend Volodya Shinkarev says: "If you’ve lived all your life without Brueghel, then the rest without it you’ll definitely survive". When I ran out of space on the walls, I went to the 3D area, this is something that can be put on a small table. There is, for example, such a Moscow ceramist Anna Russova, who complains that her artworks are bought only in St. Petersburg, or like by Sukhanov, and I buy them. Actually I respect collectors very much, but it's unnerving when they like what I don't like, it's just annoying!! I like to show off and brag first of all to myself, and what I see on my walls brings me indescribable pleasure. Moreover, all the artworks are very different: starting from the expressionism of the 70s and earlier, and ending with pop art, kitsch, brutal things and aesthetics in the of the North-7 group. And actually, lately, I want to go to the Tretyakov Gallery, closer to the "Three Heroes" lol.

Which mediums' works do you have the most?

Considering that I have been buying paintings since 1983, and I started buying the rest when I ran out of space on the walls, let’s say 7-10 years ago. Mostly paintings and graphics bring emotions in me. And if it’s a sculpture, then it should be the of wit, plastic wit. I don't have any "funny" works in painting, it's always a serious emotional blow, and as for sculpture and objects, humor prevails, and then the second one connects to the first signal system.

Do you have artists whose works you’ve been buying for many years, do you have friends among them? Have you ever felt you influenced their creativity?

I don't think so. I hope not. I know that some artists appreciate my point of view, but considering that we are aesthetic like-minded people, it‘s not clear if they value my point of view or I value their art. There are painters who have never failed. Almost never. I like a lot of things, but not all of them need to be dragged home. Here is an example: hundreds of beautiful girls pass through the streets every day, but I marry one. Okay, 3 or 5. But not for that 150 that pass me by during the day. Consider that if I bring work to the house, then I got married. I recently got an artwork that I "slept with" for three nights. Not in the literal sense, of course, from the point of view of the bulk of the population this is abnormal. But I'm not socially dangerous. I'm chilling at home, drooling. There are people who buy artists alphabetically. There are people who are very influenced by other people's points of view. I always tell collectors: "Guys, an artist becomes famous only when you personally buy it".

Can you name the artists you have made famous now?

Obviously I won't do that. Fir sure there are artists in whose fame I have invested my three kopecks, but this doesn’t mean that they became famous because of me. I'm a humble guy. And sometimes I lose interest in artists who become famous. Like, we've already had enough dumplings, we want cakes. Then we ate cakes and again I want dumplings. I love all this rotten dirty Leningrad expressionism so much and at the same time I have a huge craving for pop art. It’s completely unclear to what visual stuff my heart will respond. I did such an experiment: at the exhibition there was a pretty weak, not the best artwork of a local classic. I came up and said: "Do you want to witness a trick?". I close the sign with the information with my hand. They tell me: $60. I withdraw my hand: $10,000. I will never overpay for the "brand".