A red door, a black window, a vertiginous tunnel drawing the viewer into the infinite dark: Many images in “Breaking the Ice” are bold and simple. Others are layered and textured.

Dmitri Plavinsky’s metaphysical collages include seeds, matchsticks, fragments of lace, or woven reeds; Oscar Rabin’s extraordinary Soviet cityscapes are rendered in thick impasto with embedded food labels. From Vladimir Veisberg’s white cubes to the faux-desecrated paintings in Ilya Kabakov’s installations, this exhibition is, by turns, intense and subtle, comic and eerie, moving and thought provoking.

In fact two major exhibitions of Russian art opened last week, simultaneously and confusingly, in London’s Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea: a huge display of contemporary works, and a survey of late 20th-century masterpieces.

Many visitors assume the shows are linked, that “Breaking the Ice” (on the top floor), is some kind of prequel to the installations and photographs below it. Certainly, it makes sense to start at the top, but, in some ways, the louder, larger, less thoughtful exhibition on the first two floors is a distraction from the historic treasures in the attic.

The art in “Breaking the Ice” is carefully curated from Moscow’s fecund period of underground creativity, between Stalin’s death and perestroika; it includes the Thaw-era rebirth of abstraction and modernism, pop art, conceptualism, and more. The exhibition is funded by the Tsukanov Foundation, which now owns a large number of works from the “second Russian avant-garde.”

London-based Igor Tsukanov is charmingly understated. Although his family’s collection contains enough works from this period to fill several exhibitions, he has enlisted other collectors to produce the strongest possible show. During the selection process, he deferred to curator Andrei Erofeev. “It’s not about what I like or what I think,” he told RBTH in an interview last week.

The entrance to the exhibition is lined with black and white photographs, conjuring up the city and epoch that gave birth to these striking works. Abstract or metaphysical art in the Soviet Union was necessarily political, but many of these artists were concerned with creative freedom rather than overt protest.

The official state-sanctioned aesthetic involved Socialist-realist depictions of scenes that glorified the achievements of the communist government. The un-official works on show became known, as the curator Erofeev explains in the massive catalogue, through the “magic and invincible power of art.” Produced in hidden studios, rumors of their brilliance spread through Moscow’s artistic circles.

Abstraction to Sots Art

The exhibition is organized thematically, with works grouped according to stylistic tendencies and genres. Abstract artists like Lydia Masterkova deliberately resurrected the pre-revolutionary experiments of the first avant-garde. Francisco Infante’s “Space-Movement-Infinity” is a mass of lights and metal in geometrical patterns spinning inside each other, like the kinetic mobiles of the early constructivists.

The floating, fauvist faces of Oleg Tselkov’s luminous crowds also look back to modernist experiments, but they do more than this. Fellow artist, Eric Bulatov, commented on Tselkov’s works:  “They have nothing to say about the time and place in which they live. They are of a different nature … they emanate from the dark and sinister things lurking at the bottom of any man’s soul.”

Exhibition's entrance. Source: Saatchi Gallery.

Bulatov’s own paintings, represented towards the end of the exhibition, include the celebrated “Vkhoda Net.” The Russian word “Vkhod” (“entrance”) recedes from both sides of the picture into the distance; the pale blue color and foreshortened perspective suggest the open sky, but the words are obscured by an angry “Vkhoda Net” (“no entrance”) in two-dimensional red.

At the same time, the letters “DA” (“yes”) appear in the center of the painting. Bulatov’s works play with ideas of space and of volition. One wall of the exhibition is dedicated to Bulatov’s huge black square with a white dot in the middle. The artist spent months measuring the invisible lines behind this work, one of many tributes to Kazimir Malevich’s famous 1915 “Black Square.” Alexander Kosalopov, whose “Coca Cola Lenin” and eye-shadowed Gorbachev are icons of Russian pop art, humorously transforms Malevich’s square into a symbol on a cigarette packet.

Five Faces by Oleg Tselkov. Source: Saatchi Gallery.

Two rooms contain works by the inventors of “Sots Art,” Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. Sots Art is a hybridization of pop art and socialist realism, as Komar explained: “If pop-art was born by the overproduction of things and their advertising, then Sots Art was born of the overproduction of ideology and its propaganda.” An ironically nostalgic series of paintings from the 1980s includes a chained bear and a red flag.

Tsukanov hopes the exhibition will bring the art he loves not just to a wider audience, but a new generation. The Saatchi gallery, with its free entry and large-scale installations, is attractive for younger people and Tsukanov sees this show as breaking out of the “small world” of collectors and specialists.

Art dealer Mark Kelner, who has worked with Tsukanov since 2006, agreed.

“That’s the point of the show, to look at Russian post-war art as it crosses over into the international scene,” he told RBTH last week.

He praises Tsukanov’s skill in bringing collectors together. “Anyone could have bought paintings,” he said, “but not everyone can excite a community.” For Kelner, “this is the show that everything will be measured up to for years to come.”

“Breaking the Ice: Moscow Art 1960-1980s” runs at the Saatchi Gallery until February 24th 2013.