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The geometric lines across the canvas are split by webs of cracking paint and depict a woman as if through stained glass. She gazes toward another painting of a satellite, or maybe a space station, gliding past the sun—but that can’t be. Sputnik won’t arc from the Baikonur Cosmodrome until decades after the paint dries. The art that adorns this small room is futuristic and a bit unsettling, too.
In the bowels of the Armory Denver on Curtis Street, century-old Russian avant-garde masterworks hang beneath dusty rafters that once stored cannonballs. Many are valued north of $20 million and one, a white cross painted on a black canvas and stored in a climate-controlled bank vault, was estimated at more than $100 million. Its sibling, The Black Square, painted by Kazimir Malevich in 1915, is displayed in Tretyakov Gallery in central Moscow. That’s assuming the works arrayed across the brick walls of the armory are real at all.
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Denver-based collector and architectural photographer Ron Pollard, 64, stumbled upon the first piece of his now 180-large collection nearly two decades ago. Scouring eBay in 2004, he discovered a German listing for a painting in the style of Alexander Rodchenko, one of the luminaries of Russia’s 20th-century avant-garde art movement, for only a few hundred dollars. Shortly after buying the Rodchenko—a tangle of polygons melting in and out of the foreground—Pollard, along with his brother Roger, began growing the collection. With each shipment, the range of artists expanded: They found collages in the style of Ivan Puni, flat-form sculptures like those by Vladimir Tatlin, and angular portraits characteristic of Nadezhda Udalstsova. Eventually, the pair had amassed more than a hundred works through the same eBay seller.
Pollard’s attempt to get his collection authenticated was the subject of his 2010 show, Orphan Paintings, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. In the preceding years, he had solicited help from a forensic expert to examine a Malevich piece; it was determined to be consistent with the artist’s style but its origins were dubbed inconclusive. Pollard then used cutting-edge pigment analyses and X-ray fluorescence tools. Not only did the tests appear to validate the age of the art, he says today, they revealed additional images beneath the painting in question. Still, he was missing the most important kind of evidence.
Provenance, or the official documentation of an art work’s origins, is particularly challenging to acquire for pieces that date back to the Russian avant-garde period from roughly 1890 to 1930. Described as a “black hole” by one Israeli art collector, the era is marred by history: Beginning in the 1930s, Soviet authorities set strict guidelines on artists. They created an official style of realism and more classical techniques, discouraging abstract and surreal art, and even repressing what already existed. It was considered a criminal offense to be in possession of artwork that didn’t adhere to the guidelines. That makes it tough—impossible, sometimes—to authenticate art from the Russian avant-garde period, and with such ambiguity, allegations of fakes and forgeries have swirled around collections like Pollard’s.
Pollard, who believes his collection is worth $250 million, says his art is a part of an exodus of Russian avant-garde works to the West. His new show, I Found Malevich, explores this idea; it is both an expansion and departure from the themes of his previous exhibit. “I still want to be vindicated,” Pollard says. In the exhibit, he displays a set of Soviet art ledgers uncovered in 2012 that, he says, authenticate his collection. But the 14 paintings highlighted are also allowed to tell a story about the present, about artistic expression and political control.
The show culminates in a screening of Pollard’s self-made documentary, also called I Found Malevich, a memoir that draws comparisons for the viewer between the Russian art suppression of the 1930s and the suppression of individual thought today. “The show is worth doing because I think now, more than ever, this work speaks to what political violence does to our culture,” Pollard says.
The exhibit opens tonight at the Armory Denver and runs through October 2. Pollard leads two shows each day and admits only six guests at a time. The show is free, but donations are encouraged. Secure your spot online.