MOSCOW (AFP) -- Ernst Neizvestny, a Russian-born sculptor who publicly debated modern art with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and went on to create his final memorial, died in the U.S. on Tuesday.
Neizvestny, known for his dynamic monumental works, died in New York, U.S.-based journalist Oleg Sulkin announced on Facebook early Wednesday morning.
Neizvestny, who was forced to leave the Soviet Union in the 1970s, famously confronted Khrushchev in 1962 at “The New Reality” contemporary art show in central Moscow.
Khrushchev came to view the exhibition and, encouraged by his entourage, launched a tirade against the artists, calling them “degenerates” and condemning their work as “shit.”
But Neizvestny, a burly decorated war hero, was not cowed and spoke back to the Soviet leader, insisting that he show his work while attempting to explain it.
“I’m not afraid of your threats,” the artist told Khrushchev, he recalled in a 1979 interview.
Khrushchev accused him of wasting metal that could be used in industry and advised him to go and live abroad, sparking a purge of artists.
Afterwards Neizvestny was expelled from the Union of Artists.
‘There’s the devil in you’
Yet the men developed an unlikely rapport.
“You’re an interesting person,” Khrushchev told the artist. “There’s the devil in you but an angel somewhere too.”
“Despite the atmosphere of fear, it was easy to talk to him,” Neizvestny said.
“Khrushchev spoke directly... which made it possible for me to answer him directly.”
Khrushchev died in 1971 after being removed as Soviet leader and, at his family’s request, Neizvestny created his memorial in Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery.
The striking black-and-white composition with Khrushchev’s head in the middle symbolized the leader’s contradictory personality traits and was designed in the style he had once condemned.
Neizvestny was born in 1925 in the Urals city of Sverdlovsk, now Yekaterinburg in western Russia. His parents, a doctor and a poet, suffered repression under Stalin although they survived his reign of terror.
He fought in World War II and was seriously wounded and decorated for bravery.
After the war he studied art in Riga and Moscow and swiftly won recognition, taking advantage of a period of relative freedom after Stalin’s 1953 death to move from realism to a more expressionist style.
He emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1976 citing “aesthetic differences with the regime,” moving first to Switzerland and then to the United States, where he taught at several universities.
Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky and other senior officials expressed their condolences following the artist’s death.
Neizvestny’s works include the “Mask of Grief” sculpture unveiled in 1996 in the far eastern city of Magadan to commemorate the victims of political oppression.