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 Etienne Roudenko  (1897 - 1987)

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Lived/Active: New York / Russian Federation      Known for: action painter, abstract expressionism

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Etienne Roudenko
An example of work by Etienne Roudenko
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
"The Magnificent Obsession of Etienne Roudenko" by Peter Hastings Falk, 2004

Roudenko stayed in the museums for hours. He told us that he painted like Pollock. Always Pollock, he repeatedly told us. At first we didn't know who this Pollock was, so he showed us a book of Pollock. The pictures he showed me in the book were exactly the same as some of the pieces he painted. He painted all sizes. Many are signed but some are not. But all of them are Pollock. It was incredible, for if you saw the pictures you didn't know which was which.
-- Juana Abelardo, a close friend of the Roudenkos

When Etienne Roudenko died in 1987, he was ninety years old. A large billiards table remained in the middle of his tiny studio apartment on East 84th Street in Manhattan. His bed was squeezed to the side. Perched on an easel by the studio window was a painting in the iconic drip-action style of Jackson Pollock, arguably America's greatest abstract expressionist. This story might have come to a quick end with Roudenko simply being labeled as a clever and talented copyist. But what is remarkable about Roudenko is the depth of his obsession, for packed tightly beneath the billiards table, under the bed, jamming the closets, and covering the walls was a seemingly endless supply of extraordinarily convincing Pollock look-alikes.

For Roudenko, drip-action painting was his exclusive painterly expression at least since arriving in New York in 1959. But the missing link that challenged this researcher was to uncover his artistic development during the previous thirty years when he lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Certainly, the large collection he left behind indicates an artist possessed by years of repeated experiments with refining the technique of drip-action painting. But did his venture into abstract expressionism, and particularly drip-action painting, pre-date Pollock? The only clues Roudenko left behind were on a single hand-written page, providing a brief chronology and mentioning his art teachers in Russia, France, and Bolivia during the 1910's-1930's. Not a single archive in the United States or Argentina would be of further help, for none mention him. Only exhaustive investigation and numerous personal interviews would begin to offer some tempting conclusions while revealing a fascinating and enigmatic character in American art history.

Etienne Roudenko was born in Ekaterinoslav, Ukraine, on July 31, 1897. Ekaterinoslav, now called Kremenchug, is located on the river Dnepr, southeast of Kiev. This is an area rich in iron ore reserves, so mining and farming were the primary occupations. During Roudenko's youth, about half the population was illiterate, yet he wrote that he entered the University of Moscow in 1916. Considering that the tiny percentage of the population that entered the university was largely from families of wealth and social prominence, this claim may have been fictitious. He also said he sought private instruction from the art professors at Moscow's École des Beaux-Arts.

But what was inevitable is that in 1918, at age 21, he faced mandatory conscription into the Military School of the new Ukrainian Army. Instead, Roudenko became a Cossack colonel, serving in the guards of the Royal Palace of Czar Nicholas II. As an accomplished equestrian, one of his responsibilities was to teach the Czar's older children horseback riding.

In November of 1917, the Bolshevik revolution changed Roudenko's life. Back home, the Ukrainians had declared their independence and formed the Ukrainian People's Republic. Its army suffered a series of bitter battles. First came the invading Germans; next were the Poles; and finally, the Red Army in a tide that would soon flood the country. When the Red Army took control of the Ukraine, Roudenko's entire family was killed. Trotsky's Bolshevik government had feigned acceptance of the Ukraine's independence, but by 1923 the country had adopted the constitution of the U.S.S.R.

It was about this time that Roudenko fled south to Istanbul, Turkey. This ancient city, long known as Constantinople, and rich in Byzantine art, may have inspired him to learn two trades there that would become central to his career: picture restoration and framing. While it is unclear how long he stayed in Istanbul, his journey over the next five years took him to Greece, Italy, and finally France. It was in the village of La Ferričre-aux-Etangs, in Normandy, where he met a local postal clerk, Denise Bonhomme [1899-1989], who was also an artist. She proposed to him and they were married only nineteen days later, in January 1928.

The couple soon moved to Paris and took a studio at 5 rue de la Huchette, in the heart of the Left Bank close to the Seine. While Roudenko's papers listed him as mine worker, he took advantage of his considerable skills as a Cossack horseman by earning a living as a professional jockey. At five-feet six-inches tall, he competed in the most arduous event of the equestrian world, the steeplechase. These major races, which were held at the Hippodrome d'Auteuil in the Bois de Boulogne, promised significant prize money to the winners.

He also managed to have studied, if briefly, at the École des Beaux-Arts under the painter, Camille Boiry [1871-1954]. However, Roudenko's time in Paris was cut short. Problems were brewing because he didn't have the proper documents to stay in France. And, despite the safe harbor that a growing population of White Russian émigrés found in Paris during the years immediately following the Bolshevik revolution, Stalin's newly-gained control over the Communist Party in 1927 resulted in an increasing number of spies being sent to the city.

Thus, after only one year in Paris, Roudenko and his wife, collaborating with a circle of Russian émigrés, hatched a plan to establish a White Russian colony in Bolivia near the Brazilian border, close to the Amazon jungle. Even though the word Cossak is derived from a Turkish word meaning "adventurer," one cannot help but wonder why Bolivia was chosen. One could surmise that because Roudenko was originally from a mining region, and his papers listed him as a miner, he may have been attracted to Bolivia by its prospecting opportunities. Bolivia was not only rich in minerals, but reports had reached Europe that it was on the verge of an oil boom.

Thus, in the summer of 1929, the Roudenkos embarked on a voyage to South America, in an adventure that would endure for the next thirty years. Departing from Marseilles, their group traveled through the Panama Canal, then south to the Peruvian port of Callao near the city of Lima, and then to Bolivia. While the establishment of the White Russian colony was the primary purpose of settling in Bolivia, Roudenko also made several trips to the capital, La Paz, in order to study painting with Cecilio Guzmán de Rojas [1899-1950].

Unfortunately, the dream of a White Russian colony began to fade during the next several years. First, Roudenko likely experienced continued problems because he had no passport. He was a man without a country. In France, the High Commissioner for Refugees of the League of Nations had issued him a French Identity Card, but this was valid for only one year. This may have been the reason, not only for his departure from France, but for his frequent trips back and forth from Bolivia to Peru. Second, to their dismay, the Russians discovered that the jungle environment, with its primitive conditions and relentless biting insects, was unbearable. Third, and perhaps most influential, the enmity that had been festering between Bolivia and neighboring Paraguay since 1928 finally erupted in 1932 as the Gran Chaco War. For the next three years, it became South America's bloodiest war of the 20th century. Notably, the newspaper reports also cited several White Russian émigré oil speculators with conspicuous roles during the war. In the end, however, hopes of the vast oil reserves turned out to be false.

Discouraged by Bolivia's political and economic unrest in the midst of the Great Depression, the Roudenkos moved south to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Meanwhile, the paintings of Guzmán de Rojas attracted wide recognition as they featured highly expressive, stylized figures of the Andean Indians torn by war. His poignant images were even credited with influencing the Bolivian government to capitulate in 1935. Thereafter, he was hailed as a Bolivian master and named the government's Director of Fine Arts. Later, he exhibited in Buenos Aires at least four times. Is it possible he and Roudenko re-connected?

During the Second World War, Argentina enjoyed a prosperity boom because of its role as a major purveyor of meat and grains to the world. By the early 1940's the Roudenkos had moved to a fine new apartment at Juncal 1879, located in an upscale neighborhood, and only three blocks away from a restaurant called The White Bear, a noisy meeting point for Russian émigrés. Olga Drapajlo, a Lithuanian immigrant who lived in the same apartment building recalled the couple: "Denise was a tall and strong woman, and a masseuse who worked at home. She had a lot of wealthy clients. I don't remember if Roudenko worked, but he left the apartment every day, often with a tennis racket in his hand. He seemed to be a learned man, courteous, but reserved." Other friends confirmed that Roudenko loved tennis and laid claim to having played with Enrique Morea, who, from 1946-1961, was the No. 1 ranked player in Argentina. They also say that although he was very active as a painter, it is unclear how he earned a living.

In 1959, after living in Buenos Aires for nearly thirty years, the Roudenkos set out on what they told friends was simply their next "adventure." Carrying only a few pieces of luggage, forty-thousand dollars in cash, and no precise plans, they arrived in New York. After finding an apartment in Rego Park, Queens, they did not seek jobs at first; instead, they spent weeks looking at the paintings in New York's art museums. Eventually, Roudenko got a job at a frame factory in Queens owned by an Argentinean, and quickly became the foreman, while continuing his work in art restoration until his retirement around 1982. The high-society clientele that Denise had cultivated in Buenos Aires paved the way for the establishment of her notable therapeutic massage service in New York. Friends recall that Countess Cassini (another Russian connection) regularly sent her limousine to accommodate Denise.

Within a year, the couple's desire to be closer to Manhattan's societal and artistic opportunities induced them to move to East 84th for good. Despite the apartment's size, Roudenko loved billiards so much that a professional billiards table was installed in the middle of the studio. Not only did he recruit Denise to learn the game, but one evening a week he faithfully returned to his favorite billiards parlor on Queens Boulevard.

Roudenko also exhibited at several Manhattan galleries, including Fontainebleau Galerie, Butler Gallery, and Thompson Gallery. However, after an incident of being cheated out of a commission, he withdrew from the gallery scene forever. Nevertheless, as the years and decades passed, Roudenko remained resolute in producing his "Pollocks" for storage beneath his billiards table.

Who was this adventurous jockey-prospector-tennis player-painter-framer-restorer? The idea that he could have been a copyist, or even a forger, is highly unlikely. Certainly, Roudenko's friends were impressed by his extraordinary skills in restoration of paintings. And he applied such authentic aging and patina to his frames that they could be passed off as antiques. However, Roudenko proudly signed nearly every painting he created. While his artistic force was squarely focused upon Pollock-inspired techniques, to the point of obsession, Roudenko was also committed to refining his specific style.

There are notable differences between the two. Whereas Pollock worked in oils and enamel on canvas, Roudenko worked in tempera and acrylics on artists' board or heavy paper. Also, Pollock's drip-action paintings were often mural-sized (some as large as 8 x 17 feet) making them heroic statements. Roudenko, restricted by his tiny apartment, limited his largest works to about 30 x 40 inches. Most are about 14 x 17 inches, and many are intimate statements of only 3 x 5 inches.

Stylistically, it appears that Roudenko, like Pollock, used a stick or hardened paintbrush to cast his drippings to create a web-like effect. However, Roudenko's approach to working the surface was different. During the height of his mature drip-action period, Pollock was purely dripping his controlled flicks. As he interlaced web upon web, his brush or stick rarely touched the surface of the canvas.

While Roudenko created many pure drip paintings in this manner, he typically created most works in a two-part process. First, he created a background pattern with pools of one or two pigments. These pools were poured either undiluted and opaque or thinned and watery. Sometimes both densities, heavy and light, were used to create a background texture. These pools were then pushed and manipulated with a brush or stick, but rarely leave signs of brushwork. Looking closely, one can see some of the pools revealing the tracks of a stick or the butt-end of a paintbrush used in a dragging motion to urge the shape of the pool. In a few examples, Roudenko, satisfied with this stage of creating his background, stopped, and signed the piece. However, the great majority of his works reveal a final orchestration of highly-controlled wispy drippings, resulting in the all-over web-like pattern associated with Pollock.

Still, pre-New York examples of Roudenko's paintings remained elusive. When he was painting in Paris in the late 1920's, what did his works look like? And, what about his paintings from the 1930's-1950's, while painting in Buenos Aires? His drip-action paintings bear such confidence in their technique and composition, and are as spontaneous and uninhibited as a Pollock. Certainly, there must be a visual clue to help solve the mystery. Or, would Pollock dodge another bullet?

Roudenko did not help in leaving many clues, leaving only a one-page hand-written biographical sketch, and his many paintings. Because he left no heirs, the Buenos Aires art world was scoured for answers. Extensive interviews were conducted with dozens of octogenarian artists, gallery owners, critics, curators, and collectors. Not one remembered Roudenko or could recall seeing a Russian-French couple around the Buenos Aires art circuit during the 1940's-50's. At that time, those interviewed would have been in their twenties and thirties, a full generation younger than the Roudenkos. Yet all agreed that even by the late 1950's, Pollock's widely-publicized and generally ridiculed drip-action style had little discernable impact on the abstract painters of Buenos Aires. For example, it was likely Juan del Prete [1897-1987], one of Argentina's best known abstract artists, who produced the first example of Argentinean drip-action painting, in 1959. It was also in 1959 that the first Pollock painting was brought to Argentina when it was purchased by the Di Tella family.

Research continued in all of Buenos Aires' art libraries and archives, including the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes, the Museo de Arte Moderno and at the Fundación Espigas (the Documentation Center for Art in Argentina). Still, no sign of Roudenko. Equally disappointing were the archives of the Palais de Glace, which holds a massive historical collection of catalogues by national and international artists who exhibited in Buenos Aires. Even the archives of the French, Russian, and Jewish cultural centers had no record of him. He is not mentioned anywhere. Not even in Adrián Merlino's exhaustive biographical dictionary of 1954, Diccionario de Artistas Plásticos de la Argentina.

Roudenko was a man who lost his native country, his family, and his language. Yet he was a survivor. At every new turn, he adapted to a new land. Clearly, New York beckoned to him as his final adventure, arriving just as the war between the School of Paris and the New York School ended. He now lived in the new capital of the art world, its status recently wrested from Paris, and it was here that he made frequent pilgrimages to its new progressive temple - the Museum of Modern Art. Even though Jackson Pollock was not the first drip action painter (he was influenced by Janet Sobel, for one) the influential critic, Clement Greenberg, had effectively pushed him to the forefront so that Pollock would not only "own" the style, but would become the grand priest of Abstract Expressionism. Pollock's tragic death, only a few years before Roudenko's arrival, simply ensconced Pollock more quickly in the pantheon of art history's heroic figures.

Thus, Roudenko arrived on a scene where he saw how art critics, museums, prestigious galleries, and a sophisticated New York intelligencia could legitimize, reinforce, and perpetuate an artist's career. So, why not become immersed in drip-action painting? After all, Roudenko was an adventurous and cosmopolitan artist with the confidence to express himself. Always impeccably dressed, he even looked a bit like Maurice Chevalier, especially when, with a glint in his eye, he called his French wife, "Cherie."

The author is particularly grateful to Victoria Verlichak, a leading expert on Argentine artists, and art detective extraordinaire, who spent countless hours in research and conducted numerous interviews in Buenos Aires. Ms. Verlichak's most recent book is "Matilde Marín, The Tremor of Poetry". Further private research was provided by Julieta Vaquero, art reference librarian at the Escuela Superiore de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires.

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