Interview conducted by Emily Tallo
Make no mistake of what Ken Robbins, an amateur art collector, thinks about Anastas Konstantinov’s art: it’s good, it’s exciting, and, better yet, it’s meaningful. His Southern accent, slight as it is, becomes particularly pronounced when he confers Anastas’ likeness to Picasso. Though he admits his inexperience within the world of art, Robbins never invalidates his own grand judgments, and why should he? Certainly he allows himself to be captivated by the artwork and doesn’t try to “get it.” He engages with it—and isn’t that the real point?—swiftly forming his own thoughts and judgments on pieces that would baffle others. Read the interview to hear more about the meaning one collector found in Anastas’ art.
Tell me about yourself.
I am a CEO of an advertising agency based in Atlanta, Georgia and I’m just fascinated by different experiences. I’ve done racecar driving school, I have gotten deep into wines and studying wines at a complex level, and I fly-fish all over North America, and now, I’m into art! But it wasn’t really until I met Michelangelo and then Anastas that I understood how artists think. That is, there are works of art that have meaning and purpose, but most art in the world is just for decoration.
What role have you played in the US Project? How did you get involved?
I’m much more of a sideline participant. I happened to go to Bulgaria, I went for business reasons, but then fifty percent of my time was spent with Michelangelo and Anastas. I am not really involved in the US Project; I am merely a beginning novice collector of Anastas’ paintings. When I went there, I had no intention of buying one of his paintings. But being in Anastas’ presence, the presence of his family, in his studio, and seeing so much of his work at once, I was moved. I was moved by the complexity of the technique. He’s done so many different pieces in different medias. I mean you go outside his house and his fire pit is an incredibly complex mosaic piece, which he did from scratch. I am captivated by his talent, which is obviously a developed talent. The art flows through him, as if he is a conduit of concepts and imagery and symbolism and meaning.
When did you first come into contact with Anastas’ work?
On a business trip to Bulgaria, I first entered his house at about one o’clock in the morning after twenty-four hours of flight connections. It was like a typical Bohemian New York arts scene: there’s Anastas, there are dinner guests still there, there’s Michelangelo there, there’s his wife serving food even at one o’clock in the morning.
What was your impression of Anastas’ work?
Even before I met [Anastas and his family], I entered through the vestibule in their home, and there is this incredible mosaic stone on the floor, and this stone goes for probably four thousand square feet. It’s like a vine of flowers drawn on the floor. He hand-laid all of this. It’s just beautiful. His studio is all colors: yellows, reds, some greens. I thought that he was first and foremost a bold painter, who enjoys the use of primary color contrast. There are splashes of this in every painting all the way up and down the walls, and it’s a three-story facility. My first impression was that this was going to be fun, but when you get up close you see there is a battle of some sort going on in many of his paintings.
Has your impression of his work evolved over time? If so, how?
There’s nothing subtle. These aren’t Monet-style watercolors; these are powerful and bold with lots of contrast in them…[his work] has an intense amount of passion, defiance for the state, and an expectation and adherence to faith—that Christianity and the universe can deliver a human society from the evils over other men. But his message is much less the typical charismatic preaching; it’s much more just a deep-seeded faith. I don’t think he’s preaching to the world “be Christian,” I think he’s saying, “I believe in all cases God is watching, and that he is our deliverance from communism, specifically, and from evil, and from conflict.” I also don’t want to say that I think Anastas is necessarily pure at heart. There is a significant amount, in another section of his work, of sexuality. It’s this side of him that really makes me think that he’s a modern-day Picasso, because Picasso had so much evidence of sexuality in his works.
Do you own any of Anastas’ works? If so, which ones? What compelled you to buy them?
I own one of his paintings, and there were at least two others that I wanted to buy when I was there. I don’t like to surround myself with pieces that are noteworthy or conversation pieces, but I dig into things that have a lot of meaning for me. I believe in the struggle of the individual versus the state, I see it in all forms throughout my life. It’s become a framing bias for me. I believe that man is supposed to be individually free and have a direct connection to God. The state, the federal United States government, the local state government, communism—all of these things are artificial structures trying to get between God and us, making us less free. Anastas has had a huge defiant struggle with the state, living under communist occupation in Bulgaria. He suffered under that, so I had a connection with [his] struggle right off the bat. I saw a series of paintings he had done which was obviously defiant, specifically defiant to the state, a series called “The Red Pigs.” The first one I saw, which has long since been sold, was a painting of four pigs in a forest and a shepherd. The shepherd is obviously a Christ-like figure, and he’s ushering these pigs out of the forest. [Anastas] said to me that he painted it because he wanted to show the symbolism of God liberating Bulgaria of these red pigs, the Soviets. He painted several of these red pig paintings, and then he painted another one after the Soviets had been forced out. The one I acquired is called “The Suicide of the Red Pig” and it has a whole different color composition to it. It’s actually violent and vibrant at the same time. It has such meaning to me: the state, because it takes so much, eventually consumes the host and, like a parasite, it dies. The painting has a tremendous amount of personal meaning to me. In it I see him rejecting structure between the free individual and God’s watchful eye.
What do you think makes Anastas’ paintings so remarkable?
There are two things that I’m astonished by. First, the consistency of messages over twenty or thirty years of painting, and yet the distinct change in technique. Artists want to be commercial, they want to sell and be popular, but Anastas’ paintings are never bought just to decorate a room. In his case, there is a rare amount of authentic commitment to what he wants to say and express rather than what he thinks people will want to buy. It is amazing how often the fish, the eye, the struggle between man and evil and man and the state, appear in his works over several decades. The second thing is the speed with which he creates a piece of art. He seems to already have the composition in his mind, because he works so quickly. I had no idea an artist could work this fast.
What place do you think Anastas deserves in art history?
I think he deserves the status in the world, not just in Bulgaria, of a leading modern Expressionist artist. Fifty years from now, I think his work should be regarded at the same level as a Picasso or a Dali—two artists who I think influence his work greatly.
Thanks, Ken, for your thoughts!