The genius in the garage

A trove of works by the greatest Russian artist you've never heard of

A strange thing can happen at art fairs. You'll be minding your own business, ogling the latest in high-tech polymer sculptures or experimental video art, when you round a corner and catch a glimpse of something that looks vaguely familiar. On the wall of a tony British gallery's booth, could it be? A real painting by Joan Miró.

The trouble is ... it's not terribly impressive. At close range, the paint is cracked, maybe even yellowed, and the canvas looks, well, old. Without the accoutrements of a museum (cavernous white rooms, perfect lighting, helpful labels), it can be hard to tell you're in the presence of greatness.

Without such clues, even experts can sometimes be at a loss. If you caught the 2006 documentary Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock? — the tale of former truck driver Teri Horton and her efforts to authenticate a Jackson Pollock look-alike she purchased at a thrift store for $5 — then you'll recall the parade of authorities who steadfastly proclaimed that the painting just couldn't be a multimillion-dollar Pollock, even as fingerprint analysis seemed to prove them wrong.

I mention this because Ybor gallery owner Brad Cooper is now showing paintings and drawings by a Russian painter whose works he found in a Pinellas Park garage — and who Cooper believes is an undiscovered modern master.

Nicholas Morosoff's journey to Florida was a roundabout one. Born in Moscow in 1899, he attended a prestigious state-sponsored art school, where his teachers included Wassily Kandinsky, and where he met his future wife, Vera Maslennikova, also an artist and a writer. After the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, the Morosoffs got lucky: Both were hired to develop modernized typefaces for the Cyrillic alphabet. As state-sanctioned artists, they were able to apply for visas to study abroad in Italy. Despite entreaties and offers of land from Vera's aristocratic family, they never returned to Russia.

The couple soon abandoned Italy for Paris, where they waited out World War II, and in 1951 they fled to the United States in search of employment, first landing in Chicago, then Manhattan's Upper West Side. After about 20 years in New York, Vera, then in her 70s, was mugged on the street, and suddenly St. Petersburg, Fla. — with its slow tempo, sandy beaches and Russian moniker — was looking pretty good. That's where Cooper met them after seeing a newspaper article about Nicholas's paintings.

When he first examined the vivid canvases, stashed in the Morosoffs' garage, Cooper wasn't sure what to think. Commercial and syrupy, he recalled, were how the bright colors and elaborate compositions struck him after a USF arts education that emphasized minimalism. The paintings stuck in Cooper's mind, though, and he came back to visit again. Bit by bit, a personal history just as vivid as the landscapes and still lifes began to emerge. Morosoff, who didn't like to brag, eventually admitted that during the pre-war period in Paris, he'd shown his paintings in several group salons that included better-known artists like Miró, Giorgio de Chirico, Raoul Dufy and sculptor Aristide Maillol. Vera, briefly represented by a swanky London gallery, took part in one show with works by Picasso, Gauguin and Monet.

His interest growing, Cooper tried videotaping interviews with Morosoff, but the audio track didn't come through. (Later he hired someone else to record the sessions, but that person has since refused to turn the footage over, demanding more money, Cooper says.) When Vera died in 1991, Cooper enlisted friends to help fix up the Morosoffs' house, mainly to keep Nicholas from falling into despair. Afterward, he got an unexpected phone call; it was Morosoff, explaining that he wanted to make Cooper his heir. Cooper protested, suggesting Morosoff must have relatives in Russia. He replied: That's all in the past.

And so, after the artist's death in 1992, Brad Cooper came to own the world's biggest collection of works by Russian painter Nicholas Morosoff — a windfall from the perspective of anyone with a clue who the #$&% Nicholas Morosoff is. The problem is, that's next to nobody. For the moment, Morosoff's paintings — the big ones — sell for about $9,500. Cooper thinks that's giving them away; with the support of scholarship, they could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, he suggests. The gallery owner, who plans to move to Greece with his wife, Elizabeth, once their Ybor City storefront is sold, says he has enough paintings for a museum retrospective, though many were sold during Morosoff's lifetime.

Last year, a stroke of good fortune came Cooper's way. Moscow-based art historian Elena Zhukova, a senior research fellow at the Tretyakov Gallery, published an article on the Morosoffs for a Russian arts journal called Pinakotheke. Zhukova had met Cooper and saw Morosoff's work several years before through her brother, Boris Zhukov, a Tampa artist who recently died of pancreatic cancer. Years passed, but when the journal decided to devote an issue to Russian emigrant artists, the Morosoffs fit the bill. One surprising discovery: Two of Morosoff's early etchings belong to the prestigious Pushkin Museum.

"The fact that a considerable part of their life had been spent in an out-of-the-way American town did not help to make them well known in their homeland," Zhukova prefaced the article.

Perhaps they won't be completely unknown for much longer.

CORRECTION: Two weeks ago, in a preview of summer exhibits, I mentioned the Polk Museum of Art's upcoming show of paintings by Mamie Holst. For the record, Ms. Holst lives in Fort Myers, not Fort Lauderdale.

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