The Kabakovs

The Kabakovs


Ilya and Emilia Kabakov are widely recognized as the premier artists to emerge from the Soviet Union and major figures on the international art scene. Audiences and critics habitually hail their exhibitions in leading museums around the world. In 2008 they were awarded the Praemium Imperiale, established by the Emperor of Japan to honor the fields that the Nobel Prize does not cover.

The Kabakovs have gone far to redefine the thrust and meaning of art in the 20th and 21st centuries. A larger understanding of where we have been and where we are going would be impossible without them.

Ilya Kabakov was born on September 30, 1933, in Dnepropetrovsk, in the Ukraine at a time when starvation was rampant there under the official policy of collectivization. Already language had been corrupted, and “famine” was a forbidden word.

Growing up, Kabakov experienced Stalin and his outrages as a kind of weather, like a downpour inundating everything even his own private miseries, of which there were many. As an artist in Moscow during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, it was the despotism of bureaucracy that he lived, falling like a steady rain, dampening the hopes and routines of the everyday. The only kind of art that was officially recognized was Socialist Realism, a Pollyanna vision of a utopia that everyone who lived it knew was botched and ugly.

Beginning, in the 1960s, however, new groups of artists emerged, unofficial artists, known only to each other and a widening circle of friends. Away from official entanglements, in the privacy of their own studios and apartments, unofficial artists made art “for themselves,” out of their own integrity and their souls, they argued in intense kitchen table debates.

In his day job, Kabakov was an official artist – a highly successful, even famous, illustrator of children’s books. In every other way, he was an unofficial artist “for myself.” His quest to reconcile the two put him at the center of three generations of what came to be called “Moscow Conceptualists.” Harassed by the KGB during the Soviet period, Moscow Conceptualists are now honored as the second great Soviet Avant-Garde, worthy successors to the Suprematists and Constructivists of the first Avant-Garde in the teens of the 20th Century.

Kabakov’s achievement was to find a way to make art out of the materials at hand: the ubiquitous language of bureaucracy, which spilled over into the most intimate corners of life; the shabby shoddiness of private and public spaces; the prevalence of garbage and despair. First he made drawings that explored the disconnect between bureaucratic absurdity and everyday reality. These became paintings, which turned the language of Soviet placards and proclamations into deadpan rows of columns or empty voids on which words and images made nonsense of one another. Very often, the words became an inane form of dialogue, but dialogue nevertheless.

Kabakov has always been a teller of tales in the tradition of the great Russian novelists. By the early 1970s, he was collecting his drawings into albums, each of which comprised the tale of a crackpot visionary, an artist on the edges who saw a skewed world from an incongruous perspective. The album called Sitting-In-The-Closet Primakov is a send-up of Black Square by Malevich, an icon of the first Russian Avant-Garde who championed the Revolution in whose wreckage Kabakov lived. Generous Barmin is infected with an obsession for the meaningless lists and bar charts that Soviet society produced in such abundance. The Flying Kamarov flaunts the style of a preposterously ebullient May Day celebration, as everything, from carrots, to bureaus, to people, takes to the sky and flies off into the unattainable beyond.


Kabakov had built himself a studio on the roof of a once-grand building that now housed floor after floor of communal apartment. Before the Revolution, these had been one-family dwellings. Afterwards, they were sliced and diced to house as many as 12 extended families, all of whom shared a noisome bathroom and a kitchen that was the site of epic battles. Friends, artists, composers, poets, writers, and fellow artists would climb the filthy steps, smelling of cabbage, to the studio where Kabakov “performed” his albums by turning the pages and reading them aloud.

By the time I found my way to that studio in the fall of 1987, Kabakov’s impulse towards storytelling had turned three-dimensional. He had begun to construct spaces in which the audience became the actors, as they walked through, investigating the leavings of the characters the artist had created. Leaning against the walls of his studio that autumn day was the skeleton of what would become the 10 Characters installation with which he burst upon the New York art scene at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in 1988.

Kabakov was 55, bursting with pent-up ideas and heretofore unrealizable projects. 10 Characters was a massive undertaking, a virtual communal apartment. In separate rooms, each of the 10 characters had left behind the detritus of dreary daily lives and soured dreams. Viewers entered these rooms by roaming dirty communal corridors, dimly lit by bare lightbulbs. With irony, precision, and mysticism, Kabakov had constructed a magical space in which Western viewers could approach the world from the point of view of denizen of the failed Soviet experiment. With the communal apartment as his metaphor, Kabakov was able to present a complex, layered experience that drew on the memories and emotions of his audience to present a psychological portrait of Soviet daily life that raised deeper, more universal questions about the human condition.

It immediately hit a nerve with audiences. Very soon that installation had traveled to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. and the Whitechapel Gallery in London, and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris had acquired the most theatrical of the rooms, The Man Who Flew Into Space.

By then, Kabakov had re-united with Emilia Kanevsky, whom he had known since she was a child in the Soviet Union. They had grown up in the same town of Dnepropetrovsk, though 12 years apart. Emilia, born in 1945, had studied piano at the Music College in Irkutsk, and Spanish language and literature at the Moscow University. In Moscow, she was a frequent visitor to Kabakov and his studio, and when she immigrated to Israel in 1973, she begged him to come with her. However, he had a family and would not be ready to leave the Soviet Union for another 14 years. By the time they reencountered one another in Europe, she was a curator and art dealer living in New York. They were married in 1992

Ilya Kabakov has always lived within his art. The actual details of getting through a day often escape him. Emilia Kabakov has the organizational gifts of CEO and an ability to get what she wants. With her there to make things happen, the Kabakovs began to realize larger and larger installations in museums around the world.

Between 1988 and 2000 alone, they mounted 165 installations in 148 museums in 30 countries. Outstanding among them was Life of Flies, (Cologne, Germany), an unsettling parallel universe in which flies were posited as the explanation of everything malevolent that had occurred in Russia; School # 6 (Marfa, Texas), a deserted schoolhouse built around an empty yard just at the moment when the Soviet Union was disintegrating; The Palace of Projects (London, England; New York, NY; Essen Germany), the glowing white tower that Tatlin never realized filled with do-it-yourself utopian projects. In haunting parables the Kabakovs traced a universal trajectory of failed dreams, collapsed civilizations, and the unquenchable lure of illusion in every society.


While the language of garbage and the everyday remains at the heart of the art, the Kabakovs have increasingly subsumed into their installations and permanent public sculptures a sense of the meaning of place. The ironic language learned in Soviet Moscow, it transpires, is as apt a tool for deciphering our time and place as any other.

Ilya Kabakov had found himself a home amidst the traveling tribe of artists in the international art world. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the utopia that Kabakov critiqued was the one about which he could once only dream – the great river of art history which each successive generation of contemporary artist aspires to join.


Starting in the late 1990s, he invented a Russian painter named Charles Rosenthal and painted more than 60 paintings in Rosenthal’s name, all of which questioned the doctrinaire reading of 20th century art as a progression from realism to abstraction. Kabakov’s Rosenthal, born into the generation of Revolution, died in 1933, the year Ilya Kabakov was born. So the next painter he invented to paint his paintings was Ilya Kabakov, heir to the failures of Rosenthal’s optimism. And then he invented Igor Spivak, whose entire career took place after the fall of the Soviet Union, which the callow painter looked back upon with nostalgia.

Characteristically, Kabakov’s description of the three stages of utopian history they represented is in dialogue:

Rosenthal: It will be paradise.

Kabakov: This is hell.

Spivak: It was paradise.

Through it all, however, Ilya Kabakov avoided a return to Moscow. The closest he came was to become the first living Russian artist to exhibit at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg in 2005. Even that was too close. Once he arrived in Russia, he locked himself in his hotel room for days, unable to venture into the streets, and then did so only with anxiety and trepidation. On his return to his home on Long Island, he was still so distressed that he fell and broke his wrist.

But in 2008, Dasha (Daria) Zhukova invited the Kabakovs to inaugurate the Garage, a huge art space she was creating out of a Moscow bus garage designed by the Constructivist architect Konstantin Melnikov in 1927. Once the Kabakovs had agreed, they enlarged the project to six installations in five venues, including the Pushkin Museum. The centerpiece of the exhibition was “Alternative History of Art: Rosenthal, Kabakov, Spivak” at the Garage. For this installation, the Kabakovs built a mini version of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as a kind of instruction to Muscovites of what a great museum could be.

The framework of the film is their massive effort to realize the Moscow projects and the historic event that their homecoming visit became.


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