Ilya Kabakov (born 1933) is an artist of note in two distinctly polar disciplines. While living in the Soviet Union for 30 years, he was a well-known, albeit officially sanctioned, children's book illustrator. He was simultaneously amassing a substantial body of unofficial avant-garde work. Since leaving the Soviet Union in 1988, he has been prolific; he is now considered the foremost post-Stalinist Russian artist. His prime means of artistic expression has been sprawling installations largely based on Soviet-related themes.
"By any reckoning Kabakov's career has bridged an exceptional variety of situations and concerns," wrote Robert Storr in Art in America. "He remains better known in Europe (where he was featured in the last Venice Biennale) than in America, where he now resides. His ideas and observations raise significant questions about the development and future of installation art—which remains his principal artistic form— and about our current esthetic horizons."
Studied Art by Accident
Kabakov was born on September 30, 1933, in Dniepropetrovsk, Ukraine, to Jewish parents. His family was poor, so much so they often lived apart from each other. War also frequently uprooted Kabakov. He was first relocated in 1941 when World War II fighting extended into the Soviet Union.
By chance, Kabakov attended a professional elementary art school between the ages of 7 and 16. The school was the Leningrad Academy of Art, which had been temporarily relocated to Samarkand during World War II. A friend studying at the school decided one night to clandestinely take Kabakov into the school to look at paintings of nude women. Once inside the school, they were confronted by an adult. The boys lied to legitimize their presence there, making the excuse that they were there because Kabakov was thinking about attending the school. He was invited to apply and dashed off a few pictures—military scenes based on equipment stationed in the area—to support his application. He was accepted; he was also the only applicant.
Art was neither easy nor a passion. Kabakov claims to have been constantly frustrated by his lack of ability. "I already understood that I couldn't draw and that I had no talent for art," he told Art in America in 1995. "I continued to study even though I didn't like it, and my attitude toward it was like that of a trained rabbit who beats a drum: he must learn to do it, but not loving it inside and even feeling revulsion toward it. And ultimately I did learn to beat the drum fairly well, but all the while thinking to myself that it just wasn't me."
Kabakov was evacuated again when German forces began invading the Soviet Union. He was taken to Holy Trinity Monastery and Cathedral in Zagorsk. He eventually returned to Samarkand, then continued his formal education in Moscow until he was 23.
Continued Education in Moscow
Kabakov said his mother moved to Moscow to be near him while he was in boarding school, even without a special resident permit. "She became a laundry cleaner at school. But without an apartment the only place she had was the room where she arranged the laundry." He related in a 1992 article on ARTMARGINS website that his mother "felt homeless and defenseless vis-a-vis the authorities, while, on the other hand, she was so tidy and meticulous that her honesty and persistence allowed her to survive in the most improbable place. My child psyche was traumatized by the fact that my mother and I never had a corner to ourselves."
He attended Moscow Secondary Art School between 1945 and 1951. He graduated from Surikov Institute of Arts in 1957. He maintained that creating art continued to be a struggle. Kabakov said in Art in America his education was very classical in nature, extremely similar to nineteenth-century art education but "bureaucratic and dead… . We all were physically present but mentally absent."
Kabakov has claimed he became an illustrator of children's books as a result of bad grades, which placed him in the school graphics program rather than in the more elite painting section. He said this discipline actually suited him well. "I read incessantly, I was crazy about books, and I would comment upon or think aloud about anything I saw. My thoughts would come to me already in the form of words. I don't know what it is, but I cannot look at a painting in silence; inside I am always talking to myself at the moment that I am viewing it," he said in Art in America in 1995. "Naturally, this method is very easily connected to the notion of illustration… . I was successful not only because I mastered what I was supposed to illustrate, but also what was expected from me."
Small student groups formed outside the classroom to supplant the dreary coursework. Each person would tackle a subject: philosophy, history, or poetry. Kabakov and artists Erik Bulatov, Oleg Vassilyev, and Mikhail Mezhaninov formed a clique. These students found mentors in artists such as Robert Falk, Vladimir Favorsky, and Artur Fonvizin. Under the Soviet Regime, each of these men was an unofficial artist, that is their work was not sanctioned by the state.
Sought Artistic Expression Outside the Official
Kabakov said he knew in 1955, while still in school, that he had to find an artistic form outside that which was officially dictated and sanctioned. It certainly continued his lifelong struggle with art and the creative process, but it marked an important step in his evolution and maturity. Kabakov experimented variously in genres including Abstract Expressionism and his own version of neo-Surrealism. He and his fellow artists began creating unofficial art. These pieces began to be shown in the West in 1964.
The group was known as NOMA or the Moscow Conceptual Circle of Artists. The style of art they created was called Romantic Conceptualism. This was "not so much an artistic school, but a subculture and a way of life," wrote Svetlana Boym on the ARTMARGINS website. "A group of artists, writers, and intellectuals created a kind of parallel existence in a gray zone, in a 'stolen space' carved out between Soviet institutions. Stylistically, the work of the conceptualists was seen as a Soviet parallel to pop art, only instead of the advertisement culture they used the trivial and drab rituals of Soviet everyday life—too banal and insignificant to be recorded anywhere else, and made taboo not because of their potential political explosiveness, but because of their sheer ordinariness, their all-too-human scale."
Some members' work was purchased by visiting Westerners, but Kabakov has asserted others gave away paintings in hopes of triggering some positive reaction from afar. Westerners were initially underwhelmed with the work, but this unofficial art generated buzz and attracted notice within the international art community in the 1970s and 1980s. Conceptual artists associated with this group include Vitali Komar and Alexander Melamid.
As an official artist, Kabakov worked in the Soviet Union for 30 years with the "benefit of steady work and minimal KGB scrutiny," according to Amy Ingrid Schlegel writing in the Winter 1999 issue of Art Journal. He has claimed in Art in America this art was not done for love, but because it "could be done quickly and therefore didn't take a lot of time away from your own work… . You should not think that we loved our illustrating. It might have been possible to love it if you had been permitted to do what you wanted, but you didn't love it because you had to do what was expected." He has also said "at the foundation of my career lies fear, ridiculous circumstances and my mother, who sacrificed everything for it." Indeed, Kabakov supported her and his in-laws throughout his sanctioned illustrating career.
Between 1969 and 1980, Kabakov created a series of 50 albums that combined art and text. "Each album told the tale of a different character, a different demented dreamer creating an elaborate system to make life not only bearable but meaningful," wrote Amei Wallach in a feature in Art in America. The best known of these is "Okno" ("The Window"), which was later published. These albums became the basis of his interest in installation art.
He began working in a more conceptual style in the mid-1970s. The result were "zhek picture displays," parodies of broadsides and Soviet posters. Kabakov created the name from the acronym ZhEK, referring to the Soviet housing management. He hosted informal meetings of fellow conceptual artists at his apartment known as the Sretensky Boulevard Group, so called after the Moscow street where many of them lived.
Emigrated and Continued Prolific Creation
Kabakov attempted to emigrate from the Soviet Union three times, first in the 1970s. Each time, he changed his mind. He eventually left the Soviet Union in 1988. He is reportedly reluctant to discuss this, although immigrating to the West has obviously had a major impact on his life and art. Schlegel stated when he did leave his homeland, he chose "to exile himself from Russia physically, socially, and linguistically once the policies of perestroika and glasnost took effect in the late 1980s."
A flurry of Kabakov books was released after his emigration. A particular surge could be seen in the mid-1990s. These included his children's books as well as volumes related to his various exhibitions such as "The Palace of Projects" and "Auf dem Dach/On the Roof." Schlegel dubbed this "critical mass" of work "The Kabakov Phenomenon." His work and his prolific production plus these publications "helped make him a senior international art world star." Artforum International said of this generation of contemporary Soviet artists, most of the attention has been paid to Kabakov. "[H]is work comes as close as anybody's to encompassing the better part of a continent's worth of art," wrote Barry Schwabsky.
It was Kabakov's "Ten Characters" installation mounted in New York that started a series of museum installations. It was also his first solo exhibition. Wallach, writing in Art in America in 2000, noted since the spring of 1988, "he has for all intents and purposes been working in a series of museums. In the last 12 years he has mounted 165 installations in 148 museums in 30 countries." A 1995 book by Kabakov, On the "Total" Installation, explains the form and his artistic philosophies.
Moved Away from Installations
Later in his career, Kabakov began shying away from relying on the Soviet Union as a subject for his installations. One of the first of these is "Auf dem Dach/On the Roof," in which ten rooms, representing a narrative timeline of snapshots from family life, were shown from the vantage point of a rooftop. His "The Palace of Projects" and "Life and Creativity of Charles Rosenthal" marked a further turn toward other forms. Kabakov considers these works as "grand finales to his singleminded preoccupation with 'total' installation," but, added Wallach, "it is difficult to imagine that he will forsake it altogether." As has been the case throughout his career, Kabakov continued to create prolifically. As Schlegel pointed out, Kabakov "works everyday, all day. Some might say he is a workaholic. Others would interpret his work habits as a form of flood control."
He and his wife Emilia also began collaborating on public sculpture. The couple moved to Long Island, New York, around 1996. There, they built two large studios. Permanent pieces by them can be found in Italy, Japan, and Belgium. Wallach stated "according to his concept, the purpose of the sculpture is to embody a 'spirit of the place.' " Kabakov contended "The principle is that every place in our cultural life has a spirit, and … if you hear the spirit, if you feel it … what the spirit has to say is: Please do not disturb me!"
Boym submitted that "For Kabakov, art remains an inevitable, existential need and a therapy for survival… . The artist loves the museum not merely as an institution, but as a personal refuge… . Kabakov's total installations look like the artist's Noah's arks, only we are never sure if the artist escaped from hell or from paradise."
Artforum International, May 2000.
Art in America, January 1995; November 2000.
Art Journal, Winter 1999.
"Ilya Kabakov," Amsterdam University Library website, http://cf.uba.uva.nl/en/news/afk/kabakov.html (February 28, 2003).
"Il'ya Kabakov," Artnet.com, http://www.artnet.com/library/04/0454/T045419.asp (February 28, 2003).
"Ilya Kabakov," The Legacy Project: Visual Arts Library website, http://www.legacy-project.org/artists/display.html ?ID=197 (February 28, 2003).
"Ilya Kabakov: The Soviet Toilet and the Palace of Utopias,"ARTMARGINS website, http://www.artmargins.com/content/feature/boym2.html (February 28, 2003).