There have always been artists who required us to do extra homework to be ready for the full intellectual effect of their work. The visitor to the Bargello Palace reads Dante before approaching the Giotto frescoes, as does the informed spectator before Auguste Rodin’s Gates of Hell (1880-1917) while the ideal opera buff is steeped in the sagas of the Nibelungen prior to entering the theater at Bayreuth for the Ring Cycle. The connoisseur of such contemporary masters as Peter Halley, Jasper Johns or Cai Guo-Qiang is familiar with an extensive bibliography that provides keys to the metaphors in motion. The encyclopedic range of paintings, installations and portfolios by Ilya & Emilia Kabakov presents a particularly rich example of the sort of symbolic density and intricate storytelling that demand the investment of time and attention.
An important recent exhibition in New York at Edelman Arts, “The Study of Kabakov” uses an intimate survey of works on paper from 1960 to 1985 to introduce an American audience to their poetic sense of the absurd. Combining selections from the library of the Kabakovs’ home with three albums from the “10 Characters” series, the exhibition offers an essential introduction to the narrative vocabulary of the installations and paintings for which the Kabakovs are renowned. Being the first Soviet-era artists to be offered an exhibition at the Hermitage in 2004, their works are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Modern in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris among many other museums.
The exhibition is timely. In general, the Kabakovs’ reputation in Russia and Europe vastly exceeds their recognition in the United States. Divided into a reading area complete with lecterns for the books, and a gallery showcasing some of the watercolor and ink drawings that are the basis for the limited edition portfolios, the bicameral organization of the Edelman show is an apt metaphor in itself for the double nature of the work’s appeal, both scholarly and sensual. Edelman Arts devotes considerable space in both galleries to books, essentially bringing into the exhibition a generous selection of the Kabakovs’ vast personal library in Long Island. It provides a contextual frame for the paintings and installations. Asher Edelman, whose collection includes the Kabakovs’ work and who wisely decided to use the portfolios and many of the original drawings upon which they are based to introduce the Kabakovs to a broader American audience, has a bit of blunt advice for the novice. “It will take the viewer two hours or more in the first or ‘study’ room, where most of the books are, to be ready to look at the art in the second room.”
The lesson begins with history. Ilya Kabakov was born in Dnepropetrovsk (now part of Ukraine) in 1933. In 1940, World War II reached that part of Russia and his family was evacuated to Samarkand. His natural drawing talent earned him a ticket to the Institute of Art in Leningrad, the top Soviet art school, where his skills as a painter and illustrator were honed. His first Soviet exhibition was in 1968, incorporating texts and books. The albums had their origins at this time, and culminated in 1978 with the completion of the series “On White and Gray Paper” in 1985. Kabakov’s exhibitions in Bern, Marseille, Düsseldorf and Paris established his reputation outside the Soviet Union, but he was unable to travel until he received a three-month fellowship in Graz, Austria. He had to return home shortly after due to the death of his mother. By that time he was well known as a leading figure among Moscow-based conceptual artists, having exploded upon the international scene with a solo exhibition at Dina Vierny in Paris in 1985.
Best known for work that reflects the political and intellectual conditions of post-Stalinist Russia, the recent popularity of the Kabakovs — he works in close conjunction with his wife Emilia — outside Europe relies on the universality of the symbolism and psychological depth of such installations as The Red Wagon (1991) and The Rope of Life (1995). One of the signature works, The Red Wagon is actually one of the most straightforward both politically and aesthetically, and has proven immensely popular among both European and American audiences. The work is an exercise in expectations that remain unfulfilled. A wooden constructivist-style entryway in the form of several stairs leads, as always with Kabakov, upward into “heaven.” The destination is a nine-meter-long, wheel-less wagon decorated in gloomy Socialist-Realist style with a lush woodland landscape. Spectators sit in front of it waiting for the “show” to begin, and of course it never does. Then it comes time to pick one’s way carefully down short stairs past piles of rubbish and the detritus of a construction project before which spectators sit, the finale to a three-part journey into decline that seems all the more timely in our era of Spenglerian pessimism.
After the debut of The Red Wagon at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf in 1991, Kabakov felt obliged to offer a commentary on its broader meanings. The quickest and most obvious interpretive route that hews closely to the politics of the Soviet era, the regimes of Stalin, Brezhnev and Andropov, may shortchange its higher theoretical connotations. As Kabakov notes, “It seems an easy but not an altogether correct perspective to simplify the installation’s message, sealing it in the merely political, news-style context. Although political connotations are too evident to be discarded, they may as well be regarded as a mere form, as a shaping touch of present-day reality — while the message itself should be looked for elsewhere, beyond the obvious and familiar reminiscences and allusions.” He points the way to earlier Russian literary and art historical sources dating to the ’20s and including the ideas of El Lissitzky, Rodchenko, Kluzis, Tatlin and the LEF group (LEF was the journal of the Left Front for the Arts, which favored avant-garde Constructivist work as opposed to Socialist Realism). He continues, “These artists were extremely engaged politically and strived to reach maximal actuality in their work, keeping pace with political developments of the period and actively participating in them.”
It is late summer on Long Island, and Emilia Kabakov is relaxing by a huge picture window overlooking a shimmering bay at her home (the vast studios are a short stroll across the lawn) just west of the beach where Albert Einstein once walked. The voluble half of the artistic duo, she was born in 1945 and began working with her husband in 1988 (they married in 1992). As she points out, “The real key to Kabakov’s work is narrative. Russians are famous for combining media to serve narrative, whether in literature or in art or ballet or any art form, and since the ’60s in Moscow, Ilya has been one of the leading figures in Russian conceptual art, which is narrative by nature. Even today, when people are interested in Ilya’s paintings, they are looking for text, for a little story of human beings with a message, not political but humanistic, often quite Romantic.”
There is always that play of past and present in the Kabakovs’ work. All too often, the nostalgia is attributed to a longing for the bad old days of the Soviet Union, rather like the “ostalgia” of East Germans for their Communist deprivations. Both Ilya and Emilia are eager to amend that perception. As she says, “many people mix the nostalgia with the Soviet era, but that is absolutely not the case. It is nostalgia for Culture with a capital C in a form that is more 19th century than 20th. Even in the Soviet period, culture was a very important part of social life because it was the only way you could be elite, a way to become somebody. If you were a factory worker of course you were celebrated by the state, but were you really respected? As an artist you were.”
She admits that now it is money that counts. Once an art dealer herself, Emilia objects to speculation: “One thing I really hate is when people invest in art, because they don’t see it. They are playing the market. If you want to make an investment, go to Wall Street or the casino. Don’t play with Culture.”
While Ilya has been in the art studio virtually since childhood, the bookish Emilia was at the piano starting at age three. Scholarly editions of Bach, Brahms and other composers, marked by a diligent hand, are open on the piano at her home. She says with unfeigned passion, “Culture for me is religion and as important. Either you don’t believe in anything and you live like an animal, or you believe in God and you live the life of the religious zealot, or you believe in Culture and that makes you human. Take us out of a cultural milieu and we would die.”
As with many artistic duos, the split between the roles of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov can seem murky. She is a latecomer to the partnership. His illustrations and earliest portfolios date to the ’60s in Moscow, a heady time when dissidents and intellectuals played a cat-and-mouse game with authorities that could have fatal consequences if played wrong. For those who survived the grim era of Communist anti-intellectualism — not just in Russia but also in China — and can recall the fateful consequences of possessing the wrong poetry volume or music tape, the present situation can seem almost laughably mild. In Kabakov’s time, the thrill of satire depended upon the strength of both parties in the I-and-Thou conflict between the intellectual and a repressive regime. The energy that lifted poetry readings by Yevtushenko or Voznesensky to the fever pitch of football matches, filling stadia and igniting informed debate, depended at least in part upon the specter of the state looming dangerously, not just through censorship but with the kind of power that could send a writer or artist to a work camp in Siberia. Many exiles from Russia and China reflect on the perilous experience of their own time and marvel at the ease with which artists can travel on visas or the fortunes they can make on the art market.
According to Emilia, each work begins with a vision or dream and proceeds through continual revision. “Our collaboration is a process of dialogue. Sometimes it goes easily in the studio, and then we have a terrible day.” In terms of working together, she says, “The only thing I don’t do is paint, and I wouldn’t want to.” She does distinguish subtly between herself and her husband when it comes to their approach to the dramatic volume of the work. “If anything, Ilya has a tendency to do things less theatrically, and I have a tendency to be more theatrical. For me, if there is a bit of exaggeration, you are drawn in immediately. For him, he doesn’t mind if it takes a moment to become agitated and involved. I think the common viewer has to be immediately grabbed,” she observes.
In Emilia’s view, the crucial transition is from the passive audience member to the active participant. As she says, “I want you to lose track of time and sense of space. You won’t know where you are in the museum. My own belief is that for this to unfold over time the work always has to be complicated. At first the story is that of the artist, but at a certain stage, a certain subtle moment, you begin to play the leading role, become an actor in the work.” She adds that art that is easy has a problem. “If I walk in and understand immediately, I distrust it. It shouldn’t be stupid and easy.”
While the installation pieces are the best-known examples of the Kabakovs’ drama, imagery, mythology, symbolism and art history, they believe that the portfolios have been overlooked. Three are in the New York exhibition. There are fifty-five albums from the ’60s and ’70s, incorporating many art historical styles, practically enveloping all the styles of the twentieth century. As Emilia points out, “If you know what you are looking at you get an encyclopedic sense of them, but it is also possible to perceive them on the human level — a common person can get the story. There are so many meanings to find there.”
The future holds more publications and the possibility of the sort of utopian center for fostering creativity that is certainly reminiscent of such idealists as Tatlin and El Lissitzky. Nearing 80, Ilya is writing more and working with translators on the publication in English of his memories going back to the ’60s, as well as dialogues. “He wants to reveal what is on is mind, to clarify and explain,” his wife says. The center for creativity and cosmic energy is, admittedly, a “pure fantasy.” But, with the Kabakovs, if he can draw it, the odds are it will find its incarnation in some form.
Charles A. Riley II, PhD, is professor at the City University of New York. He is the author of The Jazz Age in France, Aristocracy and the Modern Imagination, The Saints of Modern Art and Color Codes and Sacred Sister (in collaboration with Robert Wilson). He is a guest curator at the Chimei Museum in Taiwan and curator-at-large for the Nassau County Museum of Art.
Ilya Kabakov was born in Dnepropetrovsk, Russia, in 1933. Emilia Kabakov (nee Kanevsky) was born in Dnepropetrovsk, in 1945. The Kabakovs live and work in the North Fork of Long Island, US.
Ilya & Emilia Kabakov’s retrospective “A Return to Painting” opens January 29, 2012, at the Sprengel Museum in Hannover, Germany. It will travel to Henie-Onstad kunstsenter in Oslo and to the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.