Ilya Kabakov, whose art punctured Soviet propaganda, dies at 89


Ilya Kabakov, a Ukrainian-born conceptual artist renowned for his paintings and large-scale installations satirizing the absurdities of daily life in the Soviet Union under Communist rule, died May 27 at a hospital near his home in Mattituck, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 89.

He recently had a heart attack, said his granddaughter Orliana Morag.

Mr. Kabakov spent most of his career in near-anonymity, hosting secret shows of his subversive — and illegal — work in his Moscow studio. After leaving Russia in 1988, he almost instantly became a major figure on the international art scene, exhilarating gallery owners and critics with pieces that commented on a world unseen.

“You have to understand that he had been working out of sight for decades and that his whole lifetime of work was then discovered at once,” David A. Ross, then director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, told the New York Times in 1992. “Finding him was like stumbling across Jasper Johns or Robert Rauschenberg in the full flush of their maturity.”

Following exhibits in France, Switzerland and Germany, Mr. Kabakov’s first United States show was in 1988 at the Ronald Feldman Fine Arts gallery in Manhattan. Titled “Ten Characters,” the large-scale, immersive installation replicated the sort of 10-room communal apartment of Mr. Kabakov’s early days.

Each space told its own absurdist story of Soviet life.

In the room titled “The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment,” a huge hole in the ceiling shines light on a strange-looking machine hanging from the walls, which are covered in mostly red propaganda posters that give off a ruddy hue.

It appears that the occupant launched himself from squalor into his own space race, a metaphorical escape Mr. Kabakov was never able to achieve during the dank, monotonous days of his early life moving around with his mother.

“I see myself as a person with a broken spine lying in the wreckage after a plane crash,” he once said. “I feel terribly guilty and incomplete because I don’t have the energy or the wish or the ability to build a new plane; but all I do is to describe the crash.”

In another room, “The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away,” Mr. Kabakov’s description calls the occupant a “master of this garbage museum.” Pieces of junk — jars, paper scraps, ticket stubs, a nail — are labeled and neatly displayed on the walls. The only living furniture is a narrow bed tucked in a corner under some indexed junk.

The exhibition received triumphant reviews.

“He is many things in one — a poet, a reporter, a storyteller in prose, a portraitist who never shows us his sitters directly, an environmental sculptor and an understated magician,” Times art critic John Russell wrote in his review. “Closer to Chekhov than to Gogol or Dostoyevsky, he has an unfailing sense of human oddity, and of the lengths to which people can be driven by ridiculous living conditions.”

Though some of his works had been smuggled to the West during the 1960s and ’70s, Mr. Kabakov’s emergence on the international art scene with “Ten Characters” was also a kind of unmasking. In the Soviet Union, his “day job,” so speak, was as a state-approved illustrator of children’s books.

“From the moment I learned to draw cats, dogs, children’s faces, horses, and cars, I always had work,” he told Art in America magazine. “It was important that this work could be done quickly and therefore didn’t take a lot of time away from your own work.”

Mr. Kabakov’s own work — what he considered his real work — consisted of art that satirized Soviet propaganda and would have gotten him tossed in jail (or worse) had the pieces been discovered.

He painted people in line for meat superimposed on price lists for meats that didn’t exist in Russia. He painted construction sites with parks and schools that would never be built. He composed albums of paintings and drawings that, like short stories, that told bleak, dreamy, absurdist tales about the world around him.

“Kabakov’s way of debunking the overwhelming fact of Soviet propaganda in Soviet life is not the obvious one of opposing it to reality,” art critic Amei Wallach wrote in Newsday. “He questions whether there is anything such as one big reality at all. There’s just personal experiences of reality, personal opinions about it.”

Mr. Kabakov and other “unofficial” artists such as Erik Bulatov and Oleg Vassiliev showed each other their work and held secret exhibitions.

“The whole time we expected to be arrested, for something terrible to happen,” Mr. Kabakov told the Times in 1992. “But to us, nothing terrible ever happened. We just drank tea in one another’s kitchens, discussed and criticized one another’s work and traveled together in the summers.”

In 1968, Mr. Kabakov and Bulatov held a two-hour show at the Bluebird Cafe, a counterculture jazz club on Chekhov Street in Moscow.

“At that time, it was a very political action,” Mr. Kabakov told ARTnews. “Special agents saw who was participating, and a lot of people lost their jobs.”

Ilya Iosifovich Kabakov was born in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, on Sept. 30, 1933. His father was a metalworker, and his mother was a bookkeeper. He was 7 when his father left to fight in World War II. Ilya fled with his mother to Uzbekistan and they settled in Samarkand, where the Leningrad Academy of Art relocated during the war.

His career as an artist began with a minor episode of breaking-and-entering.

“One night a friend who studied in the art school took me into the school through the window to look at the paintings of naked women,” Mr. Kabakov told Art in America. “When a woman unexpectedly appeared, he left me there alone in the dark corridor.”

She asked him what he was doing.

“I didn’t know what to say,” Mr. Kabakov went on, “so I said I was looking at the paintings.”

She asked him if he drew. He said he did. (He did not.) The school was accepting applications the next day, so she invited him to apply. So he did, ripping out pages of a notebook onto which he drew tanks, airplanes and cavalry.

“The fact of the matter is that I didn’t like drawing and wasn’t very good at it, but from that moment on it was my fate,” he told the Times.

Mr. Kabakov and his mother eventually moved to Moscow. At age 16, he enrolled at the Surikov Art Institute to study illustration and by age 23 was working as a children’s book illustrator.

He left Russia in 1988, moving to Austria and then Paris. In 1992, he married Emilia Kanevsky, a distant cousin, and they settled in Long Island.

Mr. Kabakov collaborated with her on his later installations, including “The Palace of Projects,” a “spiraling temporary pavilion,” Michael Kimmelman wrote in a Times review, of “around 65 ‘projects,’ fictive plans in the form of texts, accompanied by models, sculptures, slide projections and so on.”

Each project was composed by a fictional character.

“A plan by a writer named V. Korneichuk, for example, promotes concentration and privacy through living environments made of clothing closets,” Kimmelman observed. “A secretary named B. Borden proposes constructing a ladder 1,200 meters high in a remote agricultural area from which to see angels.”

His two marriages to Irina Rubanova and Victoria Mochalova ended in divorce. In addition to his wife Emilia, survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Galina Kabakova of Paris; stepdaughters Viola and Isis Kanevsky, both of New York City; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

In 2008, Mr. Kabakov returned to Russia for a major exhibition of his work. He was treated like a rock star at the opening party — tight security, champagne, socialites nibbling on hummus.

“Suddenly,” Artforum wrote, “a long-overdue retrospective became the social event of the season.”


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