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Artist of the Soviet Wreckage

For the Russian painter Ilya Kabakov, paying attention to details is to miss the picture.

You entered “The Bridge” along a narrow wooden walkway and proceeded halfway across the room. There you found a long text and several pairs of binoculars. The room was full of overturned chairs, and all along the walls, too dimly lighted to be legible, were paintings and paintings and paintings. On the floor were hundreds of tiny white men cut out of paper. The text explained that a tribunal had gathered to review works of modern art, that there had been a great explosion, that the members of the tribunal had fled and that after their departure these many little white men had appeared rushing in waves across the floor, too small to turn the chairs back or to bring the paintings into the light. This was the Soviet artist Ilya Kabakov’s installation at the Museum of Modern Art’s Dislocations exhibition in January.

There is a literal reading of the piece: the tribunal is the old Soviet official structure, the explosion is glasnost, the white men are the well-intentioned but impotent Russian people who cannot make their country function now. You, the viewer, looking through binoculars, are engaged in an act of surveillance, as the West has lately surveyed the helpless Russian people, as the K.G.B. used to survey them. But these matter-of-fact readings deprive the work of its richness and its complexity.

The paintings and other objects are intentionally obscured; you are tempted to stare through the binoculars forever, but you cannot quite see what has made up this installation. “The metaphysics of space and its contents are completely different in the U.S.S.R.,” Kabakov explains. “In the West, objects are of great importance and have a kind of magic attached to them. In Russia, the object is of no interest at all — not because it’s an idealistic society, but because everyone knows that things don’t work in Russia, that they’re broken, that if they’re not broken today they will be broken tomorrow and that you can’t do anything about it.

“All the meaning is in the context of the thing, the space in which the thing exists. When you walk into a space in the West, you see what’s inside this space. And when you walk into a space in Russia, you see what kind of space it is. When I make an installation, the most important thing is to create the atmosphere, and the objects don’t matter much.”

This is an alien idea in the West; most critics, responding to the MOMA installation, commented more on the things in the installation than on the overall quality of it. They failed to recognize that the things were not even meaningfully worn, as in arte povera. In a Kabakov installation, they are as insignificant as the sheet of paper on which a poem is written.

Kabakov’s newest work, currently on view at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in Manhattan, picks up where the MOMA installation leaves off. This time, in a re-creation of a nonexistent Soviet museum, spotlights illuminate enormous paintings by another fictive artist, a Socialist Realist. His work is hung on museum walls that are painted in dark colors, wainscoated, with gilded moldings. There is water dripping from several “leaks” in the ceiling of the gallery, into buckets and glasses and pans placed as though by museum staff; the drips produce a celestial “water music.” The spotlights are on the paintings, but this exhibition is not about them; it is about the failed bombast of bureaucratized Soviet esthetics and about the accidental poetry to be found in them. The paintings justify the space, but though witty and very accomplished, they are unto themselves, like the paintings in the MOMA exhibition, extravagantly unimportant.

So what is in one of Kabakov’s rooms doesn’t matter. The obscurity, the chaos, the confused scale, the foggy politics and the touches of magic and sentimentality — these are Russia. The details, amazing or terrible, are irrelevant. Kabakov has never documented a day in the Gulag or made a list of Stalinist abominations or told a story of censorship. Rather, he obliquely describes what it is like to live in a society in which these atrocities are never far away and in which the ideology behind them destroys altogether the dignity of daily life. And then he shows how to ignore or transcend events, as palpable as objects, how to see instead the quality of Soviet life, as diffuse as atmosphere. His work tells how terrible Soviet life is, but it also tells how to be human in the face of it, how imagination can save you, how you survive. Kabakov takes you by the hand and leads you from the oppressions of the world to the freedom within yourself.

In the last four years, since Ilya Kabakov has lived in the West, his work has been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, the Vienna Museum of Modern Art, the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, the Pompidou and many other important museums of contemporary art. It has been included in one international show after the next, and an outdoor construction called The Toilet was featured prominently in this year’s Documenta in Kassel, Germany. He has been invited to exhibit at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow in the spring of 1994.

Kabakov has accepted professorships in Frankfurt and in Copenhagen; he has designed sets for his friend Alfred Schnittke’s new work, Life With an Idiot, at the Dutch National Opera. “It may seem sudden,” says David A. Ross, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, who was one of Kabakov’s first champions, “but 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. Finding him was like stumbling across Jasper Johns or Robert Rauschenberg in the full flush of their maturity.”

In the late 1970’s, Kabakov used to invite close friends to his studio and present his albums, seminovelistic compilations of images and texts on sheets of board about 21 inches by 14 inches and roughly 3 1/2 inches thick when stacked. These works have illustrations in Kabakov’s infinitely light illustrative style, operating in a tense dynamic with his often disjointed texts. A great deal of care went into the selection of the guests: only those who understood the encoded language of the artistic vanguard — the thousands of internal references of which personal metaphoric use could be made within artistic circles — were included.

Kabakov asked only 15 or 20 people at a time to these presentations; there were so few to whom he could show his work at all, and the discussion that the albums provoked was most comfortable in small groups. Kabakov’s wife, Vika, presided on such evenings, serving tea when it was available. “I will never forget hearing Ilya read those albums for the first time,” a younger Moscow artist said to me. “On that day, I began to understand how to be a human being.”

Last winter, Ilya Kabakov read his albums for the first time since then. Robert Storr, a curator in the department of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, likewise put a great deal of care into the selection of the guests: Nam June Paik and William Wegman came, as well as other important artists, collectors and critics of the sort with whom a major artist should have at least a nodding acquaintance.

Not all of these people knew that there was an encoded language of the Moscow vanguard. They gathered in elegant venues around Manhattan in groups of 15 to 20 to preserve some of the intimacy of “my chamber pieces,” as Kabakov called them. There were drinks and there were hors d’oeuvres and there was a great deal of polite conversation. Kabakov’s companion, Emilia Kanevsky, translated as he read. Though some of the guests understood the albums in part, many were bewildered: one famous painter, apparently unable to grasp the significance of Kabakov’s deliberate appropriation of Socialist style, said casually: “The drawing here is pretty ordinary. I guess it’s that second-rate Soviet training.”

When Kabakov’s installation Ten Characters opened at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in New York just four years ago, he was known only to a small circle of Soviet experts. I remember picking my way through the overwhelming, chaotic heaps of material that made up that exhibition and wondering how anything could be quite so dingy and claustrophobic. But Kabakov’s trademark humor and compassion were very much in evidence.

Diagram of installation Ten Characters, Ilya Kabakov, 1988.

Diagram of installation “Ten Characters,” Ilya Kabakov, 1988.

Ten Characters is about the terrible dehumanizing circumstances of Soviet life, but it speaks of them with warmth and charm, in the vocabulary of human redemption. Though it describes an experience that was alien to most of its viewers, it gives you not so much the sociological thrill of seeing into another world as the empathetic pain of living there for a few minutes.

“Ten Characters” — the first major piece Kabakov did specifically for display in the West — is a re-creation of a Moscow communal apartment, where 10 people have each been given a single room, sharing hallway, bathroom and kitchen. The communal apartment was a commonplace in the old Soviet Union; after the Revolution, grand apartments were given to the proletariat, who were allotted one room each in which to house themselves and, as time went on, their families. Later, these rooms were endlessly reallocated. For Kabakov, this miserable setup — you have no choice about the neighbors with whom you must share facilities — has often done service as a metaphor for all the crowding, all the loss of choice, all the petty brutality of the Soviet system.

Each character in “Ten Characters” has been driven to a curious obsession by the congestion. In one room lives “The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away”; in another lives “The Untalented Artist”; in another, “The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment”; in yet another, “The Man Who Flew Into His Picture.” In the kitchen, an endless tape of arguing voices rises and falls in a steady cadence.

The glut of detail renders the absent characters with painful clarity; in each room are all the accessories for the chosen mania and a long text to describe its precise manifestations. An element of magic also runs through his work. “The Man Who Flew Into Space,” for example, has built a harness and projected himself up to where the currents of freedom run above the world. His room has a great hole in the ceiling; you are left to wonder what delights he found in his strange orbits.

Almost everything Kabakov does makes some use of textual material. Though he is exhibited as a visual artist, he has also been reviewed as a poet and as a novelist. Kabakov’s paintings are frequently simple white canvases with some small object and a sentence or two written in the Cyrillic script of a billboard. His albums include texts. His installations always mix written with visual material. You sometimes feel that his pieces are novels in which visual elements fill in for absent words. A painting may ask simply, “Whose teacup is this?” and an album leaf may say, “Galina Makarova is the wife of Rotov, tall one, who comes to us on New Year’s Eve.” At the literal level, this is obscure: no one called Galina or Rotov has been mentioned elsewhere in the album.

Kabakov explains that these fragments of conversation, as mundane as he can contrive, are full of meaning. Speaking in the language of metaphor and metaphysic in which he conducts much of his ordinary conversation, he says: “By the late 1950’s, the Russian language had been destroyed. The language of the intelligentsia and the folk language and the language of professional culture had been amalgamated with the language of bureaucracy. You can’t call this Russian: it isn’t Russian. It’s Soviet language, the language of half a culture, very disgusting but at the same time very fascinating. It’s the language I use when I talk to myself. And it is the language we artists use among ourselves, and naturally it is the language my characters have to use.

“By the time I started to create art, Russian people from one end of the country to the other were speaking essentially this same language. And there was a sort of very intensive noise that existed everywhere: it was this language, and it was a noise completely different from that made by the variety of chatter in other languages that you hear in the countries of the West. Because no matter who was using this language or what he was talking about, the underlying theme was the hatred of everything that was going on in this life. Depression and fear ran through the words, as though they had taken the place of the lost grammar of classical Russian, as though they were part of the structure of the language. It was total. I found that you could use this language like a very thick and condensed cake, slicing it and turning it any way you wanted without having it fall apart or lose its meaning. It didn’t matter whether what you wrote was short or long, intimate or banal: it was all the same. The hatred was almost visual.”

Kabakov’s grasp of that hatred, and his ability to convey it with the simplest artistic gestures, can be frightening. “Soviet activist art is very different from Western activist art,” David Ross observes. “Soviet activism is a function of actually living in the context of an underground, in a state of constant psychological siege, and not of adopting a stance, as most Western activist artists do. So for Kabakov, the straightforward representation of everyday life becomes radical.”

What is astonishing is that Kabakov is able to chronicle all the hatred of the Soviet life experience and at the same time to make work which is always at some level about love. His characters are desperate, but they are also beguiling; Kabakov’s work has a quality of enormous generosity. “He is, in the original sense of the word, a true humanist,” says Rob Storr, who put Kabakov in the MOMA exhibition. “This is high art. Ilya is a full-fledged, wide-ranging, terribly ambitious major artist who delivers the goods. He’s the character who is made up of all his characters. His rooms make you acknowledge aspects of yourself you may never have noticed and then make you explore them and enjoy them. That’s an uncommon unselfishness.”

Ilya Kabakov

Ilya Kabakov radiates both intelligence and kindness; he has an easy geniality and a manner of extreme modesty. When you quote to him some praising remark made by a younger Moscow artist, he evinces astonishment and shrugs it off at once. Kabakov offers you praise for the attributes you would have praised, insists that you have helped him to insights he could not previously have conceived and gives you in the most offhand way a sense not only of his virtues but also of your own. He is never critical of people he knows; you would think, to talk to him, that the international art world consisted only of people as gentlemanly as he.

“You cannot get to know Ilya,” Moscow artists warned me when I first met him. “You can love him, but you cannot know him.” A Moscow critic, Iosif Bahkshteyn, explains it like this: “Ilya has no soul. He doesn’t act in the real world like the rest of us. Passions, emotions, jealousy, anger — they are just not there. He has a body — this you can see — and then he has a spirit, an astonishing, beautiful spirit, that seems to linger over the whole world. It is a joy to be with him. But in some way he is always in a different space than you are.” An artist said, “His is the benevolence of a priest and not that of a brother.”

Kabakov’s description of his work fits with this image of disengagement. He dismisses the moral high ground that critics have claimed for him: “Because I am from a broken home in a broken city in a broken country, the idea of being responsible, of being an idealist, is only an idea for me. I cannot make it into a realistic approach to life. I see myself as a person with a broken spine lying in the wreckage after a plane crash. 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.”

Kabakov has seen a lot of the crash. He was born in Dnepropetrovsk, in Ukraine, in 1933. His father was a metalworker at a factory producing bed parts; his mother, a bookkeeper. When World War II began, he was 7 years old; his father went off to fight, and he and his mother were evacuated, first to the Caucuses, then further east and finally to Samarkand, where his career was settled. “Freud is right,” he says. “In the beginning of everything there is erotica. When I was 9, an older boy asked whether I wanted to see a naked woman. And I said, Why not? So after school, when it became dark, we crept into a building with paintings and drawings of naked women hanging everywhere. It was the Academy of Art of Leningrad, which had also been evacuated to Samarkand, and this was student work.

“All of a sudden, a dark figure appeared in the corridor. My friend ran, but I was not so quick — he left me alone, scared, very little, in a dark place. And this old woman came to me and in a terrible voice she said, What are you doing here? And I said, I’m looking at these paintings. And she asked, Do you make drawings yourself? And I said, Yes, I do, a lot. So I can say that at the beginning of art there are erotica, lies and fear. And she said, If you make drawings, come show me tomorrow, and if they’re good, we’ll accept you to the preparatory school of the academy. That evening, I made five drawings and signed each one in red. So the fourth thing that was there at the beginning was ambition. And the next day, they accepted me. The fact of the matter is that I didn’t like drawing and I wasn’t very good at it, but from that moment on it was my fate.”

At the end of the war, Kabakov’s father did not return to his family and Ilya and his mother were left alone. Ilya’s mother decided to make her son’s schooling her sole priority. There began a period during which she and Ilya were wanderers. He went where he needed for his education and she followed behind, to Zagorsk and then to Moscow, where Kabakov studied at the Surikov Art Institute.

His mother was unable to get residence papers for these cities and had to live in hiding most of the time. “She slept always fully dressed in her clothes,” Kabakov remembers, “so that if somebody should come and knock at the door, she could sit at the table and pretend she was just visiting. Because if the authorities found you staying in a city for which you didn’t have papers, anything could happen to you. Of course, her arrangements never went smoothly. She was caught a few times; every time she had to find another hiding place. I looked around and saw that other people somehow managed to live in nice places and have apartments, or at least rooms, and to have families. I couldn’t understand why my mother and I had such a terrible life and so many problems.”

Kabakov presented every appearance of being a model student: clean, neat and punctual. But already in the academy, he had started to lead a sort of double life, showing respect for the system, getting from it what he could, but hating it and disavowing it in his heart. At the Surikov, he was assigned to the graphics faculty and specialized in illustration. Kabakov was financially desperate and started asking his teachers for work; he got his first commissions while still a student. He was to lead the official life of a book illustrator straight through until glasnost, illustrating, in the course of 30 years,more than 150 children’s books.

Ilya Kabakov

Ilya Kabakov artwork for E.A. Permyak, Missing Threads, 1980. Source: LS Collection, Nijmegen.

“I learned everything like a monkey,” Kabakov says, “without any feeling at all. And when I finished, I felt that I was not alive. So I decided to create a masterpiece, into which I could put all my ideas and everything I had ever felt and all the beauty I had seen. I believed that this work would make me real.” He got a canvas five feet square and for two years he painted. “Then I got bored. And I understood that not only would I be unable to impress anyone else with my masterpiece, but that even for me it was rather disgusting. After that, I was free: I could find a path of my own, without struggling to be all at once a great artist.”

So began the period that the younger generation in Moscow calls the golden age of unofficial art. Kabakov settled into a comfortable relationship with his friend Erik Bulatov, who has often been exhibited with him in the West; and they were close to Oleg Vassiliev and to others. In this context, artistic impulses flourished. “The whole time we expected to be arrested, for something terrible to happen,” Kabakov says. “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.”

There was no question of showing publicly; the simple fact that they were creating their own art was, by official Soviet standards, transgressive. Their double lives remained secret. Later, in the mid-70’s and early 80’s, younger followers came and joined them. “We recognized at once these people, with free intellectual souls, crystal-clean in their idealism,” Kabakov recalls. “And we welcomed them.” With time, an entire language grew up, strongly influenced and shaped by Kabakov, the visual language of what is now called the Moscow Conceptualist movement. The work was always gnomic, in part to avoid the attentions of the K.G.B. But it was indirect beyond its rhetoric: the artists of the vanguard were too wise to propose new radical ideologies to challenge Communism. “Ilya showed us how to redeem human beings from the dehumanizing circumstances of life in this ideological society,” one of his followers has explained. “What would have been the point of proposing another ideology in our country, which was ruined by ideology?”

Though Kabakov continued to lead the life of a good illustrator, never making efforts to publicize his work or his beliefs, his name began to circulate and small works of his were smuggled out of the U.S.S.R. and exhibited abroad. In the 1970’s, there was an emigration of figures from the vanguard, including the artists Komar and Melamid and the critics Margarita and Viktor Tupitsyn and Borys Groys. These people all spoke of Kabakov and contributed to his renown. By the mid-1980’s, Dina Vierny had put together the first Kabakov exhibition in Paris and a Swiss curator with diplomatic connections had assembled another one in Bern.

“On that day,” Kabakov says, “I invited all my friends to the forest and we tied a red ribbon between two trees. At exactly noon, when we knew the exhibition was opening in the Kunsthalle, we cut the ribbon and drank a bottle of Champagne. It was a very bittersweet moment, that this was happening but that I could never be there.”

The relation between the artists of the vanguard and the West has always been complex, Kabakov’s perhaps more than almost anyone else’s. For many artists, actual travel to the West in the last five years — all the artists of Kabakov’s circle have now been shown in the West and most have traveled broadly — has been a disappointment. Not for Kabakov: “In the Brezhnev days, my relation to the West was like the fantasy of a young person who has never had the experience of love, but who has read of love in books and imagines what it would be like. Later, there were real encounters with real people and real work from the West, but they were surrounded by unrealistic expectations. It was like an affair: when you meet the object of your affections only for a short time, you create something other than what she is.

“But now it is like marriage: I have continued this affair and I find that the reality of this deep love is even brighter than my fantasy. Of course, I know about the problems here. If we are going to continue this metaphor, it’s like you talk to a mother about her daughter. The mother says to you, You are talking about this girl? She’s dirty, she’s slatternly, she’s selfish! I know this girl! And you can say, Yes, maybe, but I love her.”

The critic Margarita Tupitsyn says that “Ilya has now brought into international discourse the issues of his own country. When you live in the Soviet Union, you don’t really know who you are; the fact that 20 people think that you’re a genius is simply not enough for you to believe it, if the whole rest of the world is totally unaware of you. Ilya is enjoying his affirmation.”

Kabakov returns to Moscow only very occasionally. He lived in Berlin for a year, then in Paris for a year and has finally settled in New York. He sees many old Russian friends. He occasionally meets with the famous artists to whom his own renown has led him — but he is without social ambition. He came to the West on his own and now shares his life with Emilia Kanevsky, a distant cousin who emigrated to this country in the 1970’s, a charming and serious woman who helps to order his oceanic activity. Their lives are really not about the experience of any one country. They are in a different place every month. Kabakov is always teaching, installing, exhibiting; his way of life made him marginal to his own society, and he is comfortable to go on living in a world of his own devising.

While other artists from the old Soviet Union feel an obligation to stay in their country and see it through its transformations, Kabakov is content to have left. “I have had enough pain in these years to keep me busy for a long time,” he says. “I am not such a hero.”

David Ross of the Whitney wonders what effect absence from the motherland will have on the artist: “Does he remain Soviet? Or does he begin to be Americanized, to be an American artist? Will he engage with America, or will his work become more hermetic as he lives more and more in his own and his country’s past?” Some critics have suggested that Kabakov’s work will become derivative or repetitive if he keeps reworking old material; if he is a Soviet artist, they say, he needs to confront what is happening now in the old Soviet Union.

“Imagine that you have an old, enfeebled relation,” Kabakov says, “whom you go to visit in a hospital. For a long time when you go, she complains about a pain in her shoulder. You are sympathetic and you sit by her side. If you come one day and she has started instead to complain about her tooth, it’s not so important for you, whether it’s the shoulder or the tooth. All that’s important is that you come and you visit and you listen. The changes in my country now, which seem so dramatic — for the people it’s still the same pain. I don’t have to go there this week to know what it’s like this week.” And Kabakov smiles the particular half smile that he always uses to mitigate his discussions of pain.