Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy
Emilia and Ilya Kabakov in BremerhavenSueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy
Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Moscow Conceptualism Lives!

The passing of Ilya Kabakov, 1933-2023, reminds us how the movement he pioneered under totalitarian rule paved the way for post-Soviet Russian art

by
Vladislav Davidzon
June 08, 2023
Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy
Emilia and Ilya Kabakov in BremerhavenSueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy

Not many artists can claim to have totally embodied the countercultural spirit of their time. Even fewer can legitimately claim to have launched, led, and theorized a national conceptual art movement; to have had his name become a byword for aesthetic experimentation and the negation of repressive officious dogma; or to have been rewarded for his efforts by becoming a star of the international art market whose works are routinely auctioned off for tens of millions of dollars. Ilya Kabakov—the Ukrainian-born, Moscow and then New York Jew—can claim all these things. Along with his wife, Emilia, he became the leading figure of the Russian artistic underground of the 1970s and 1980s and a founder of the Moscow conceptualist movement. The innovator of the “Total Installation” assemblage and a practitioner of subversive and graceful opposition to the formal strictures of Soviet art, Kabakov died in May at the age of 89.

The Moscow conceptualists comprised a loose collection of underground and dissident artists who were united by their intent to create works of art that went against the grain of mainstream Soviet art. The movement was appropriative, multifaceted, and playful, both ironizing and subverting the official Soviet doctrine of socialist realism. Deploying many of the methods, tools, slogans and visual elements of the official iconography, the artists associated with the group effaced the traditional lines between different art media. They did so at the same time that parallel experiments were taking place all over the world and despite the fact that they were sealed off from information about these experiments by the Soviet government. In the 1970s and ’80s, Moscow conceptualism would become the dominant artistic style of the Moscow counterculture.

The Kabakovs’ aesthetic response to the repressive grimness of late-stage Soviet life was playful, rigorously philosophical, and deeply literate. The conceptualism they helped to pioneer was inherently a movement of outsiders for its first decades, and even since then, as it has been celebrated outside of Russia and thoroughly assimilated by international artists, it has remained an undigested impulse within Russian art. The artists who took part in the movement were notably thorough in their continuous, self-reflexive ruminations on its theoretical underpinnings—what was distinctive was that the Moscow conceptualists spawned a generation of artist-critics and theoreticians (Margarita Tupytsin, Boris Groys) who blended their theoretical output with the art.

The founding generation of Moscow conceptualists comprised a remarkable group of artists, many of whom lived around the Sretensky Boulevard in Moscow. The group included Eric Bulatov, Boris Groys, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, Andrei Monastyrsky, Viktor Pivovarov, Dmitry Prigov (a poet), Edik Shternberg, and Lev Rubinshtein. Many of them ranged widely outside of the visual arts and also wrote theoretical texts, interesting conceptual poetry, or both. With a few exceptions, almost all of them were Soviet Jewish dissidents—archetypical outsiders in the post-Stalinist art world. Some emigrated and some did not; Kabakov himself did not leave for the West until 1989, when he was already in his mid-50s, and unlike his emigre peers, he was always honest about his ambivalence in leaving the “workers paradise,” whose absurdly long decomposition served as his prime subject and inspiration. He wrote what was likely the best book on the unofficial Soviet art movement of the ’60s and ’70s, and even as he worked across genres, it is through his room-sized assemblages and quirky art book that we most identity with him today.

The American poet and academic Barret Watten was one of the earliest American intellectuals to recognize Kabakov’s contributions to contemporary art and philosophy. In the early ’90s, he wrote about Kabakov and his cohort for academic journals with names such as Postmodern Currents. “Ilya Kabakov was a world-historical artist of a new type,” Watten told me last week. “His art, in multiple genres ranging from painting and drawing to assemblages, installations, and book art, charted the undoing of the Soviet Union and its everyday life during the “Era of Stagnation”—that is, at the moment of Soviet collapse. Kabakov redefined the “materialism” of the Marxist state and showed it to be a manifestation of sheer fantasy, while at the same time creating a precise record of its modes of unreason and pseudo-science with a mournful lyricism. All this was produced in the moment of epochal transition.

Kabakov was born in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1933. Eight years later the Nazi war machine rolled through Ukraine. His mother, Berta, but not his father, Iosof, would be among the lucky cohort of Soviet Jews evacuated to Uzbekistan by the Soviet authorities—a cohort that also included my own ancestors. The Kabakovs landed in Samarkand, just as my own grandparents wound up in Fergana and Tashkent. Two years later, the budding artist began his studies at the Ilya Repin Leningrad Institute for Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, which had likewise been evacuated from Leningrad to Taskhent. At the conclusion of the war, the promising young art student was transferred to a Moscow middle school specializing in art.

Kabakov enrolled in the prestigious Surikov State Art Institute in Moscow in order to study graphic design and book illustration. Upon concluding his education in 1957, he became an illustrator of children’s books. In that era, it was very common for some of the best and brightest Soviet artists and poets to be funneled into this playful and relatively apolitical craft, which offered a way to make an official living by day while engaging in more ideologically unwholesome activities in the evenings. Kabakov’s background as an illustrator and designer of children books would always be central to the phantasmagoric and attractively cartoonish aspect of his work. And unlike many of his peers in conceptual movements the world over, Kabakov really knew how to draw and paint.

Kabakov’s main conceptual innovation was the “total installation”—a Soviet version of the Gesamtkunstwerk born of his life as an ordinary Homo Soveticus. Kabakov fashioned his work from the raw material of ordinary Soviet reality. For Kabakov, as for his painter friend Oscar Rabine (as I wrote in my profile of the latter), the “grim and grimy realities of actual proletariat barrack life exposed the duplicity of socialist realism’s insistence on the routine heroism of the Soviet citizen, who in actuality was living a life of resigned desperation in communal housing in a Stalinist high-rise somewhere far outside the ring of the Moscow highway.”

In 1985, just as Perestroika began, Kabakov created his archetypical installation, “The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment,” in his Moscow apartment. The instillation was of a grimy apartment of an ordinary Soviet man whose walls were covered with Soviet propaganda space posters. A jagged hole in the ceiling can be seen over a primitive catapult device that the man had fashioned to launch himself into outer space. This Soviet worker had taken the propaganda of the Soviet Union literally and launched himself into the heavens to join Yuri Gagarin and the other cosmonauts. The accompanying text explained that the apartment had been covered up as a crime scene by the Soviet authorities who had arrived to investigate his takeoff. When the Ronald Feldman Fine Arts Gallery exhibited it in New York three years later, immediately after Kabakov had emigrated to America, the installation was a major revelation for most everyone. What else was going on in the Soviet art world that the rest of us did not know about?

‘The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment,’ originally created in 1985, here on display at a 2017 retrospective for the Kabakovs
‘The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment,’ originally created in 1985, here on display at a 2017 retrospective for the Kabakovs Igor Russak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Art world success on an unimaginable scale would soon follow. The New York Guggeheim’s seminal 2006 show “Russia!” was a glittering North American retrospective of the breadth of Russian art history. It was also the moment when Kabakov truly ascended to the heights of international prestige. After passing paintings by Ilya Repin and the other titans of Russian art history, which were arrayed in thematic order along the Guggenheim ramp, one finally arrived at “The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment”—the very last piece that viewers saw before reaching the roof, presented as the apotheosis of the modern Russian artistic tradition. Two years prior to that, Kabakov and his wife had also become the first living artists to have a solo exhibition at the Hermitage Museum in 2004. They soon also attained the record of having the most expensive work of art sold at an auction by a post-Soviet artist—for the first time in 2006, when the painting “Deluxe Room” was sold for $4.1 million, and once again two years later, when “The Beetle” was sold for $5.8 million.

Despite all of this, Kabakov, unlike many artists of his generational cohort, did not allow his legacy to be taken over by a post-Soviet Russian state keen to appropriate the glory and cultural cachet of the late Soviet dissidents. Many of the Russian obituaries that have appeared over the last week have underlined that Kabakov cannot be considered a truly “Russian” artist, as he never inhabited Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The last grand international exhibition for the Kabakovs was a 2017 retrospective at the Tate London called Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future. In the wake of the brutal Russian invasion of his native Ukraine, one of Kabakov’s works from the late 1980s, a geometric drawing of a ship overlaid with the words “Fuck off,” quickly became a symbol of Ukrainian opposition and resilience. A Ukrainian naval officer had told the Russian flagship Moskva to fuck off—a seminal early event in the war. It turned out that Kabakov had predicted the moment three decades before the flagship had been sent to the bottom of the Black Sea by the Ukrainians!

Ilya Kabakov understood very well that post-Soviet Russian society coveted the ironical and subversive objects that he and his wife and their cohort had created as mere assets and status symbols—that is, without understanding anything of their deeper philosophical implications or social critique. The Russian oligarchs who were strident supporters of the Putin regime were now purchasing the Kabakovs’ art works for tens of millions of dollars. I vividly recall the way that the Russian nickel czar Vladimir Potanin—a member of the Russian oligarchy under Putin who still remains unsanctioned—caused a media kerfuffle in France with his bequest of more than 250 works from the Russian underground and the Moscow conceptualists to the Pompidou Center in 2016.

Both Ilya and Emilia vividly understood that the mode of underground living that they and their artist friends had experienced for decades under Soviet rule was set to return. Russian art—that is, authentic and independent Russian art, rather than the ephemeral political kitsch created for the sake of the regime’s transient political needs—would have to return to its dissident tradition. In that way, the legacy of the Kabakovs and the Moscow conceptualists is now more important than ever. In an interview that Emilia Kabakov gave prior to the opening of the Tate retrospective, she admitted that “the biggest fear of any artist is that he will be left behind by history.” She had nothing to fear. We now need the Moscow conceptualists and their legacy as much as we did a half-century ago.

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.