Magazine article Artforum International

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

Magazine article Artforum International

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

Article excerpt

Born in 1933 to a scarcely tolerated minority, the Russian-Jewish artist Ilya Ka bakov was nevertheless accepted as a student at the prestigious Leningrad Institute of Art. Ironically, he has become one of its greatest attendees, if one still regarded askance by official taste.

It is unlikely that those of us who saw Kabakov's "Ten Characters," a suite of dioramas installed at New York's Ronald Feldman Gallery in 1988 (the artist having immigrated here in 1987), will forget the drab repressions embodied in those inspired installations: the smell of unwashed congestion, of families thrown together helter-skelter, bereft of space and proper sanitation or, worse, strangled by the duplicities of utopian thinking. The fairy-tale-like The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment, 1981-88, is emblematic of the group. Propaganda posters adorn the enclosing walls of a small room in a communal flat, its ceiling blown open through recourse to a body-scaled slingshot by which the hero of the piece was able to catapult himself heavenward, reaching at last beyond the confines of suffocating despair.

The Pace Gallery show of seven large paintings revisited themes long central to Kabakov's work but, oddly enough, with far less acerbic results than before. (The show also featured a sculpture the artist made in collaboration with his wife, Emilia.) These ambitious canvases are at once gentle depictions and sendups of the distant tropes of Khrushchev-era propaganda. Here, the artist's education takes on particular resonance. He was trained in the illustrative mode of socialist realism, a "realistic" propaganda of happy workers and dutiful children, all healthy and lustily imbued with Communist vitality--never mind that these figures were incarnated in the most bourgeois manner of nineteenth-century French salon painting. At the same time, Kabakov's droll installations exposed the emptiness of these trite offerings, thus making him a leading figure of the modern Russian artistic opposition. (Something similar can be said of other, considerably younger masters trained in Eastern European art schools of once-Soviet persuasion--Neo Rauch at the Art Academy of Leipzig leaps to mind.) Kabakov, now in his eighties, revisits such iconography while stripping it of the bomb-throwing horror of his earlier work. …

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