Ilya Kabakov

Born: 1933, Dnepropetrovsk

Painter, graphic artist, installation artist, object artist, conceptual artist, illustrator. Founder and leader of Moscow Conceptualism. Born in Dnepropetrovsk in the family of a locksmith called Josif Kabakov (1933). Studied at the Leningrad Secondary School of Art in evacuation in Samarkand and Zagorsk (1943–45), Moscow Secondary School of Art (1945–51) and the Vasily Surikov Institute of Art in Moscow (1951–57). Member of the Union of Artists (1955). Illustrated children’s books (from 1955), worked for various publishing houses and magazines (from 1956). Joined the Union of Artists (1963 or 1965). Passed through periods of interest in Robert Falk’s Cézanneism (until 1965) and sculptural objects (mid-1960s). Joined the Sretensky Boulevard Group (1968). One of the first to investigate the local cultural context and Soviet mentality (early 1970s). A common feature of his oeuvre is the concept of “personage,” often directly linked to his own biography (from the early 1970s). Developed a formula for the surrounding reality in absurd objects from the life of Homo soveticus. Introduced into the artistic space, they engage in parodistic deconstruction. Employing the faceless images of posters and instructions, created the Communal Housing Office series, stylistically similar to Sots Art (1978). Worked on large installations (from the 1980s). Emigrated to the United States (1989) and began collaborating with his wife Emilia. Represented Russia with the Red Wagon installation at the Venice Biennale (1993). Exhibited an installation from the Ten Characters graphic albums at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow (2004). Lives and works in Paris and New York. Contributed to exhibitions and dissident shows (from 1961), including the Actual Alternative 2 in Italy (1965), Venice Biennale (1988) and documenta IX in Kassel (1992) and a one-man show at the Galerie Dina Vierny in Paris (1985).

Ilya Kabakov is the founding father and leading representative of Moscow Conceptualism, the leading movement in unofficial Soviet art. The artist mostly closely associated with modern Russian art in the West. The central subject of his oeuvre is the life of the Soviet communal flat and its effects on the national mentality. The main object of Kabakov’s attention and instrument of representation is the natural element of everyday speech. Unlike the representatives of Sots Art, who appealed to the official ideological myths, Kabakov reconstructed the private consciousness distorted by existence into a completely ideologised world. He speaks not in his own name, but on behalf of an imaginary person – the simple Soviet citizen. He literally gives this person the vox populis and records uncoordinated remarks and discussions on the canvas as on a board.

In the 1970s, Ilya Kabakov worked on a cycle of albums, including Ten Characters and On Grey Paper, in which the representational and the visual are of equal importance. Imitating the style of Soviet mass artistic produce, Kabakov describes the life experience of a man whose inner freedom and private existence are extremely limited.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ilya Kabakov created textual pictures representing inflated bureaucratic documents – official forms, tables, timetables and instructions (Taking out the Garbage, Instructions on the Use of the Rest Room and Sunday Evening). The absurdity is underlined, the situations do not require detailed regulations. The power of the bureaucratic paper over the life of Soviet man is fatal.

These and other problems were then reflected in the large installations united under the common theme of Russian World – Red Wagon, Toilet and Large Archives.

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