Ilya Kabakov (1933-2023)

Ilya Kabakov on July 29, 2020 in front of his house in Long Island, New York. Photo by Emilia Kabakov.

One of the most noted 20th-century artists born in the USSR, Ilya Kabakov, died on May 27, 2023. It is no easy task to pay short tribute to a man of his ingenuity, diligence, discipline, and influence. Rather than publishing a standard obituary, ARTMargins Online editors asked some of the artist’s friends and collaborators, as well as critics and curators, to reflect, below, on his life and work from a personal perspective. The resulting collage of responses formally functions not unlike Kabakov’s own Answers of an Experimental Group (1971). This work compelled Boris Groys, one of Kabakov’s earliest commentators, to reflect on the artist as a clairvoyant bard of an “age of banality” in which every value, and hence every transgression, has become so strictly private that nothing can be shared or communicated without being immediately questioned or dismissed by someone else.(Boris Groys, “Answers of an Experimental Group,” Artforum (September 1994), 11.) ARTMargins Online published its first text about Kabakov in 1999, a reflection by the late Svetlana Boym on the installation The Soviet Toilet (1992) that we now republish in both her and Ilya Kabakov’s honor.

Participants: Viktor Misiano; Ekaterina Degot; Yuri Albert; Sven Spieker; Boris Groys; Matthew J. Jackson; Marek Bartelik; Jane A. Sharp; Vadim Zakharov; Robert Storr; Ksenia Nouril; Amei Wallach.

ARTMargins Online Editorial Collective

One day in 2010, a message from Emilia Kabakov appeared in my inbox. Its (English) content, as is always the case with Emilia, was to the point: “Victor, Ilya’s letter is in the attachment.” And indeed, the message contained an attachment in the form of a PDF with a handwritten text that began with the words: “Dear Victor!” In the text that followed this address, Ilya outlined his interpretation of Malevich’s painting The Female Worker from 1933. Apart from the address with my name at the beginning, the note did not contain anything personal, and this fact sent me thinking. Was this really a personal letter, or was it a text sent to me as editor-in-chief of Art Journal for possible publication? A few weeks later, I was at the Falanster bookstore in Moscow where on a table filled with recently published books, I saw a large volume entitled Ilya KABAKOV: WRITINGS. In its table of contents, towards the end, was a reference to a “Letter to V. Misiano.” I realized that when Emilia had sent me her e-mail, the text of Kabakov’s letter to me was already present in the book, and was likely being typeset at the same time.

It also follows from this that Kabakov’s letter was not sent to V. Misiano, the journal editor, nor could it, consequently, have been written to me personally. It might then be assumed that in this case, “V. Misiano” is—along with Shefner, Kogan, Lunina and many others—one of the many fictional characters created by Kabakov. Incidentally, whenever Kabakov invented a fictional character, he would also create works in the name of that character. Therefore, perhaps, the Kabakov who signed the letter I received was not the same Ilya Kabakov I knew so well, but instead—not for the first time in the artist’s practice—a fictional character by the name of “Ilya Kabakov.” By the way, in the book where the “Letter to V. Misiano” was published, the section that preceded it was entitled “About the ‘Artist-as-a Fictional-Character,’” and it included a text with the title “How I Became a Character of Myself.”

For all this, however, the letter intended for publication was still sent to its addressee, and even in handwritten form. Perhaps this was done in order to harmonize the world of fictitious entities created by the artist with reality. In this way, the “Letter to V. Misiano” became, in fact, a letter sent by the character, Ilya Kabakov to the character, Victor Misiano, and at the same time the real Ilya Kabakov and the real Victor Misiano became part of the dramatization staged by Kabakov himself. After all, as is well known, Kabakov’s creation of characters always included a performative element, an expansion into actual behavior, hence into reality.

Much in this story is explained by the fact that the pretext for its creation was the complete collection of the artist’s theoretical writings—the volume I spotted at the bookstore—a publication that would become a major point of reference for understanding the artist’s work and personality. Such a comprehensive volume is typologically close to a museum, an institution that—as is natural for a conceptual artist—was always in the focus of Kabakov’s attention. That being said, and although he repeatedly created fictitious museums in his total installations, Kabakov never engaged in institutional critique.

For him, the museum, along with the library, the archive, and the conservatory, remained a place that existed outside of the realm of everyday life, linear time, and reality. “Even as a child,” he once recalled, “the museum was for me the only place where I could escape from life. It is an island where you can escape from reality.” Like many Russian artists who matured during the 1960s—the so-called shestidesiatniki—Kabakov reconciled in his mind diachrony and synchrony, deconstruction and metaphysics.

Based on all this, I am inclined to assume that from a certain point on, Kabakov took on the task of creating his own image in history, or rather, his record in the historical archive, in the Museum (with a capital letter). He began to create a virtual installation entitled “Ilya Kabakov,” and for some reason—alas, I was never able to ask him for what reason exactly—he considered it appropriate that someone named “V. Misiano” also figure in that installation. Thank you, dear Ilya, for taking me with you into the future, into which, as you yourself have remarked, “not everyone is taken!”

Viktor Misiano, curator and art critic (Cisternino/Italy, Moscow). Translated by Sven Spieker


I first met Kabakov when I was a child. He gave private lessons of composition to a friend of mine and myself in his now famous atelier on Sretensky Boulevard. My friend wanted to be an artist, and me, an art historian. Kabakov was, as I now calculate, about forty years old at the time. As swift as an arrow, his hand was drawing Jacques Callot-like riders in broad hats and wind-blown cloaks. They were sweeping left to right, then right to left. From left to right, their pace was quicker.

At that time in the USSR, I felt surrounded by figurative didactic images both large and tiny, always hand-drawn, even if later they were printed. On chocolate wrappers and boxes of matches, in butcher shops, at the barber’s, on cinema facades, and especially in all kinds of books—literally everywhere in the not-fully-industrialized world that was the USSR—there were (often anonymous) drawn or painted pictures, and even photos in newspapers were quite obviously and proudly retouched by artists. These pictures were always explaining, illustrating, or warning of something, and at times (rarely) they called on you to do something. Despite them being so clearly made by someone (and often badly), these would-be icons pretended to be “not made by human hands” and eternal, not unlike the Egyptian pyramids. As we would say now, they  projected an unquestioned authority. And the fact that the anonymous artists’ drawn line was often imprecise worked to inscribe this element of individual volition into some sort of complicity with the state.

With a magician’s ease, Kabakov demystified these sacral icons, showing us how figurative images are constructed, and how they could be deciphered. (Much later I discovered that the lessons Kabakov was giving us were a free and critical take on the antimodernist “Theory of Composition” by the renowned Soviet graphic artist Vladimir Favorsky—one of the cult figures of art in the Eastern Bloc—who was active between the 1920s and 1960s and who is more or less completely unknown in the West). Despite the casual character of Kabakov’s lessons, they had a huge impact on my younger self, trapped as I was behind the Iron Curtain. They revealed to me the existence of a vast and free space of interpretation and reading, that, as it turned out, I could comfortably inhabit even from within my very isolated world with its almost complete lack of political agency. I lived in this world, and felt good in it, for many years to come.

Near the entrance to Kabakov’s studio, a large board was hanging on the wall, quite unlike anything I had seen before. I did not yet know at that time that this was conceptual art, but I immediately knew that this was something I could identify with and wanted to be around in the future. “Answers of an Experimental Group” was handwritten in large letters on the board, followed by a table with disparate phrases that always contained the word он (“he”) which in Russian can refer to a person of a male gender or to an inanimate object. In this table, the handwritten phrase “I was waiting for him in a garden at the corner of Sretenka Street” aligned with another, “Raw, he (or it) might be unsavory.” This was one of Kabakov’s magic tricks, a demonstration of how the context of social life can wrap around the subject, leaving it unnamed, blank, and invisible. Here as elsewhere, Kabakov’s neat and obedient handwriting was reminiscent of copy books used in schools, but with an added individual element that signaled acceptance of the system. Yet this was a type of consent so spotless that it could not be anything but fake. After all, Russian uses the same word to denote “to depict; to paint; to figure” and “to simulate; feign, pretend.”

 Ekaterina Degot, curator (Graz)


In February, 2001, I invited Ilya and Emilia Kabakov for a one-week residency to the University of California, Santa Barbara. The idea was to have them create an artwork together with undergraduate students from across the campus. They also gave a talk entitled “Total Installation: How Art Shapes Our Experience of Space and Time.” Interest in the artists’ visit—both from the side of the students and the faculty—was enormous, and large crowds filled the lecture hall to hear them speak. The sculpture that emerged from the Kabakovs’ collaboration with a group of fifteen or so students, after much time spent in the campus welding workshop, was The Empty Bottle: Mother and Child, an outsized “bottle” made of metal wire that was positioned in such a way that its opening pointed downward, while a trickle of water poured out of the ground right in front of it, as if from a small well. The bottle’s final position was on a large lawn covering the slope between the university’s faculty club and the lagoon, with a gorgeous view towards the ocean and the Channel Islands on the horizon.

Ilya Kabakov creating “The Bottle” with students at the University of California, Santa Barbara in February, 2001. Photo courtesy of Sven Spieker

The way the work combined an industrial looking bottle with a “natural” water source could make one think of the sculpture as an allegorical tale about the irreconcilable differences between nature and human industry. Or, it could be seen as an invitation to contemplate the discrepancy between a schematic symbolic form—the bottle—and the (sad) narrative of a mother trying to feed her child from such a form. And while both of these ideas, and many others, have their place in a conversation about this artwork, I remember the project for reasons that have more to do with the process of its becoming, and more specifically, with the situation in which it placed Kabakov: that of being a teacher. I have always thought of Ilya as a teacher, even when I saw him work by himself in his studio on Long Island, with no audience, let alone students, in sight. I should clarify, though, that when I say “teacher,” I do not mean by this someone who tells others what to do or think, but someone who sets an example. Ilya Kabakov was always a teacher in this sense, including when he showed his Albums to changing audiences in his now-famous Moscow attic, or in the long explanations or commentaries he obsessively added to his works as if they were the objects of a pedagogical demonstration.

Like the Soviet culture that surrounded him before he emigrated, Kabakov’s work has a decidedly didactic streak. Not that the lessons he staged were always successful ones. In fact, most often they were not. Ilya delighted in instructional failure, derelict schools, abandoned notebooks, out-of-control archives and other catastrophic breakdowns of what we like to call “knowledge production.” Nor was being a teacher (or a student) synonymous for Kabakov with the creation of masterworks, even if at an early point in his career the production of a masterwork was a goal he explicitly set out to achieve. In fact, though, he found, the failure to produce a masterwork could itself be worthy of an example-setting demonstration, a lesson worth teaching. Ruined lessons, didactic garbage, and failed masterworks, the artist reminds us, are not the same as time wasted. They, too, are worth being studied, much like the relics of an age we call the Enlightenment.

Sven Spieker, art historian and critic (Los Angeles, Berlin)


In 1979, I visited an exhibition at the Moscow Municipal Committee of Graphic Artists, a strange place where unofficial artists, after the scandalous Bulldozer Exhibition of 1974, were allowed to exhibit their work under the supervision of the KGB. This place was very popular with Muscovites, and there were long lines. The exhibition was called Color. Form. Space, and it was  there that I first saw works by the artists Ivan Chuikov, Mikhail Chernyshov, Viktor Pivovarov, and the kineticist Vyacheslav Koleichuk, who had made an impression on me before.

In a separate room, on the far wall, there was a large “picture” on which almost nothing was shown. It was just a large and none-too-neat white tablet containing an almost imperceptible green line as well as several dozen scattered comments from imaginary viewers on small scraps of paper. It turned out that the installation was meant to depicted the viewers’ perception of an artwork that didn’t in fact show anything. There were also a variety of texts surrounding this picture, from more highbrow ones—with references to Heidegger and Berdyaev—to statements like “Let’s get out of here, there’s nothing to look at in this garbage.” Moreover, all of these statements were treated as if they were of equal importance, so that one person’s desire to leave the exhibition, coarsely expressed, turned out to be equivalent to sophisticated philosophical commentary. The impression the installation made on me was strange: I felt like I was alone in the hall, yet at the same time it was as if I was in a crowd of spectators with someone looking at us from the side, recording my possible reactions.

This was Kabakov’s installation The Garden. What was it that especially struck me in this installation? It was the fact that the focus had shifted from the painting to the audience. More precisely, the installation depicted the audience, their reactions and opinions regarding this nondescript “picture.” It is curious to me  that the first work by Kabakov I ever saw was about something that I myself later worked on a lot, the very thing in his work that has always been closest to me: his awareness of the phenomenon of viewing. It needs to be remembered that the isolated existence of contemporary art in Soviet society resulted in a strange and unique relationship between artist and viewer: almost all viewers knew each other, and almost all of them were also artists or authors. The expression “exchange of ideas” took on a literal meaning in the Soviet Union: “Today I will listen to your poems, and tomorrow you will express your opinion about my paintings.”

There was another kind of spectator, the “broad viewer” (širokij zritel’) who came from outside. These were almost mythical figures whom we feared as much as we desired them—more like hypothetical objects of our imagination than a reality—and whom we tended to repress from our consciousness.

Yuri Albert and Ilya Kabakov at the Retrospective Exhibition of Moscow Artists 1957 – 1987, Hermitage Association, Moscow (1987). Image courtesy of Yuri Albert.

Kabakov was the first Soviet contemporary artist to focus on these viewers from outside. Not only the installation mentioned above was dedicated to this figure, but also the questions asked by people who see, for example, a grater or a fly on the wall in front of them: “Whose grater is this?”; “Whose fly is this?” Moreover, this wall was at one and the same time the wall of the museum (a place about which Kabakov could only dream at the time) and the wall of the communal kitchen, where he spent a lot of his time. The viewer was also important in Western art at that time, from the modeling of visual perception in the sculptures of Richard Serra to Hans Haacke’s polling of his own audience. In our country, however, it was Kabakov who was the first to take on this topic, and since there was no real audience for contemporary art at that time, he had to invent one.

Generally speaking, art cannot exist without three core components. These are: the author, the work of art, and the viewer. Every epoch and every artist can focus on only one of the three, while the other two components move to the periphery where they tend to be neglected. Classical art most often focuses on the work of art as something ideal and closed on itself, and it doesn’t matter who created it or who looks at it. The Romantic tradition meanwhile places artists at the center, while what these artists create is less important, since their creations are merely the expression of their extraordinary personalities. In contemporary art, on the other hand, it’s the viewer who is at the center. Maybe this is because contemporary art is a product of democracy, competition, and the market.

In the years after my initial encounter with his art, I saw many more works by Kabakov, and I understood his other important qualities, for example, his ability to change and to be influenced by younger artists. Many of Kabakov’s works not only look like they are designed to erase whatever came before them,  but they seem almost like parodies of the artist’s earlier work. A sober love for art; cultural responsibility and accountability; the ability to look at his own work from the side—to be his own spectator—and, at the same time, to put other viewers on display: this is not something that is given to everyone. But it’s definitely what is most interesting.

Yuri Albert, artist (Cologne, Moscow). Translated by Sven Spieker


 In contemporary Russia, Kabakov is mostly famous for the phrase “Not everyone will be taken into the future,” the title of one of his short essays and his installation at the 2001 Venice Biennale. Starting with his series of albums Ten Characters (1971-1976), Kabakov repeatedly focused on the mixture of hope and fear that fills the hearts of artists as they wait for their as-yet-unknown viewer, the future context and the posthumous fate of their works. Each of these albums is a book of loose sheets depicting in images and words the fictional biography of an artist living on the margins of society. The images in these albums are designed to be interpreted as the visions or works of particular “artist-heroes.” All the images come with comments from the perspective of various friends and relatives of each artist. The final image in every album is a sheet of white paper announcing the death of the hero. Each album then concludes with general résumés of the artist’s oeuvre from the pen of other fictitious commentators who, one presumes, reproduce the views of art critics entrusted with the final evaluation of the artist’s legacy. These comments made by outsiders offer evidence of the various misunderstandings to which any artistic practice is necessarily exposed, particularly in the eyes of posthumous commentators. Of course, such anxiety about the future reflects the uncertain status of the unofficial art milieu to which Kabakov belonged in the Soviet Union. Thus, he wrote:

For almost thirty years the life of an unofficial artist was spent inside a locked and sealed world. All this time unofficial artists and authors were barred by strict political, ideological and aesthetic censorship from exhibiting or publishing their work… What did these pictures or concepts signify to the disinterested world outside, what did they signify not just to us, their inventors, but also to other people? This agonizing question hung like the sword of Damocles over all those who for years had worked in the absence of objective criticism, or – perhaps worse – encountered nothing but the well-meaning approval of friends and family.(Ilya Kabakov, Preface to Paul R. Jolles, Memento aus Moskau (Cologne: Wienand, 1997).)

Notwithstanding this anxiety, the close world of Soviet unofficial culture was experienced by Kabakov as warm and supporting. In his installation NOMA (Hamburger Kunsthalle, 1983–4) he proposed a utopian, ideal model of such a community of lonely individuals. Here the space was constructed in a way that it reminded the visitor of a monastery or a hospital. This time around, the protagonists of the installation were not fictional characters but real members of the circle of Moscow conceptualists. Each of them was represented by a room with a bed, a table, two chairs and a selection of artworks or texts on the walls. This ascetic space plunged the visitor into a harmonious and serene atmosphere, an ideal place for private meditation and serious conversation. But what happens when this place and the community that inhabited it disappear? All of Kabakov’s installations address the same question, to which the artist returned time and again in an almost obsessive way: “What is left? What remains after the death of a human being, of an artist, of a particular civilization such as, for example, Soviet civilization?” To these questions, Kabakov gives a very materialistic answer: what is left is the garbage consisting of the material traces, remnants, and other vestiges of human existence. And nobody knows if this garbage will be disposed of in the name of ecological purity, or preserved in the name of historical memory.

Boris Groys, art critic and theorist (New York City)  


Ilya was a great artist. Perhaps this is a cliché, or rather the cliché of clichés, but in this case, true. What made him great? Talent and hard work. Ilya’s work ethic is easy enough to understand. He worked all day, every day, and it showed. In his exhibitions I would sometimes see him with a ruler checking the distances between the elements in an installation, making sure they were exactly right, not even an inch off their ideal positioning. So, there was an enormous amount of labor, and you see this manifest in the astounding variety of art he produced on his own and in collaboration with his wife, Emilia Kabakov.

The aspect of his achievement that is much harder to describe are his talents. They were many and distinctive. Most striking to me, Ilya had an incredible grasp of the history of art. He believed that you cannot overcome historical circumstances. Instead, one must learn to work with those circumstances in a way almost analogous to how one might work with oil on canvas or with any other medium. He understood that it was impossible for him to produce artworks in the 1960s in Moscow, he could only produce gestures about art, though, similarly, later in his life, in the 1980s and 1990s, he realized he very much could produce artworks, but then the questions shifted. He had to ask himself: which medium would be ideal for expression? As it turned out, he often worked with installation, but as I understand it, he did not become an installation artist. Rather, he simply understood installation to be the most vivid and capacious mode of expression available to him in the institutions where he was then exhibiting.

Thus, throughout its many outward changes, to me, Ilya’s art remained remarkably consistent in its dedication to irony, paradox, and a willingness to baffle its immediate public. Likewise, over the last twenty years, I believe his art became increasingly difficult for many of his contemporaries to understand. However, as he produced paintings about paintings, and paintings about painting paintings, and all manner of further self-reflexive works, Ilya, I believe, was following his internal compass, staying true to his own convictions about the role of the artist within history. Art was never something pristine or perfect for him, despite his assiduous efforts with the ruler to make it so. He never saw art as an expression of purity, plenitude, or affirmation. It always existed for him in a state of transition—perhaps toward qualities such as purity or plenitude, but certainly never reaching them—and it is this intense appreciation of our compromised partiality as human beings, the way that we are both ennobled and cursed by our ambitions and desires, that is at the core of his work.

To me, he always understood his art not to be addressed exclusively, or even primarily, to the audience in front of him. In some sense all of Ilya’s art—from the beginning, in his drawings from the 1950s, to the end, in his paintings of the 2020s—has been dedicated to a world he will never see, to viewers he will never meet, and I believe this is where his fundamental “greatness” lies: in his conviction that art is how our collective past converses with our collective future. Art, for Kabakov, allows the present to see itself differently, to understand its temporary dominance over history and possibility as a fleeting phantasm, not as an inexorable accumulation of imposing facts.

Matthew Jesse Jackson, art historian (Chicago)


“Insects one hears / and one hears the talk of men / with different ears.” (Sounds, Wafu)

A photographer friend captured these traces of light in New York City in January 1997 as I was witnessing the filming of Een Ontmoeting/Vstrecha: A Meeting, a performance by Ilya Kabakov and the Flemish artist Jan Fabre. The large black-and-white photographs were taken in a basement and on the roof of the building in which Ilya maintained his studio, not far away from the Twin Towers. For that unusual journey the artists underwent a transformation: Ilya—in an elaborate costume with semitransparent wings and spectacles that resembled a pair of common kitchen strainers—embodied a fly; Jan, equally theatrically dressed—a scarab beetle. In front of a “master of banality” stood a “warrior of beauty.” Their conversation bounced off the walls in the basement, and when it took place on the roof—it was emitted into the urban environment and the sky. I watched as they awkwardly danced with their bodies and their conversation. “An Act of Flemish-Russian poetic resistance (we had both refused to speak English)”—this is how Jan explained it soon after to the audience in Japan, gathered for the inaugural screening of a film documenting the performance. Of course, the staged conversation was far more than an act of linguistic defiance—it was also a tongue-in-cheek escape into the world of Ubuesque “merdre,” which demands stepping out of one’s comfort zone into the world of enchanted absurdity, without which art risks being a direct mirror of reality.

Ilya’s self-identification with an ordinary fly, as a “metaphor of myself” that comments on our world, reached back to the mid-1950s in the Soviet Union. It was there where he realized that a fly looks like a fly: it can be small or big, skinny or fat, busy or lazy—that doesn’t change much. People aren’t interested in an examination of flies’ appearance, and even less in the flies’ lives. They are perceived as a nuisance. Art historians don’t ask: To whom does the fly belong? But precisely because of that anonymity, flies could fly under the radar and see things for what they are. During his subsequent years in exile, Ilya transformed his witness into a restless wanderer who is increasingly more aware of the complexities of the world at large than of those in the artist’s homeland. Flies would continue to appear in many of his works, sometimes drawn or painted with entomological precision, and at other times with great poetic license. In several total installations, mass-produced plastic fakes were incorporated into theatrical settings that mimic real places. “To be a fly doesn’t mean to be a somebody, it means to be in some condition” — declares one of the artist’s “little people” in a drawing with a visible insect. But in which condition? That of a witness? Of a traveler? Or of an artist who sees himself as “some sort of eye, some kind of observing entity… some kind of flying observation apparatus…?” Are these basic questions that one must answer when trying to grasp the meaning of freedom—in life and in art—and, ultimately, of the finitude of life?

Those photographs taken during that memorable encounter in 1997 are gone. For me, the most logical place to keep them would have been in the book containing Ilya’s and Jan’s drawings for the performance and my introduction, published soon after — but they were not in it. They seem to be sharing the fate of many characters in Ilya’s art, who mysteriously fly away, disappearing into space—this time with the artist following them all.

 Marek Bartelik, art critic, art historian, poet (New York City and Aegina, Greece)


At the moment we sat down to talk, I realized that my goal—a long-delayed interview with Ilya—would be again deferred. I’d come prepared to broach specific questions that perplexed me regarding his continuing commitment to painting, one that stretched from his early days in the late 1950s, when he principally sketched hypothetical abstract images, through his years producing albums and then installations (many of which included paintings both monochromatic—white—and figurative) as he created and, to a degree inhabited, his “characters.” This long trajectory had been reaffirmed in recent years by a return to monumental paintings, many of which I was able to view with Emilia when I visited the couple in their Long Island home. By that time (around 2018), health concerns limited direct access: the tiring engagement with critics and scholars, I was to learn, agitated him and most communication now occurred through Emilia, by email.

So, it was fortuitous, then, to have encountered him years earlier when both attended Leonid Sokov’s retrospective exhibition opening (held at the Zimmerli Art Museum in 2013). We met the morning after when, though they had planned to leave, Ilya seemed eager to sit down and respond—less as interviewee and more as lecturer—to the challenge posed by the questions I had asked. He gave nothing less than a compressed history of his version of Russian modernism, a polemical counterpoint to the dominant western narrative that had preoccupied him at least since his early contributions to the journal in exile A-Ya. Naturally, I did not receive a targeted self-reflexive response but wide-ranging metaphysical speculations on modernist art history’s exclusions—its mis-readings of his own historical context. Only now, having curated many shows that included his work, and worked closely with his oeuvre, can I fully appreciate how the complexity of his world and picture-making informed his response (sidestepping focused questions), and his perspective (what concerned him in the 70s continued to reverberate).

Since then, with the installation of The Great Axis, and (twice), of The Short Man (Bookbinder) my work with Ilya and Emilia has been tied to objects and processes, as we collectively realized from lists, artifacts, and documents a new iteration each time. This happened first in Thinking Pictures (Zimmerli Art Museum 2016-17), and then again for the second, re-curated version of that show in Tallinn (KUMU, 2022).(Thinking Pictures: Conceptual Art from Moscow and the Baltics (National Museum of Estonian Art, March-August, 2022) was co-curated by Anu Allas, Liisa Kaljula, and Jane Sharp.) There is nothing more rewarding than this process of conjuring new affective spaces, shaped through time and material connection. Ilya’s commitment to revisiting every choice, from the spacing of works within the room(s), paint colors, lighting level, to wear and tear finishes on the doors compelled each of us to move beyond responsible curatorial involvement, into another space both imaginary and materially alive—in which the interdependency of creator, interpreter, and archivist could be palpably felt. Extraordinary too was the realization that each return constituted for him yet another opportunity to rethink, as a painter and curator of his own world, how color and dramatic encounter with the room-object might yield distinct and discrepant meanings as audiences and eras change. His art, however canonical it may seem to us now, remained a living project well after its moment of creative formation—a personal touchstone which I imagine he would never accept as an end in itself.

Jane A. Sharp, art historian and curator (New Brunswick, Princeton)


“I don’t know why, but I do not want to remember. For me, Ilya is a person today, not yesterday. Whether I met him in Moscow, Paris, Cologne, Amsterdam, or Tel Aviv, I always saw in him an Other in relation to Everything. But this Other was close by when compared to all the otherness that is alien and distant. Kabakov approached the world from a distance, but not with the fear and anxiety that he so often addresses in his writings and installations. No, for him, distance was a means for getting to know Everything. Among the circle of Moscow Conceptualists to which he belonged, technical terms such as “distance,” “the failure to stick” or “on the edge” had acquired significance a long time ago. However, Ilya went beyond words, terminology, and presentness. He included Everything within himself, while at the same time distancing himself from it. Everything, in Kabakov’s case, also includes rubbish and even angels. To be more precise, he does not really distinguish between them. This is where the foundation for Kabakov’s colossal ambition lies, his energy of delusion, to use Tolstoy’s words. The difference between Kabakov and many Western and Russian artists lies in the fact that he is a visionary artist who sees. It is precisely this vision that created for him both the cold spaces of alienation and the warm empathy of friendship.” (Written in 2004)

Vadim Zakharov, Emilia Kabakov, Ilya Kabakov, Andrei Monastyrski, Moscow, 2013. Image courtesy of Vadim Zakharov.

“I think I became personally acquainted with Ilya in 1981. In our circle of artists, working with text came naturally. We rarely separated a text or a comment from visual art, or from the actions that led to complex images consisting of both visual and textual elements. Ilya always used texts in perfect proportion with images. One complemented the other without interfering, something that is not easy to achieve. Russian culture is a textual culture, and only twice in its history did the image successfully take precedence over the text: in religious icons and in the Russian avant-garde. Everything else in Russian art is like an unfinishable text. Moscow Conceptualism, in my opinion, managed to create balance between text and image. It did not, as is commonly assumed, simply “verbalize the image.” Ilya made his colossal contribution to Russian art by returning equal rights to word and image. Without exception, his work weave into each other in uncanny ways, allowing for the viewer to participate in the endless play of words and depictions, which is a fundamentally poetic process.” (Written in 2008)

Now Ilya has crossed his Rubicon. He is there, and we are here. But the dialogue remains active. Many questions remain, about him and his work, and he continues to answer them. Strange as it may seem, I do not feel that the fact that he is “there” now means that he is far away, but rather that he is still close by. This makes sense since his many works, texts, conversations, and publications are actively functioning even now. He set in motion a powerful creative mechanism that continues to be in conversation with us. Ilya’s and Emilia’s exhibition catalogs take up two of my bookshelves. These are whole worlds onto themselves where Kabakov’s magnificent Albums of the 1970s and ‘80s intersect with his total installations and objects, creating a feeling of infinity. Ilya succeeded in expanding the boundaries of our worlds. This is something that cannot be said of many artists. (Written in 2023)

Vadim Zakharov, artist (Berlin). Translated by Sven Spieker


 Outside of his native Portugal, the pseudonymous writer Miguel Torga is primarily remembered for the aphorism: “The universal is the local without walls.” As someone who adopted alter egos to speak the truth of his own imaginative experience, Torga was the fellow countryman of the writer known as Fernando Pessoa—which translates simply as “person”—although he had the choice of dozens of heteronyms. Ilya Kabakov—who was born in Ukraine, made his reputation in the Soviet Union, and settled in the United States for the last quarter of his life –was their cosmopolitan compatriot. Moreover, he was the multimedia artist who paradoxically proved Torga’s maxim by multiplying walls to a hallucinating degree both on paper and in three dimensions. In the process, he created mazes and catacombs of localities in which individuals possessed with exceptional gifts and of discursive fantasy survived, miraculously flourished, and somehow communicated through the architectural, cultural, and historical membranes that otherwise compartmentalized them.

A product of some of the worst that the 20th century had to offer—a Jew raised in an anti-Semitic, famine ravaged part of Stalinist Russia just before and after World War II—Kabakov was fated to have few if any illusions about the hopeful dawn of a glorious revolutionary future that had motivated the European avantgardes of the period between 1918 and 1933. But neither was he inclined to categorical dystopian pessimism. Rather, he conjured parallel universes in which he and others could thrive. This was the sustaining genius of his early work as an illustrator of children’s books which kept him out of harm’s way during the final decades of the failing Soviet utopia. This allowed him to make his living as an official artist while hiding in plain sight as a questioning and, therefore, dissenting creator of hand-drawn albums, patched-together installations, and performances.

A founding member of the intimate, necessarily secretive but protean circle of Moscow Conceptualism in the 1960s, Kabakov distinguished himself as an animating force and conscience among his peers and collaborators, who included Eric Bulatov, Oleg Vasiliev, and Andrei Monastyrski, among others. When Kabakov left the Soviet Union in 1989, the old revolutionary regime was on the verge of collapse, as were the mythologies that provided the armatures of his alternate realities. Undeterred, he posited new cosmic myths and fleshed them out. In so doing, he abandoned the ready-made walls of the Soviet Union and transformed himself into one of the most active artists working on the international scene, building installations all over Europe, in Asia, the Middle East, and North America, while simultaneously publishing theoretical texts on what he called “Total Installation.” Through his books and facsimile albums describing the mind sets of his principal “Characters”—whimsical, satirical surrogates—Kabakov became a literary artist of great distinction and international resonance. In the final analysis, he—in tandem with his wife Emilia, who cosigned many of his later projects—was among the most fertile and ground-breaking talents working anywhere in the world during the past half century. Without question, Ilya Kabakov is the greatest artist to come out of Russia since the generation of Lissitsky, Rosanova, Malevich, Exter, Rodchenko, Popova, Tatlin, and Chagall. I am proud to say that over forty years he was also my friend.

Robert Storr, artist, critic, curator (New York City, New Haven)


Upon his invitation to participate in Documenta in 1992, Kabakov reflected: “With my usual nervousness I had the impression that I had been invited to see the Queen or to the palace where the fate of the arts is decided. For the artist, this [documenta] is a kind of Olympic Games… The poor soul of a Russian impostor was in agony in front of these legitimate representatives of great contemporary art.”(Ilya Kabakov, Installations 1983-1995 (Paris, 1995). Also quoted in Svetlana Boym, “On Diasporic Intimacy: Ilya Kabakov’s Installations and Immigrant Home,” Critical Inquiry 24:2 (Winter 1998): pp. 498-524.) This candid anxiety may seem incongruous to the level of Ilya’s prolific production over the years—first, as a solo artist then later in collaboration with his wife Emilia—which is marked by dozens of gigantic installations that take up entire buildings like the Park Avenue Armory in New York and the Grand Palais in Paris, but it was very much in step with Ilya’s sense of humor. This was the same man who wrote nearly a decade earlier, in 1983, in an eponymous text in the Russian art magazine A-Ya: “Not everyone will be taken into the future.”(Ilya Kabakov, “Not Everyone Will Be Taken into the Future” / “V budushchee voz’mut ne vsekh,” trans. K. G. Hammond, A-Ya 5 (1983): pp. 34-35.) This short text explains that, based on the fortitude of their character, people fall into one of three groups: those who take, those who are taken, and those who are left behind. Whether among the living or the dead, the haves are always separated from the have-nots. Those who make the cut end up in the future by way of history books while the remainder fall by the wayside, omitted even from the footnotes. As someone who has worked on numerous exhibitions, books, and lectures on the life and work of the artist, Kabakov had nothing to fear as he has, no doubt, been taken into the future.

Ksenia Nouril, art historian, curator (New York City)


In Moscow, Ilya Kabakov built himself a studio on the roof of 1 Sretensky Boulevard, a stately building from before the Revolution that his very presence has made legendary since. I first disrupted the debris on its precipitous back stairs in 1987, inhaled the cabbage fumes seeping through successive floors of communal kitchen doors, and managed the makeshift bridge of boards to his door. Tall flats were stacked against the studio walls. There was space enough in the center for only one or two of the “rooms” in which each of the benighted figures of his imagination had left souvenirs of their strategies for coping with the lunatic dislocations of late-Soviet life, and of their dreams of escape. This was, in effect, the Ten Characters (1988) installation with which Kabakov would announce his presence in New York less than a year later. It was clear that day in Moscow that I was in the presence of a major artist. Even without the lighting and theatrical devices that he would later perfect, this was installation as I had never seen before. Kabakov’s all-encompassing “Total Installation,” as he would name it, was peopled with characters and stories that engaged the emotions and memories of a viewer like me, however disparate our situations. His complex, contradictory narratives were constructed out of layers of passionate arguments about philosophy, aesthetics, metaphysics, and history. And always about art.

More often than not, those arguments among the circle of artistic friends who, like him, had opted out of the official Soviet art scene, took place over vodka and shashlik in Kabakov’s studio, around a table incongruously domesticated with a cloth. When I met him there, he was about to make his first trip to the West in order to create an installation in Austria. He was exhilarated and he was terrified, in large part about how his art would be received. Like so many of his Ten Characters, Kabakov would fly into space, uncertain whether this would be to a kind of death or to a new element with new possibilities.

Two decades later, for my film Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here (2013), he would explain how in the Soviet Union, he had fantasized about the West as a paradise for art. We were sitting in the studio on the North Fork of Long Island that he had designed for himself, with its high north wall and ceiling made up of windows, while the distracting view of the bay was blocked off to the south. With Emilia Kabakov, who had become his partner in art and life, he had found paradise in the welcoming museums and in the traveling circus of international artists with whom he and Emilia were exhibiting around the world. To Kabakov, museums were among the world’s last sacred spaces. The Metropolitan Museum, where he never showed, was the standard for the contemplation of art, though Donald Judd’s Marfa, where he did, came close. In 2008, after years of reluctance to confront repugnant memories in the Moscow he had fled, he finally agreed to return for installations in seven venues, including the Pushkin Museum. The central installation became a large-scale homage to the Metropolitan Museum galleries. Within this skin, his paintings battled out their multifarious positions on form, history, meaning, philosophy, ontology, and above all white. This was a paradoxical white as radiant light or negative space, as Malevich’s “white free depths, eternity,” or as besmirched as the utopia that Malevich boosted.

“If you want to be Roger Federer, you have to play at Wimbleton,” he told me on his return. Art history was his Wimbleton. Increasingly in the years that followed, he concentrated on competing with the Italian Mannerist painter Pontormo and the canon through a series of paintings that complicated easy answers, accepted truths, changing perceptions and art itself. Installations became their conceptual settings.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, 1022 Flying (2022). Oil on canvas, 229 x 863 cm. Photo: Igoris Markovas. Image courtesy of Studio Kabakov.

From 2015 on, Emilia traveled alone to negotiate exhibits and oversee their presentation. In their studio at the end of Long Island, Ilya made paintings that could argue among themselves about the big questions, as he had once done with his friends at the round table in Moscow. His last paintings revisited the albums of the 1970s, which had become the soil from which his installations grew. In these paintings, people are flying, in phalanxes or alone, into the unknown.

Amei Wallach, art critic, filmmaker (Long Island)



ARTMargins Online Editorial Collective
Amy Bryzgel, Iva Glisic, Raino Isto, Zsuzsa László, Susan Snodgrass, Sven Spieker.