Ilya Kabakov: Drawings

Sprengel-Museum, Kurt-Schwitters-Platz, Hannover, Germany. 14 March – 16 May 1999. Catalogue DM 25,–.

This is not an ordinary Kabakov exhibition. Since his emigration from Russia in 1988, Ilya Kabakov has been known mainly for his “total” installations, in which he creates little parallel universes that possess their own artistic logic, or rather, stage the context in which the objects on display make sense. In this and other contexts, Kabakov has produced a large number of drawings. The Hannover exhibition, however, is dedicated not to drawings that would be part of some particular context, but to the “autonomous” drawings that Kabakov has produced throughout his artistic career. This means that the drawings on display have never been shown before. Norbert Nobis of the Sprengel museum is to be credited with the idea of making them accessible to a broader public, a project with which Kabakov himself readily agreed.(Before travelling to Hannover, the exhibition was shown at the Stadsgalerij Heerlen, The Netherlands (12/4/98 – 2/21/99).)

The result is an exhibition that is well worth the trip, especially as you get the album “Flying Komarov” and the installation “Memorial for Useless Things” (from the museum’s permanent collection) into the bargain. From Kabakov’s prolific body of work, Nobis has chosen 81 drawings that encompass Kabakov’s entire career. This is to be taken literally: three pencil drawings dated 1943/1972 show war scenes in the manner of childrens’ book illustrations, with Kabakov’s name written across them in red pencil.(Obviously, the double dates refer to the fact that the drawings are remakes of those the ten-year old Kabakov made when at art school. The quality of the paper alone is telling. Kabakov may have had to draw on squared paper during evacuation, but this paper would never have been (and remained) so white.) Next, there are several drawings from the 1950’s and early 60’s, when Kabakov, by his own account, invented for his spontaneous drawings a style that he later found out to be Abstract Expressionism. Collages of drawings, postcards and newspaper cutouts, dated 1963, foreshadow his work of the 1970’s and 1980’s in the guise of a “ZhEK”3-artist producing the necessary artwork for his district.(A ZhEK (zhilishchno-ekspluatatsionnaya kontora) is the local housing authority responsible for a block of flats, including cultural and ideological affairs.) There is a strong connection between these collages and the so-called “bureaucratic drawings” in which Kabakov draws up the most absurd classifications.

Another series connects “absurd” drawings with equally absurd text fragments. The relation of text to image has for a long time been a concern of Kabakov’s. While the combination of text and image in, say, the “Ten Characters” album series (1972-75) is one of mutual commentary, the drawings in this exhibition are completely disconnected from the accompanying texts, resulting in the creation of a gap between the two in which the viewers are free to create their own meanings. While the drawings in many ways parallel the evolution of Kabakov’s oeuvre, most interesting are those that do not fall into his established stylistic categories, such as the colorful expressionist crayons that are contrary to Kabakov’s usual restrained style with its clearly marked lines. In fact, what is most striking about the exhibition is the stylistic range of these drawings, including expressionism, childrens’ drawings, calligraphy, collage, surrealism, text as image, installation plans and so forth – and all are executed in the most diverse manner. Sometimes it is hard to believe that all these works were drawn by the same man.

This raises the most serious of questions – that of the exhibition’s concept. After all, we are dealing with a conceptual artist who is a master of self-stylization. From the 1960’s onwards, Kabakov has always been aware of the gap between the artist’s intention and the actual work. His obsession with the relation of text and image, work and commentary stems from the recognition that his works never lived up to his original intention. Kabakov never really trusted his artistic powers and therefore always invented a context around his works to relieve himself of responsibility for them. The driving force behind Kabakov’s artistic strategy is the desire to hide from the immediacy of the image and the finality of its statement into a multitude of artistic personae.(See Kabakov, Ilya: 60e gody (The Sixties), in: Kabakov, Ilya: 60-e – 70-e. Zapiski o neoficial’noy zhizni v Moskve. Vienna 1999, p. 7-40 (Wiener Slawistischer Almanach, Sonderband 47). Although this statement (dated 1982) is, like any other, not to be taken at face value, the evolution of Kabakov¹s work clearly shows how he has always tried to evade a definite position.) His progression from drawings to albums to installations can be regarded as the establishment of a framework or context for his output that is never the same, a framework that would lay the responsibility on the shoulders of a fictitious personage, or that would at any rate always allow Kabakov to deny full responsibility for what he has done. Therefore, this is probably the first exhibition in which Kabakov has not himself provided the frame and not even selected the pictures (not counting early group exhibitions of inofficial art, of course). True, the reviewer has some reservations about the accuracy of the dates;(As Norbert Nobis pointed out, the drawings were never meant to be given away or published. A re-dating seems therefore quite unlikely, all the more so as Kabakov himself did not know which drawings were eventually selected.) Kabakov does give some explanations in the catalogue, but these are not specifically written for the occasion (they are taken for the most part from his 1982 text, “The Sixties”).(See footnote 4. It is striking that Kabakov leaves out the reservations he has about his early drawings. By the way: Cynthia Martin’s English translation of Kabakov’s texts in the catalogue is highly competent. But why did it have to serve as the base for the German and Dutch translations, resulting in several unnecessary inaccuracies?) Still, there is no installation to frame the drawings, no ficticious “author-personage”,(This is the term used in Moscow conceptualism to denote a fictitious person from whose point of view a given work is created. For its first occurrence, see S. Gundlach, Personazhny avtor; in: A-Ya. Literaturnoe izdanie, Paris 1985, pp. 76-77.) no explanatory texts of how this setting could come about. Instead, as is also borne out by the contributions to the catalogue, the pictures are open to interpretation, just as any other picture would be.

It seems that after fourty years of masking his identity, there is nothing left for Kabakov to hide. On the contrary, his work has succeded to earn him a cultural status that no longer depends on the reflection of its contextual framing. The frame has now become identical with the art machinery, finally allowing Kabakov to identify with the work and to claim unmediated authorship even of those works that were, until now, hidden from the public’s eye and therefore not part of his imaginative self-stylization. It seems that only through this exhibition Kabakov has finally accepted the place that the art community has offered him. Is this the next step in his oeuvre? I, for one, can’t wait to see his next works.

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