The Death of Concept Artist Ilya Kabakov

  Ilya Kabakov, in Moscow, in 2008.

Draftsman, painter, writer, designer of installations, highly respected figure in contemporary art, Ilya Kabakov died on May 27 at his home in Long Island, United States, at the age of 89, peacefully and surrounded by of his family according to the press release issued by his family.

Ilya Iossifovitch Kabakov was born into a Jewish family on September 30, 1933 in Dniepropetrovsk (now Dnipro), then a city in the Socialist Republic of Ukraine. He survived the Second World War because he was evacuated with his mother before the arrival of the Nazi armies in Ukraine, to Samarkand, in Uzbekistan.

After the war, he studied art in Moscow and in 1957 graduated in graphic design and illustration from the Surikov State Institute of Fine Arts. Having specialized in illustrated books, having become a member of the official Union of Soviet Artists, he was not at all a dissident and did not show his “drawings for (y)self” before the 1960s. But, in 1965, he participated in an exhibition of Soviet artists in L’Aquila, Italy, organized by the Italian Communist Party. He shows a series of drawings on an unexpected subject: the shower. A shower whose water never flows and under which a man waits, in vain… This allegory of frustration earned him some time without work. Retrospectively, it appears that it potentially contains the work to come.

Fictional biographies, deceptively innocuous

In the second half of the decade, while preserving the appearances of a more cautious conformism, he became one of the members of the so-called “Sretensky Boulevard” group, which also included Erik Bulatov and Eduard Steinberg. Kabakov then executed his first paintings, The Russian seriesin which the depicted objects barely appear under the brown that symbolically covers them as the Soviet order stifles any creation that does not conform to its system, including in artistic matters.

Those who seek to free themselves from it place themselves under the sign of what is agreed to be called the “Moscow Conceptualism”, which is not an echo of Western conceptual art, but an underground intellectual opposition. Kabakov is one of the main figures. He then expressed himself through the albums he wrote and illustrated, around fifty, including his ten characters in 1972-1975. These fictitious, deceptively innocuous biographies resemble the picture books he is to produce. It is up to the reader to suspect what absurdities and taboos overwhelm the characters.

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