30.09.1933, Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine
Painter, graphic artist, creator of installations, book illustrator
Kabakov’s father, Iosif, was a metalworker; his mother, Berta Solodukhina, a bookkeeper in a kindergarten. His mother’s profession may throw light on the endless inventory lists that Kabakov was to use in the future in his installation projects. In 1941, just before the Nazis seized Dnepropetrovsk, Berta Solodukhina and her son were evacuated to Samarkand. By chance, the children’s art school attached to Leningrad Academy of Arts was also evacuated there at that time. Ilya Kabakov began there in 1943, transferring in 1945 to its Moscow equivalent, Moscow Secondary Art School (MSKhSh). The artist recalls his years studying at the school as a time of poverty and constant humiliation. Nevertheless, it provided the future artist with a serious professional grounding. In 1951, Kabakov enrolled in the graphics department of Moscow Surikov Arts Institute, graduating in 1957. From 1956 he worked with the children’s magazines Murzilka and Vesyolye kartinki (Merry Pictures) and with the publishers Children’s Literature and Malysh (Tiny Tots), designing and illustrating about 150 children’s books.
As well as illustrating books, Kabakov did a great deal of drawing. He executed several hundred drawings, in crayon and Indian ink, which gradually formed into groups, cycles and series. By 1975 they had become an entire album cycle, soon to be named 'Ten Characters'. At the same time, Kabakov was working on large-scale pictures, although in his case the word ‘pictures’ should not be taken literally. They are more like billboards, or information stands, where images are combined with text.
This first period in Kabakov’s art is steeped in existential and metaphysical reflections: loneliness, death, departure, dissolution and disappearance, the problem of white – the white sheet of paper or white picture as metaphors for light, or emptiness, or perhaps nothing. Originally this aspect of his work was only accessible to a narrow circle of friends who came to see the artist in his studio. Gradually, however, Kabakov’s studio became more and more popular. Not only local intellectuals and artists came there, but foreign diplomats and journalists. Philosophy seminars and lectures were held in this domestic setting, and the studio became a centre for Moscow Non-conformist culture.
At the end of the 1970s, influenced to some extent by his close friend, Erik Bulatov and the bold young reformers Vitaly Komar and Alik Melamid, Kabakov’s work underwent a radical turn away from existential problems to social ones. Kabakov joined the rapidly developing new Russian art movement that came to be known as Sots Art.
In 1985 Kabakov had his first important solo exhibitions in Paris, at the Dina Vierny Gallery, and in Berlin at the Кunsthalle; these attracted the instant attention of both critics and curators. In 1988 the artist left Russia and worked for a time in France and Germany, before finally settling in New York. He gained not only world fame, but above all the opportunity to put his grandiose projects into practice. His idea was that all his numerous installations should be part of a grandiose ‘Museum of a Lost Civilisation’. By ‘lost civilisation’ Kabakovprimarily meant Soviet civilisation; in the wider and more profound sense, his conception conceals an apocalyptic premonition regarding the fate of human civilisation in general.
Since 1989 he has worked in partnership with his wife, Emilia Kabakova. V.G.