A central figure in Moscow’s unofficial art of the 1960s, Rabin was born in a family of doctors and lost his parents at a very early age. His father died in 1935, when the boy was seven years old, and his mother died in 1942, at the height of the war. He spent his early childhood in the far north of Russia but returned to Moscow with his mother in 1937 and studied at music school. However, very soon a passion for drawing appeared in him. Although permanently hungry during the war, he did not hesitate to exchange his food ration for a set of oil paints.
A decisive moment for the orphaned youth during this very difficult time was a meeting with the artist and poet Yevgeny Kropovnitsky, who became not just his art teacher, but also his spiritual mentor, giving him an example of an ethical stance in the extremely harsh conditions of Stalin’s regime.
Rabin studied for a time at the Academy of Art in Riga and the V.I. Surikov Art Institute in Moscow, but school routine did not suit him. In 1951 he married Valentina Kropovnitskaya, his teacher’s daughter. The Rabin-Kropovnitsky family became the centre for a group of artists and poets who refused to accept the rules of official Soviet art. The group came to be called Lianozovo, from the name of the station outside Moscow where Rabin was living with his family. From the mid-1950s Rabin’s art began acquiring clear characteristics. Like his close friends, the poets Genrikh Sapgir and Igor Kholin, he was inspired by the outskirts of the city, the flipside of ‘grand’ Moscow. He painted squat, dark hutments, still lifes with a bottle of vodka and a herring, abandoned suburban cemeteries and broken icons. He actively introduced texts into his pictures, making him the forerunner of two artistic trends that appeared later, in the 1970s: Sots Art and the so-called Moscow Conceptualism.
The activities of the Lianozovo Group and Rabin’s art were the subjects of a devastating article by R. Karpel, The Priests of Cesspit No. 8, in the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets (20 September 1960). The way things were under the Soviet regime, this meant that one’s life was in danger and it brought to an end immediately the rare opportunities to exhibit works in alternative spaces. In the spring of 1974 Rabin was the initiator and one of the organisers of an attempt by unofficial artists to exhibit their works in the open, on waste ground on the outskirts of Moscow. The exhibition was broken up by the police, using bulldozers and water cannon. This famous exhibition, which gained the name of the ‘Bulldozer Exhibition’, was a key moment in the history of modern art in Russia. From then on the art of the Non-conformists could no longer be ignored. In 1978, Rabin was threatened with arrest for parasitism and was forced to leave the USSR on a visitor’s visa, and then deprived of Soviet citizenship by a decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet on 22 June. Rabin settled with his family in Paris, where he worked hard and now had the opportunity to show his works freely. Exhibitions of his pictures were held in galleries in Switzerland, France, the USA – at the Museum of Contemporary Russian Art in Jersey City, in Norway, and in England. He became a French citizen in 1985. After the restoration of his Soviet citizenship in 1990 he also gained recognition in his homeland, and large retrospective exhibitions of his works took place in the Tretyakov Gallery and the Pushkin Museum. In 2006 he was awarded the Innovation Prize ‘for his creative contribution to the development of modern art’. V.G.