Кабаков Илья

Keeping up with the Kabakovs.
FT Magazine

By Julie L. Belcove

Dasha Zhukova is among the wealthy collectors snapping up the work of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, the art world’s most unlikely power couple

©Jason Schmidt/CLM

Emilia and Ilya Kabakov in their Long Island studio, February 2013

The glare is almost blinding as the midday sun bounces off the snow, packed thick on the ground. Deer tracks make a delicate outline around the large, shingled house, which sits on a cliff on Long Island’s North Fork. Inside, lunch is waiting and Ilya Kabakov pads into the kitchen from his studio in paint-spattered clothes. He and his wife Emilia eat, sleep and wake according to a strict schedule. “It’s a very organised household,” Emilia says as she dishes up a beef and vegetable soup. “It’s much easier to work this way.”

That work consists of making art, and it’s all that matters around here. “He doesn’t know anything else,” says Emilia, a short, fine-featured woman of 67. “No vacation,” pipes up Ilya, in an accent that does not muffle the 55 years he lived in the Soviet Union, his birthplace. “No weekend.”

Emilia frowns disapprovingly. “It’s not a good thing,” she says in more confident English. But Ilya, who is 79, rosy-cheeked and with a shock of white hair, just smiles. “Work is pleasure. Work is vacation,” he declares, adding with a gleam in his eye, “Not to Emilia. To me.”

Husband and wife aren’t entirely of the same mind when it comes to their address, either. They moved to the rocky coastline here 18 years ago. Before that they lived in Tribeca, but Ilya says the neighbourhood was “like a permanent performance, permanent party”, and he found it difficult to focus on his work. Emilia misses Manhattan. “I’m a city person, not a country person,” she says.

But Emilia is not merely the doting wife acceding to her husband’s wishes. She is the chief facilitator of his art, at his side since he left the Soviet Union behind for the west – or, more specifically, for the international art world – 25 years ago. When he lapses into Russian, she translates. When he wants to build a sprawling art installation, she picks up the phone and makes it happen. When he paints too late into the evening, making sleep hard, she convinces him to put down his brush.

©Courtesy of Sprovieiri, London

Ilya’s sketch for 'The Happiest Man', watercolour and pencil on paper, 2000

The Kabakovs have forged a potent partnership: her name now appears alongside his as co-author of the works. With Ilya as the seer and Emilia as his intellectual sounding board and masterful organiser, they have created a succession of deeply affecting immersive environments that take as their subject, in the words of the eminent US curator Robert Storr, the “failure of utopia and the aspiration nonetheless that survives. It’s the tension between the utter loss of illusions and the irrepressible desire to invent them – and that’s a pretty good summation of the 20th century.”

Over the past decade, the Kabakovs’ critical acclaim has translated into financial success. Ilya Kabakov holds the position of Russia’s most expensive living artist, after one of his paintings from 1982 sold at auction in 2008 for $5.8m. In January, it was revealed that Roman Abramovich and his partner Dasha Zhukova had acquired a substantial group of the Kabakovs’ works from a longtime collector for a reported $60m.

Still, though the Kabakovs are celebrated in Russia and much of Europe, they have not shown as much in the UK and the US and remain less known to the public there. The Kabakovs’ “total installations,” as they’re called, unabashedly impart a narrative that is often lacking in the more conceptual art of the west. In “The Toilet”, for instance, shown in Germany at Documenta IX in 1992, the couple constructed an apartment – complete with a made bed, a child’s playpen and a table set with plates and a teapot – in the confines of a shabby, outdated public restroom. With its implication that Russians were living in a toilet, the piece proved not only engrossing but understandably controversial.

©Agostino Osio

A view of the completed installation at the HangarBicocca gallery, Milan, 2012

Their installation “The Happiest Man”, which opens in London at the University of Westminster’s Ambika P3 gallery at the end of this month, contemplates what Ilya calls the “stupid mentality” of romanticising the past, an all-too-common but dangerous Russian trait. The installation recreates an old-fashioned cinema, with theatre seats where viewers can sit while a loop of Soviet propaganda films from the 1930s and 1940s – think smiling, happy peasants – plays on the big screen.

Michael Mazière, the Ambika gallery’s curator, describes the couple’s approach as “poetic”. “It’s the idea of metaphor,” he says. “There’s a sort of innocence, but it’s very clever. The audience is kind of lured into it.”

. . .

Those who have seen the couple in action tend to describe Ilya, widely recognised as the most important artist to come out of post-Stalinist Russia, as the conceptual genius behind the art and Emilia as the interpreter, or, in Mazière’s words, the “siphon”. “One knows exactly what the other means without saying anything,” says Katharine Heron, director of Ambika P3. “It’s a very warming sight to see them working closely.”

Emilia describes their collaborative method as a “tennis game”, with continuous back and forth. Her home office is adjacent to his studio, but mostly, she says, “We talk a lot at night, and then we can’t sleep.” His job, it seems, is to paint and draw. Hers is everything else.

However, the Kabakovs have not always been a team. Until he was well into middle age, Ilya worked alone – almost in isolation, his only audience the closely knit community of “unofficial” Muscovite artists. He made his living as a children’s book illustrator, which enabled him to acquire the otherwise hard-to-obtain materials he needed to make his own art. Ilya created some 120 books, but he detested the job. “It was complete censorship,” he says. Every aspect was state controlled, including what children – and even dogs – should look like.

Though he is quick to say that the oppression did not compare to the Stalinist terror, he lived in constant fear: “I never answered the phone. I didn’t open the door unless I knew who was coming. You had to watch what you were doing, what you were saying. In a way everyone had a double life.”

Since Ilya was not an official fine artist – his works lacked the appropriate heroic optimism – he was forbidden from exhibiting publicly in the USSR. For the most part, the authorities left him alone. But when his “Shower” series of drawings, depicting a man standing under a shower but unable to get wet, was shown in Italy in 1965, prompting outcries that he was lampooning the Soviet Union’s failures, he was banned from illustration jobs for four years.

A limited number of trusted friends were welcome in his studio. “No public, no exhibitions. It was hermetically closed,” he says. “The good part was it was idealistic – no money involved.” All he and his fellow artists hoped for was to make art.

©Morten Thorkildsen

The 'Albums', books of drawings and text created by Ilya in the 1970s when he was working as an unofficial artist in Moscow

In Ilya’s case, that art was heavily influenced by the rich Russian literary tradition. Like the great novels of the 19th and 20th centuries, Ilya’s paintings and drawings revolved around fully realised characters. Most markedly, in the early 1970s, he created a series of “Albums”, each a compilation of pencil drawings and text on loose-leaf paper with a downtrodden artist as the protagonist. Zhukova notes that much of his oeuvre “stems from Gogol’s concept of ‘little man’, a man who is minimised by worldly circumstances, yet prevails despite all odds. It’s a story – not unique to Russia – that transcends cultures as a universal myth.”

One of his recurring and most compelling metaphors was the communal apartment – that dreaded mainstay of Soviet life. In his 1980 painting “Carrying Out the Slop Pail” he composed a six-year schedule for the inhabitants of one such apartment to take out the garbage.

His work is often described as autobiographical, but Emilia warns against taking it too literally. He did not, for example, live in a communal apartment. “It’s a fantasy about a fantasy of real life,” she says. Ilya prefers to describe his art as an “understanding of life”. He also notes that while the west is consumed with the “personal mind”, in the east there is more acceptance of the “collective mind”. He tells a joke about a “friend” who, walking around the Hermitage, grew tired. Seeing an empty chair in a gallery, he went to sit, only to have a guard scream at him, “This chair is not for you – it’s for everybody!” Ilya laughs. “It’s a paradox.”

In the early 1980s Ilya began to feel his paintings needed a context, and he turned to installations. “He put all his previous work inside installations,” Emilia says. “It was pretty radical, but at the same time, how radical could it be? Nobody could see it.”

©Jason Schmidt/CLM

Ilya in his studio

Ilya says he knew little to nothing of what was going on in the art world beyond the Iron Curtain. “That was one of the tragedies of living in a closed society,” he says. “We didn’t have any information. If we were able to get any, it was fragmentary.” He got by, he says, on “fantasies of western art”. Word was getting out about Ilya, however, as foreign curators and museum directors slowly began showing up at his studio. “Western curators were very polite,” he says. “They were trying to be very nice.”

Ilya is being modest. Amei Wallach, the critic and film-maker, who is completing a documentary on the couple, first met him in 1987 in Moscow, where she was reporting on the effects of glasnost and perestroika. Many artists, she says, were “totally terrified” of their new-found freedom. Not Ilya. “It was very clear to me he was a major, major artist,” she says. “His own work was riveting.”

A Swiss diplomat brought some of Ilya’s works home, which led to the artist’s first solo shows in Paris and Bern, in 1985. Ilya was unable to attend. “Nobody could go outside,” he says. “The first time I went was 1987. I was 54.” That trip was to accept an artist residency in Graz, Austria. Even then he resisted any urge to see what his foreign peers were up to. Fuelled by an “enormous desire” to share his work in public, he says, “I was more concerned with making what I wanted to make than seeing any other art.”


Ilya in Paris, 1989

His return to Moscow was brief. In 1988 he emigrated. That spring Ilya had his first solo show in the US, at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in New York. It had been 10 years in the making. With a meticulously created environment, “Ten Characters” imagined the residents of a depressingly carved-up communal apartment, from the mediocre artist and the hoarder to “The Man Who Flew Into Space from His Apartment,” whose tiny hovel had a hole in the ceiling. The New York Times’ rave review called “Ten Characters” “an amazing experience” and described Ilya as “many things in one – a poet, a reporter, a storyteller in prose, a portraitist who never shows us his sitters directly, an environmental sculptor and an understated magician”.

It was the first time most influential curators, including Robert Storr, had witnessed Ilya’s work, but it was all they needed to see. “As soon as I had the chance to act, I did,” says Storr, who acquired Kabakov works for the Museum of Modern Art when he became a curator there and put pieces in group exhibitions at both MoMA and at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia.

Emilia, herself an émigré, had helped usher “Ten Characters” to completion. As Ilya’s visions grew increasingly complicated to orchestrate, Emilia proved herself invaluable when it came to pulling them off. “Ilya would not have been able to do the work without Emilia,” says Wallach, “because she is really the one who makes it happen.”

Emilia downplays her role: “In the beginning mostly I was an assistant, I would say – a very expensive assistant.” Even today, she adds, “more or less he still works on his own – because I don’t paint, and he paints. His connection with painting, that’s chemical.”

. . .

Theirs is an unusual love story. Ilya’s and Emilia’s lives have been intertwined since birth. They are “from the same family … the same house,” as Emilia puts it – cousins. Both had painful childhoods. Ilya’s was interrupted by war. While his father went off to fight, Ilya and his mother were evacuated from their home in the Ukrainian town of Dnepropetrovsk to Samarkand, where, serendipitously, the Leningrad Art Academy had also been relocated. Ilya was admitted, and for the remainder of his childhood his mother moved wherever was best for her son’s art education – even when she had to do so furtively because she lacked the necessary residency papers.

Emilia’s parents were imprisoned for years after they applied for exit papers, and she was raised by her grandparents. She studied classical piano, but her parents’ status prevented her from attending a top conservatory. She went instead to Siberia.

©D. James Dee

'The Man Who Flew Into Space from His Apartment', from the 1988 show that launched the Kabakovs in the US

Ilya married and divorced twice and had a daughter, who now lives in Paris. Emilia married as well, had a daughter and applied to emigrate to Israel in 1971. Two years later her request was granted, but she was given just five days to get out. It was Ilya who took her to the train station. “When I was leaving, he told me he loved me,” she recalls. “I was in love with him, but it was very complicated. I am very strong-minded. It took me a while to understand how to live with another person.”

She moved to Belgium, where she had another daughter, and finally to New York, where she divorced and fashioned a career as an art adviser and curator. When Ilya left the Soviet Union in 1988, they reunited. Wallach recalls having plans with them one evening in 1992. “We were going to the theatre and dinner together,” she says. “We met, and they said, ‘We just got married.’”

Ilya does not like to discuss his private life, or talk about representing his homeland in the 1993 Venice Biennale and being lauded in the country where he once could not hang a picture in a gallery.

“He’s got the face of cheer and sweetness,” says Wallach. “He doesn’t want to show his anguish.” He has rarely returned to Russia. He went back when his mother died in 1988, then stayed away until 2004, when he had an exhibition at the Hermitage in St Petersburg. In 2008 his was the inaugural show at Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow.

While some Soviet artists lost their bearings after communism fell, Ilya did not. Asked how inextricable his art is from Russian culture, Emilia insists, “His work never was Russian. It was always universal, because it’s very humanistic.” But Ilya offers a more tempered response: “As a rule, an artist believes in the national traditions where he grew up.” To be an artist with a major reputation, however, requires balance. “You have to be able to speak your national language, but sometimes be on an international level.”

©Jason Schmidt/CLM

Models of concepts past and future: the couple call their store of rejected proposals the 'museum of unrealised projects'

“The Happiest Man” is a prime example of the Kabakovs’ balancing act. The underlying narrative, as Emilia explains it, tells of a “person trying to escape from the reality of life. He does what we all do – go to the movie theatre.” Unlike the rest of us, his desire is so strong that he undertakes to stay there, erecting an apartment right in the middle of the theatre. A window offers a view of the screen, where Stalinist films depict a utopia that is tragically, brutally make-believe. “If there was a field of wheat, it is golden. All the women have beautiful faces. They’re working in the field, but so clean! Singing and dancing! It is a paradise,” Emilia says. “You know it’s a movie, you know it’s not real, but you want to believe.”

Their art can transport viewers – and it can also leave them scratching their heads. When they exhibited “The Happiest Man” at the Jeu de Paume in Paris in 2000, Emilia acknowledges that plenty of people didn’t understand what the apartment was, or that they could enter it. Ilya recalls a friend coming up to him at another exhibition in Paris and saying, “Ilya, I know you have an installation at the Pompidou. Where is it?” He was standing in it.

Ilya laughs at the memory – he does not seem bothered by a little confusion. He is acutely concerned, however, that his work will take its rightful place in the history of art. “There is an endless line of artworks that already exist, and my work is one small point on this line,” he says. “The scariest thing is not to survive this context. It’s scary to think the educated viewer might pass this work and say, ‘Take it down. It doesn’t belong here.’”

This autumn will see an 80th birthday celebration for Ilya, with an exhibition and a big party in Moscow, as well as a show at the Pace Gallery in New York. The Kabakovs’ schedule is overflowing with exhibitions and projects, such as their Ship of Tolerance, a vessel whose sail has been made by schoolchildren. Emilia jokes that she and Ilya call the second floor of another building on their property the “museum of unrealised projects” because it is full of rejected proposals. A third cavernous building houses some of Ilya’s recent paintings – towering, multi-panel canvases up to five metres tall. Some day the Kabakovs’ foundation will use it as an exhibition space.

Though his legal residence has long been in the US, Emilia says Ilya’s physical location matters little. “He didn’t adjust to life in the west. He lives in between,” she says. “I don’t remember the last time Ilya went to the store. He doesn’t know where he is.” Ilya concedes that he prefers his life in the US because there he is no longer afraid. Otherwise, he says, before heading off to paint, “It doesn’t matter – as long as I have a place to work.”


‘The Happiest Man’ is at Ambika P3, 35 Marylebone Rd, London NW1, from March 27 to April 21; www.p3exhibitions.com.

‘Two Mountains’, a new series of paintings and watercolours by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, is at Sprovieri Gallery, London W1, from March 27 to May 11; www.sprovieri.com

The Kabakovs.


Ilya and Emilia Kabakov are widely recognized as the premier artists to emerge from the Soviet Union and major figures on the international art scene. Audiences and critics habitually hail their exhibitions in leading museums around the world. In 2008 they were awarded the Praemium Imperiale, established by the Emperor of Japan to honor the fields that the Nobel Prize does not cover.

The Kabakovs have gone far to redefine the thrust and meaning of art in the 20th and 21st centuries. A larger understanding of where we have been and where we are going would be impossible without them.

Ilya Kabakov was born on September 30, 1933, in Dnepropetrovsk, in the Ukraine at a time when starvation was rampant there under the official policy of collectivization. Already language had been corrupted, and “famine” was a forbidden word.

Growing up, Kabakov experienced Stalin and his outrages as a kind of weather, like a downpour inundating everything even his own private miseries, of which there were many. As an artist in Moscow during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, it was the despotism of bureaucracy that he lived, falling like a steady rain, dampening the hopes and routines of the everyday. The only kind of art that was officially recognized was Socialist Realism, a Pollyanna vision of a utopia that everyone who lived it knew was botched and ugly.

Beginning, in the 1960s, however, new groups of artists emerged, unofficial artists, known only to each other and a widening circle of friends. Away from official entanglements, in the privacy of their own studios and apartments, unofficial artists made art “for themselves,” out of their own integrity and their souls, they argued in intense kitchen table debates.

In his day job, Kabakov was an official artist – a highly successful, even famous, illustrator of children’s books. In every other way, he was an unofficial artist “for myself.” His quest to reconcile the two put him at the center of three generations of what came to be called “Moscow Conceptualists.” Harassed by the KGB during the Soviet period, Moscow Conceptualists are now honored as the second great Soviet Avant-Garde, worthy successors to the Suprematists and Constructivists of the first Avant-Garde in the teens of the 20th Century.

Kabakov’s achievement was to find a way to make art out of the materials at hand: the ubiquitous language of bureaucracy, which spilled over into the most intimate corners of life; the shabby shoddiness of private and public spaces; the prevalence of garbage and despair. First he made drawings that explored the disconnect between bureaucratic absurdity and everyday reality. These became paintings, which turned the language of Soviet placards and proclamations into deadpan rows of columns or empty voids on which words and images made nonsense of one another. Very often, the words became an inane form of dialogue, but dialogue nevertheless.

Kabakov has always been a teller of tales in the tradition of the great Russian novelists. By the early 1970s, he was collecting his drawings into albums, each of which comprised the tale of a crackpot visionary, an artist on the edges who saw a skewed world from an incongruous perspective. The album called Sitting-In-The-Closet Primakov is a send-up of Black Square by Malevich, an icon of the first Russian Avant-Garde who championed the Revolution in whose wreckage Kabakov lived. Generous Barmin is infected with an obsession for the meaningless lists and bar charts that Soviet society produced in such abundance. The Flying Kamarov flaunts the style of a preposterously ebullient May Day celebration, as everything, from carrots, to bureaus, to people, takes to the sky and flies off into the unattainable beyond.


Kabakov had built himself a studio on the roof of a once-grand building that now housed floor after floor of communal apartment. Before the Revolution, these had been one-family dwellings. Afterwards, they were sliced and diced to house as many as 12 extended families, all of whom shared a noisome bathroom and a kitchen that was the site of epic battles. Friends, artists, composers, poets, writers, and fellow artists would climb the filthy steps, smelling of cabbage, to the studio where Kabakov “performed” his albums by turning the pages and reading them aloud.

By the time I found my way to that studio in the fall of 1987, Kabakov’s impulse towards storytelling had turned three-dimensional. He had begun to construct spaces in which the audience became the actors, as they walked through, investigating the leavings of the characters the artist had created. Leaning against the walls of his studio that autumn day was the skeleton of what would become the 10 Characters installation with which he burst upon the New York art scene at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in 1988.

Kabakov was 55, bursting with pent-up ideas and heretofore unrealizable projects. 10 Characters was a massive undertaking, a virtual communal apartment. In separate rooms, each of the 10 characters had left behind the detritus of dreary daily lives and soured dreams. Viewers entered these rooms by roaming dirty communal corridors, dimly lit by bare lightbulbs. With irony, precision, and mysticism, Kabakov had constructed a magical space in which Western viewers could approach the world from the point of view of denizen of the failed Soviet experiment. With the communal apartment as his metaphor, Kabakov was able to present a complex, layered experience that drew on the memories and emotions of his audience to present a psychological portrait of Soviet daily life that raised deeper, more universal questions about the human condition.

It immediately hit a nerve with audiences. Very soon that installation had traveled to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. and the Whitechapel Gallery in London, and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris had acquired the most theatrical of the rooms, The Man Who Flew Into Space.

By then, Kabakov had re-united with Emilia Kanevsky, whom he had known since she was a child in the Soviet Union. They had grown up in the same town of Dnepropetrovsk, though 12 years apart. Emilia, born in 1945, had studied piano at the Music College in Irkutsk, and Spanish language and literature at the Moscow University. In Moscow, she was a frequent visitor to Kabakov and his studio, and when she immigrated to Israel in 1973, she begged him to come with her. However, he had a family and would not be ready to leave the Soviet Union for another 14 years. By the time they reencountered one another in Europe, she was a curator and art dealer living in New York. They were married in 1992

Ilya Kabakov has always lived within his art. The actual details of getting through a day often escape him. Emilia Kabakov has the organizational gifts of CEO and an ability to get what she wants. With her there to make things happen, the Kabakovs began to realize larger and larger installations in museums around the world.

Between 1988 and 2000 alone, they mounted 165 installations in 148 museums in 30 countries. Outstanding among them was Life of Flies, (Cologne, Germany), an unsettling parallel universe in which flies were posited as the explanation of everything malevolent that had occurred in Russia; School # 6 (Marfa, Texas), a deserted schoolhouse built around an empty yard just at the moment when the Soviet Union was disintegrating; The Palace of Projects (London, England; New York, NY; Essen Germany), the glowing white tower that Tatlin never realized filled with do-it-yourself utopian projects. In haunting parables the Kabakovs traced a universal trajectory of failed dreams, collapsed civilizations, and the unquenchable lure of illusion in every society.


While the language of garbage and the everyday remains at the heart of the art, the Kabakovs have increasingly subsumed into their installations and permanent public sculptures a sense of the meaning of place. The ironic language learned in Soviet Moscow, it transpires, is as apt a tool for deciphering our time and place as any other.

Ilya Kabakov had found himself a home amidst the traveling tribe of artists in the international art world. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the utopia that Kabakov critiqued was the one about which he could once only dream – the great river of art history which each successive generation of contemporary artist aspires to join.


Starting in the late 1990s, he invented a Russian painter named Charles Rosenthal and painted more than 60 paintings in Rosenthal’s name, all of which questioned the doctrinaire reading of 20th century art as a progression from realism to abstraction. Kabakov’s Rosenthal, born into the generation of Revolution, died in 1933, the year Ilya Kabakov was born. So the next painter he invented to paint his paintings was Ilya Kabakov, heir to the failures of Rosenthal’s optimism. And then he invented Igor Spivak, whose entire career took place after the fall of the Soviet Union, which the callow painter looked back upon with nostalgia.

Characteristically, Kabakov’s description of the three stages of utopian history they represented is in dialogue:

Rosenthal: It will be paradise.

Kabakov: This is hell.

Spivak: It was paradise.

Through it all, however, Ilya Kabakov avoided a return to Moscow. The closest he came was to become the first living Russian artist to exhibit at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg in 2005. Even that was too close. Once he arrived in Russia, he locked himself in his hotel room for days, unable to venture into the streets, and then did so only with anxiety and trepidation. On his return to his home on Long Island, he was still so distressed that he fell and broke his wrist.

But in 2008, Dasha (Daria) Zhukova invited the Kabakovs to inaugurate the Garage, a huge art space she was creating out of a Moscow bus garage designed by the Constructivist architect Konstantin Melnikov in 1927. Once the Kabakovs had agreed, they enlarged the project to six installations in five venues, including the Pushkin Museum. The centerpiece of the exhibition was “Alternative History of Art: Rosenthal, Kabakov, Spivak” at the Garage. For this installation, the Kabakovs built a mini version of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as a kind of instruction to Muscovites of what a great museum could be.

The framework of the film is their massive effort to realize the Moscow projects and the historic event that their homecoming visit became.


For more information on the Kabakovs, please visit their website: