The Experimental Group: Ilya Kabakov, Moscow Conceptualism, Soviet Avant-Gardes

The Experimental Group: Ilya Kabakov, Moscow Conceptualism, Soviet Avant-Gardes

by Matthew Jesse Jackson


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A compelling study of unofficial postwar Soviet art, The Experimental Group takes as its point of departure a subject of strange fascination: the life and work of renowned professional illustrator and conceptual artist Ilya Kabakov.

Kabakov’s art—iconoclastic installations, paintings, illustrations, and texts—delicately experiments with such issues as history, mortality, and disappearance, and here exemplifies a much larger narrative about the work of the artists who rose to prominence just as the Soviet Union began to disintegrate. By placing Kabakov and his conceptualist peers in line with our own contemporary perspective, Matthew Jesse Jackson suggests that the art that emerged in the wake of Stalin belongs neither entirely to its lost communist past nor to a future free from socialist nostalgia. Instead, these artists and their work produced a critical and controversial chapter in the as yet unwritten history of global contemporary art.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226317960
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/10/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 8.50(w) x 10.20(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Matthew Jesse Jackson teaches in the Departments of Art History and Visual Arts at the University of Chicago.

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Ilya Kabakov, Moscow Conceptualism, Soviet Avant-Gardes

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-38941-7

Chapter One


As Ilya Kabakov prepared his diploma project at Moscow's Surikov Institute of Art in the spring of 1957, he faced a decision: would he join the state's professional organizations, the approved cultural apparatus, or would he reject official affiliation to work on his own, outside the state's supervision? It is a measure of the times and Kabakov's own inclinations that it hardly occurred to him to opt out of the state system. He attended the most prestigious art school in the Soviet Union, and he was poised to embark on a successful career as a children's book illustrator, having already received commissions from the prestigious Detskaia Literatura (Children's Literature) publishing house (known by its acronym, Detgiz). The Surikov boasted a respected faculty in graphic design, and its former students occupied enviable positions throughout the vast Soviet publishing industry. For Kabakov, the Surikov's pedagogical demands may have been tedious, but the institute had not proved to be an altogether inhospitable environment. Over the preceding five years he had become a competent draftsman, if not a stunning academic success, and with submission of his diploma work, the graduate could begin the process of joining the Union of Soviet Artists.

This moment, the artist's transformation from apprentice to professional, entailed a reckoning for each graduate of the Surikov: to be a legal professional artist in the Soviet Union, one had to be a member of the Artists' Union, as either a candidate or full member. Without this affiliation one had no access to a studio or art materials, much less the opportunity to show one's work in public. For nearly all graduates such concerns would be resolved straightaway: one complied with official protocols and made the best of it. The most tolerable path for the nonconformist was to avoid painting and sculpture in favor of the less ideologically rigid departments of decorative arts or book design, but the number of artists who overtly resisted the state's control remained small. Kabakov notes that there were "at most fifty unofficial artists" in Moscow among the first generation of nonconformists, with only "25–30" active at any one time; this despite the fact that "the Surikov Institute alone turned out 150 people every year." The underground artists survived on the periphery of officialdom, working publicly within its administrative network, but privately making pieces of their own choosing. Each emerging artist grappled with similar professional dilemmas, and how one did so often influenced an entire career. As Nikolai Ponomarev, the chairman of the Artists' Union once remarked, "everyone has a right to make a choice, but this will be the principal choice in one's life." When his turn came, Kabakov chose to become an official artist, first as a candidate member of the Artists' Union in 1959, and then as a full member in 1965.

Kabakov's diploma plans unfolded against the backdrop of Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Joseph Stalin's "personality cult" at the Twentieth Party Congress in February 1956. This event rapidly altered Soviet life, as Khrushchev's accusations spread by official and less official means. In the following months, millions of prisoners (including a number of future unofficial artists) returned from internal exile, "rehabilitated" by the regime. The freeing of these prisoners marked a wrenching reversal in the social history of the Soviet Union, as noted by the Soviet dissident historians Roy and Zhores Medvedev, who write: "The millions who had survived but not forgotten the camps and who now rejoined the mainstream of ordinary life, as well as the millions of others whose fathers, brothers, or husbands had been rehabilitated, became a major source of ferment in Soviet society and began to demand ironclad guarantees of due process of law and absolute safeguards against any possibility of a return to repression and terror." In the ensuing years, Soviet society ceased to be ruled by the arbitrary violence and pantocratic imagery of the Stalin years, as a mixture of rewards and warnings secured more effective means of steering an emergent technocracy. The benefits and liabilities on offer became more nakedly careerist and professional, with demotion, relocation, and wage restructuring replacing arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment as the principal tools of coercive governance.

This drive to renew the Soviet system also accelerated the pace of cultural processes that had been in motion since Stalin's death in 1953. Among the intelligentsia, the liberal journal Novyi Mir (New World) under the editorship of Aleksandr Tvardovsky had demonstrated a willingness to "say the unsayable." Important texts had appeared, such as Tvardovsky's own "Distance beyond Distance," a call for the reimagining of Soviet history, and Vladimir Pomerantsev's "On Sincerity in Literature," a blueprint for a less formulaic socialist culture. A flood of World War II nostalgia also appeared as Soviet citizens recalled the Great Patriotic War without subservience to Stalin's guiding hand. Throughout the mid-1950s, the stark consequences of the war affected life in countless ways, perhaps the most obvious being the eerie absence of an entire generation of young men on Moscow's streets. The imprint of the war was impossible to escape, and Kabakov's career began in its long shadow.

But first there was the diploma project. For his submission, Kabakov chose to illustrate an edition of Sholem Aleichem's 1911 novel The Wandering Stars. For an aspiring Soviet artist in the 1950s, this was a perplexing choice; it asserted Kabakov's Jewish ethnicity, something that his Russian-sounding name conveniently obscured. It also aligned the artist with an author who stood outside the pantheon of approved Soviet writers, and with a problematic text: a pre-Revolutionary Yiddish-language urban folktale about a young man who immigrates to America and falls in love. Such an escapist fantasy would hardly be welcome in the midst of the Cold War, nor were illustrations for it likely to catapult one's career forward. This is not to say that Kabakov's choice was self-destructive or that it constituted an affront to the academic authorities. In fact, several editions of Aleichem's work appeared in the Soviet Union in the late 1950s, and already a batch of Kabakov's drawings had been accepted at Detgiz for a Russian-language edition of the Yiddish author Buzi Olevsky's writings. But all the same, with the "Doctors' Plot" still a recent memory and the currents of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union hard to predict, the choice was risky, if not exactly the "courageous gesture" that it might seem in retrospect.

Kabakov became engrossed in the project. In the summer of 1956, he traveled to Moldavia to explore the remaining shtetls, hiking through landscapes more redolent of Celan's poetry than of Aleichem's prose. This was fitting, as the trip's ostensible ethnographic purpose masked a much more tormenting desire: Kabakov's need to confront the remnants of an Eastern European Jewish culture laid to waste barely a decade before. For in the fall of 1941, Einsatzgruppen swarmed through the Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk only weeks after the eight-year-old Kabakov and his immediate family had escaped to Central Asia. In the aftermath of the invasion, several cousins who remained behind were murdered by the Nazis, and throughout Kabakov's childhood the recollection of this intimate catastrophe rarely found expression. Such domestic silence paralleled an official Soviet policy of avoiding explicit references to Nazi violence against the Jewish population of the Soviet Union. During his years at the institute, Kabakov had periodically contemplated his ethnic background, though he tended to keep these thoughts to himself. His close friend Erik Bulatov notes, however, that during this period Kabakov grew deeply concerned with his Jewish identity. For his part, Kabakov ascribes this interest to a sense of ethnic belonging that would arise "as if from nowhere."

Having remained outside Soviet control between the world wars, and having escaped direct administration by occupying German authorities during World War II, Moldavia was a unique region of the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Due to a peculiar confluence of events, the valleys along its Dnestr River had become virtually the only area of the Soviet Union where a substantial, village-based Jewish population remained after the conclusion of the war. In effect, this was one of the few places where the rudiments of the centuries-old culture of the shtetl still existed, having miraculously avoided both Soviet collectivization and the full brunt of Nazi-engineered genocide. Although the engines of modern terror churned stolidly and mercilessly here as elsewhere, in the region visited by Kabakov almost half of the prewar Jewish population had somehow survived.

The art student crisscrossed Bessarabia, hiking alone through the countryside with sketchbook in hand, searching out the battered villages with no map or guide. Or, at least, that is Kabakov's nostalgic recollection of the trip. He wanted to infuse his drawings with the vigor of personal experience, but the undertaking left him strangely dispirited. His best drawing turned out to have little to do with Sholem Aleichem or the diploma project. Aged and infirm, the remaining inhabitants in the towns hardly suggested Aleichem's picturesque microcosm. In his guise of artist-ethnographer, Kabakov barely succeeded in sketching a few unremarkable landscapes near Kishinev, as well as an occasional lone individual. Rather than assisting in the completion of an academic project, the shtetl, the material embodiment of a now bygone Jewish lifeworld, prompted Kabakov to sketch not so much its inhabitants as his own self-portrait. The most striking work from this trip did not reproduce slices of village life. Instead, it demonstrated Kabakov's plunge beyond illustration into a place where hand, eye, and mind tarried disjunctively and disquietingly.

Kabakov had begun experimenting with "automatic" drawing around 1953, during his first year at the institute. "The first unconscious impulse that I encountered inside myself was one to thrust a pencil or pen across small sheets of paper. Under the influence of these unpremeditated and unconnected movements there arose inside me certain psychic impulses that somehow combined with these strokes," Kabakov writes. During the winter (and only the winter, it seems), he would return home from classes and draw on cheap pieces of paper (usually around 4 x 5 inches in size). Sketching without any plan or any expectations of the drawings, he worked until the drawing seemed "finished" and then embarked on the next piece. The drawings were exercises in psychic automatism. "After the completion of five or six such sheets a kind of discharge of powerful energy, as if it were coming from deep inside me, would take place," recalls Kabakov. He insists that he could never foresee the "results" of these works. The "result" appeared of its own accord, though the drawing's accumulated pattern would "retain the memory and experience of that energy from within." The drawings were additive. Kabakov construed the shapes not as self-contained entities but only as contingent moments in an evolving work that hesitated between several poles: decorative flourish, geometric design, and gestural explosion. Shapes materialize and disappear, each layer replacing its predecessor. This technique owes everything to the moment when "memory and the experience of the energy within" reach their unknowable yet inevitable culmination. By the fall of 1956, Kabakov had already completed several hundred such drawings.

The trip to Moldavia seems to have catalyzed psychic energies that had been contained in the automatic drawings. In those works, Kabakov recalls, an "unconscious" or "involuntary" impulse provoked manic hand movements; these motions gave him a powerful sensation of internal energy being released. To interpret his actions as essentially masturbatory does not seem far from the mark. The drawings allowed Kabakov's hands to do as they pleased, giving him great satisfaction, yet the scenario concluded with the artist's feeling of having enjoyed a guilty pleasure. He later admitted that though the drawings were entirely "organic," "unpremeditated," and "uncontrolled," this was not enough. They tapped into an unbidden psychic register, and this realization led him to abandon his automatic technique because it lacked a necessary moment of "reflection." Kabakov writes, "But in them [the automatic works] was a significant shortcoming—or more accurately, in me in relationship to them—in them there was no 'reflection.' " Kabakov's wish for "reflection"—to effectively subdue his unconscious—may be interpreted in light of what Kaja Silverman calls the disciplinary work of representation. Elaborating on Freud's essay "The Unconscious," Silverman argues that unconscious memories mobilized by a thing-presentation (e.g., a drawing) are dulled in the preconscious through their "binding" to linguistic signifiers (word-presentation). She writes, "Attaching linguistic signifiers to our unconscious memories subjugates them. It makes it possible for us to recall them at will; provides the basis for their paradigmatic and syntagmatic organization; and permits us to become aware of our own thought processes." For Kabakov, it was verbal analysis, the linguistic signifier, the reflective power of language, that allowed him to discipline the unconscious written so large in the drawings.

Many years later, in a samizdat text titled "Dust, Dirt, Garbage," Kabakov writes, "In my apartment building on every stairwell there are buckets of various sizes and forms, but there are always two at each door—on one is the label 'FOR TRASH' and on the other 'FOR FOOD REMAINS.' The people walking by them turn away with repulsion, not wanting to see either one." He continues, "But in art, as for the janitor, these two buckets are far from identical. Though they both carry the disdainful name 'garbage,' their internal idea is, so to speak, completely different and their journey and their addressee are not the same. If in the bucket 'for trash' one finds dry remains—jars, books, newspapers, packages, and such, that is, the leftovers of everyday life, or in its most elevated sense, a cultural combine—then in the bucket labeled 'food remains' lie things that are sickening and disgusting to look at, that serve our digestion, or more accurately already cannot aid us in digesting." He concludes, "Indeed, the 'dry' cultural trash will go to the garbage dump, while the food remains will go to the pigsty to feed new pigs, so that the eternal wheel of life will turn for new generations." For Kabakov, the "bucket for food remains" cannot be meaningfully analyzed, though he knows it to be integral to human existence. The organic scraps, the formless biological leftovers, will feed the pigs and life will go on, but one must leave it at that. Kabakov admits to poking around in the bucket filled with the dry trash of culture, but he tries to leave the other receptacle alone. The artist's thirst for "reflection" betrays his anxiety before the "wet garbage" lurking in the unconscious. Freud contends, "Once a picture has emerged from the patient's memory, we may hear from him that it becomes fragmentary and obscure in proportion as he proceeds with his description of it. The patient is, as it were, getting rid of it by turning it into words." As Silverman elaborates, Freud's "talking cure" constitutes a linguistic supplement that inhibits the "libidinal communication" opened up by representation. Silverman writes, "The preconscious binds the unconscious memories not merely by attaching linguistic signifiers to them, but also by inhibiting substantial movements of energy between them: by sealing up the pathways along which displacement would otherwise occur."

In a single Moldavian drawing, a jarring rendering of a blacksmith, I think one glimpses just what lies on the other side of Kabakov's automatism and his compulsive need for reflection (fig. 6). The spare complexity of this image demands consideration. It must not be seen as a working sketch (Kabakov signs it, after all), though it is something other than a completed work. Its status as work, like its character as representation, is confused. The artist apparently began drawing a walking female (is it a female?) on the midleft of the page, then stopped after laying down her outline. He may have puzzled over her face—the smudges suggest as much—or perhaps he grew interested in another head, moving on to sketch the disembodied eyes and brow on the center right. With its high collar and pinned-back hair, the semi-profile in the lower righthand corner perhaps offers another view of the principal striding body in bast shoes. Then Kabakov seems to have sketched the blacksmith's head and torso in the upper left corner. The details are what count here: the patches of hair on the arms, the heavy crease in the cheek, the baggy sleeve giving way to the hand grasping a too-small, toy hammer. It's the way that Kabakov conjures not just a person at work but the aura of laboring intensity: the absently concentrated face, the downcast eyes, and, most striking, the odd conflation of the blacksmith with the woman's body.


Excerpted from THE EXPERIMENTAL GROUP by MATTHEW JESSE JACKSON Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations        



1          Dead Souls      

2          Bureaucratic Expressionism      

3          Answers of the Experimental Group                 

4          The Rituals of Nonlife  

5          Kasha and Humanism              

6          The Man Who Collected the Opinions of Others          




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