Ilya Kabakov, a celebrated artist whose immersive installations, paintings and drawings told sardonically witty stories about the dreams and interior lives of those who had endured the deprivations and degradations of the Soviet era he grew up in, died on May 27 in a hospital near his home and studio in Mattituck, N.Y., on the East End of Long Island. He was 89.
He had been struggling with a heart condition, his stepdaughter Viola Kanevsky said.
For decades in Soviet Russia Mr. Kabakov was, by day, a well-known children’s book illustrator, a state-sponsored artist with his own studio and art supplies (which he shared with his underground artist friends). He created some 150 children’s books before 1988, when he left the country for good.
Yet he was also leading a double life as a conceptual artist. In the 1970s, he began making what he called albums, a series of whimsical drawings and paintings with tragic-comic characters who used their imaginations to escape the privations and indignities of the failed utopian experiment that was the Soviet Union. His albums had titles and scenarios that recalled the work of novelists like Mikhail Bulgakov, the author of “The Master and Margarita,” a dark 1967 satire of life under Stalin.
One album, “Sitting in the Closet Primakov,” was about a little boy who retreats into a closet with toys and scraps of garbage, but dreams of flying away and disappearing into the sky. Another was “Agonizing Surikov,” about a man who couldn’t see a complete picture of the world in front of him; his vista — a teeny tiny landscape, a hint of blue sky — was like that seen through a peephole. And in “Decorator Malignin,” a bureaucrat doodled on the margins of documents during the endless, tedious meetings that made up his pointless working life.
“All of the characters were aspects of his own psyche, of his frustrations, his fears and his dreams,” Amei Wallach, who wrote the monograph “Ilya Kabakov: The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away” (1996), said in a phone interview. And he housed his characters in what were known as communal apartments, the typical living arrangement of the Soviet era, in which families were crowded into single rooms carved out of what had often been grand apartments, sharing bathrooms with strangers and fighting for resources and privacy. It was metaphor he would return to again and again.
The albums were rendered in the anonymous style Mr. Kabakov had honed as a prolific state-approved illustrator. It was illegal to show anything but state-sponsored art, so he would circulate his forbidden work in secret among his artist friends, like Eric Bulatov and Oleg Vassiliev, members of a cadre of men and women who became known as the Moscow Conceptualists. Unlike the work of their Western counterparts, theirs was narrative- and character-driven, Mr. Kababov’s particularly so.
“The whole time we expected to be arrested, for something terrible to happen,” Mr. Kabakov told Andrew Solomon, who wrote about him in The New York Times Magazine in 1992. “But to us, nothing terrible ever happened. We just drank tea in one another’s kitchens, discussed and criticized one another’s work and traveled together in the summers.”
His name nonetheless began to spread beyond his Moscow circle as small pieces of his were smuggled out of the country and shown in the West. In the mid 1980s, a curator put together a show of his work in Paris; another staged one in Bern, Switzerland. Mr. Kabakov was unable to attend either.
On the day of the Bern show, he told Mr. Solomon: “I invited all my friends to the forest, and we tied a red ribbon between two trees. At exactly noon, when we knew the exhibition was opening in the Kunsthalle, we cut the ribbon and drank a bottle of champagne. It was a very bittersweet moment, that this was happening but that I could never be there.”
By 1988, he was ready to leave. He emigrated to Austria and then Paris before settling on Long Island with the help of Emilia Kanevsky, a distant cousin who became his promoter, producer and collaborator. They married in 1992, and over the decades they shared credit on all of Mr. Kabakov’s installations, in a symbiotic partnership that recalled the bond between Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude.
“Ilya Kabakov was Soviet society’s secret anthropologist,” the critic and curator Robert Storr wrote in his introduction to Ms. Wallach’s monograph. “Student of its myths and customs, ironic observer of its normal citizens, and sympathetic analyst of its eccentrics, he patiently assembled an image of collectivized life that the West could understand and the East could not fail to recognize.”
Ilya Josifovich Kabakov was born on Sep. 30, 1933, in Dnepropetrovsk (now Dnipro), Ukraine. His mother, Bertha Ulievna Solodukhina, was a secretary in a vocational school; his father, Joseph Benzionovich Kabakov, who had trained to be a locksmith, worked as a metal worker in a factory that made bed parts. Like many Soviet citizens in Ukraine under Stalin’s reign, they were terribly poor and malnourished.
When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the family fled to Samarkand, Uzbekistan. In a twist of fate, a prestigious art school had also been evacuated to that city. One day, when Ilya was 10, he was cajoled by an older boy into sneaking into the grand building that the art school had commandeered. When they were discovered by a woman, the older boy ran away, and Ilya was left standing agape in front of a group of paintings; they contained a great number of naked women, and Mr. Kabakov later credited their erotic allure with changing his life. The woman invited him to apply to the school, and he was immediately accepted.
When the war was over, Ilya went to another prestigious school, the Surikov Art Institute in Moscow. His mother followed him there, living illegally, because she didn’t have the proper papers, in a series of awful quarters, including the bathroom of a school where she had found work as a janitor. She and Ilya’s father, a brutish man who had beaten his son and set up house with other women, had parted ways when he returned from army service.
In 1992, for the ninth Documenta, an exhibition of contemporary art held every five years in Kassel, Germany, Mr. Kabakov paid homage to his mother’s harrowing experience with an installation called “The Toilet,” a meticulously grim replica of Soviet-style public toilets from the 1960s and ’70s.
Inside the work, he created another world inside the bathroom stalls with the accouterments of a scruffy but cozy Soviet-era family apartment, complete with toys and furniture. He told an interviewer that the piece “concentrated a whole set of problems — homelessness, and defenselessness before the authorities, and the fact that a person of unbelievable decency, cleanliness and honesty was forced to drag out an existence in the most unbelievable place.”
That same year Mr. Kabakov was seemingly everywhere, able at last to stretch out with ambitious installations at the Museum of Modern Art and the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York as well as in shows across Europe.
“He took the West by storm,” said Ms. Wallach, whose 2013 film, “Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here,” documents the couple’s return to Russia in 2008, when he was treated there like a national treasure. She added, “When he finally did leave” in the late 1980s — during the Perestroika years — “it was just the right moment for the West to celebrate a Soviet-born artist of his stature.”
“It may seem sudden,” David A. Ross, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, said of Mr. Kabakov’s newfound fame, as Mr. Solomon reported in 1992, “but you have to understand that he had been working out of sight for decades and that his whole lifetime of work was then discovered at once. Finding him was like stumbling across Jasper Johns or Robert Rauschenberg in the full flush of their maturity.”
In addition to his stepdaughter, Ms. Kanevsky, Mr. Kabakov is survived by his wife; a daughter, Galina, from his first marriage, which ended in divorce; another stepdaughter, Isis Kanevsky; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
At home in the West, Mr. Kabakov and his wife continued to make elaborate installations, like “The Palace of Projects,” shown in Manhattan at the Armory in 2000 after stops in Madrid and London. The “Palace” was a spiral-shaped pavilion inside of which were 65 “projects,” or fictitious proposals — in text, photos and models presented by imaginary characters — for improving the world, including a ladder from which one could see angels and a soothing habitat made from closets.
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