"Ilya Kabakov: The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away"
By Amei Wallach
New York art mavens probably know the name Ilya Kabakov, and if lucky they have seen his work at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts Gallery (where he has had four shows) or in the 1992 show held at the Museum of Modern Art titled "Dislocations."
Kabakov also has had major exhibitions in Philadelphia (at the Institute for Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania) and Chicago (at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art). But for the rest of us, particularly those who rarely go to Europe to tour contemporary art museums and kunsthalles, Kabakov remains a relatively unknown famous artist.
A Russian, best known for his installation work, who has also done a great deal of drawing, painting, and publishing, Kabakov has become the single Russian artist who embodies the struggle to survive both the Soviet regime and its chaotic aftermath. He is much better known and more widely exhibited in Europe, where several of his installation works are on permanent exhibition, and where he has had resounding success at such prestigious art world events as Documenta Kassel and the Venice Biennale.
Valuable But Flawed
Even in Europe, though, a comprehensive overview of his life and work has never existed. A Long Island-based writer, Amei Wallach, has worked hard to come up with this much-needed document in a luxurious new book titled "Ilya Kabakov: The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away."
Apart from text by Ms. Wallach, the book features an introduction from the Museum of Modern Art curator Robert Storr. It is valuable for the images it presents of Kabakov's graphic and installation works, and for the significant amount of biographical detail Ms. Wallach was able to come up with in her many interviews with her subject. But the book has some serious problems.
Books about contemporary artists are by nature problematic, in part because the art history of today has not yet been written, and in part because the artists of today are so keen to dictate the content of that history to the critics who are hired to write about them.
Kabakov, who spent the better part of 40 years in Soviet Russia toiling in obscurity (creating a private universe through the Kafkaesque creation and cataloguing of innumerable works, many of them involving garbage), apparently hit the big time when Ms. Wallach granted him access to (and consultation over) the design and content of the book.
From a considered and scholarly monograph, the book has thus been transformed into a whimsical, somewhat Gogolian account of the artist's life and times, in which critic and subject together create a murky hybrid document that is more frustrating than amusing to scholar and casual reader alike.
But then, that may well be the point, for (to view the book philosophically and poetically rather than qualitatively) it is a disaster similar to those described by Kabakov's installations: a testament to the collapse of reason.
Were the text not corroborated by a Nabokovian series of footnotes indicating good scholarly preparation and solid primary research, Ms. Wallach's text would be merely a puzzling but amusing curiosity. With the footnotes, it seems more like a missed opportunity: an awful lot of hard work that never quite became a credible text. One wonders how an editor could send such a text to press.
As a result, this book is valuable as a photographic document of Kabakov's work. But it is poorly designed, with a cramped preface, a number of copy editing mistakes in the main text, and erratic captioning.
Some of the texts are translated, some are not: Why? Space could not be an issue, because images featuring the untranslated texts are often on sheets of paper featuring large areas of blank space.
Spirit Of The Work
Moreover, the footnotes come at the end of the entire book, on page 238, though the text itself ends on page 94 - which means that when a footnote raises a question (and it very often does), one must heft through 140 pages of illustrations to look for the answer.
The book's preface, by Mr. Storr, is perfectly adequate, through difficult to read because it is crammed into a rather small space. The selected bibliography is useful, particularly for those seeking access to the many obscure documents which exist on Kabakov in European small presses. Doubtless this information will prove useful if and when another writer attempts a more focused and coherent assessment of Kabakov.
Until then, this book at least gives us the spirit of the work. For those interested in the work of this fascinating and very strange artist, the book will have to do.
Amei Wallach, a resident of the North Fork, writes about art for Newsday.