New York

Ilya Kabakov, Vertical Painting #12, 2012, oil on canvas, 112 x 70 7/8".

Ilya Kabakov, Vertical Painting #12, 2012, oil on canvas, 112 x 70 7/8".

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

Pace | 32 East 57th Street

Ilya Kabakov, Vertical Painting #12, 2012, oil on canvas, 112 x 70 7/8".

Born in 1933 to a scarcely tolerated minority, the Russian-Jewish artist Ilya Kabakov was nevertheless accepted as a student at the prestigious Leningrad Institute of Art. Ironically, he has become one of its greatest attendees, if one still regarded askance by official taste.

It is unlikely that those of us who saw Kabakov’s “Ten Characters,” a suite of dioramas installed at New York’s Ronald Feldman Gallery in 1988 (the artist having immigrated here in 1987), will forget the drab repressions embodied in those inspired installations: the smell of unwashed congestion, of families thrown together helter-skelter, bereft of space and proper sanitation or, worse, strangled by the duplicities of utopian thinking. The fairy-tale-like The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment, 1981–88, is emblematic of the group. Propaganda posters adorn the enclosing walls of a small room in a communal flat, its ceiling blown open through recourse to a body-scaled slingshot by which the hero of the piece was able to catapult himself heavenward, reaching at last beyond the confines of suffocating despair.

The Pace Gallery show of seven large paintings revisited themes long central to Kabakov’s work but, oddly enough, with far less acerbic results than before. (The show also featured a sculpture the artist made in collaboration with his wife, Emilia.) These ambitious canvases are at once gentle depictions and sendups of the distant tropes of Khrushchev-era propaganda. Here, the artist’s education takes on particular resonance. He was trained in the illustrative mode of socialist realism, a “realistic” propaganda of happy workers and dutiful children, all healthy and lustily imbued with Communist vitality—never mind that these figures were incarnated in the most bourgeois manner of nineteenth-century French salon painting. At the same time, Kabakov’s droll installations exposed the emptiness of these trite offerings, thus making him a leading figure of the modern Russian artistic opposition. (Something similar can be said of other, considerably younger masters trained in Eastern European art schools of once-Soviet persuasion—Neo Rauch at the Art Academy of Leipzig leaps to mind.)

Kabakov, now in his eighties, revisits such iconography while stripping it of the bomb-throwing horror of his earlier work. His recent paintings now convey—if unintentionally—a certain sentimental nostalgia for the same wearying tropes of totalitarian life that earlier had roused the painter to the heights of ironic disdain. While the imagery remains, it is now shredded as a photograph of a betraying lover might be tearfully ripped up by a betrayed lover, the intimate act suggesting the equivocal proximity (in English at least) between the noun tear and the verb to tear. Kabakov’s skillful, hand-painted scraps reveal—in their petal-like tatters—the fragments of a formerly pride-inducing propaganda arrayed against equally propagandistic backgrounds; one is unsure which image is laid upon which.

The Appearance of Collage, #12, 2012, is a stunning example of such virtuoso pictorial discontinuities. Soviet doctors and nurses study X-rays of one sort or another, apparently thrilled by the luminous glare coming off the light box. Simultaneously, these same enthralled faces reappear in trashed tatters, partially obtruding over the original images. Such pictorialism derives from modernist collage, even as it also recalls the tacked-up posters in the room of the fellow who flew into space.

A related visual conceit raises questions with respect to the particular direction—vertical or horizontal—in which the painting should be regarded in the first place. For example, Vertical Painting #12, 2012, one of three “Vertical Paintings” in the show, might just as easily be called a “Horizontal Painting.” The work depicts an old, Millet-esque peasant kneeling in a dark field, but the scene’s spatial logic is shattered by the intrusion of a torn image of a group of peasant women, heads wrapped in babushkas, with a wagon—which has been inserted at a ninety-degree turn from the farmer along the bottom margin of the work. Is the painting to be read vertically or horizontally? In brief, although these hollow patriotic emblems once carried Kabakov to the forefront of world dissidents—a comparison with Ai Weiwei is not out of place—his revisiting of them here bespeaks a beguiling innocence.

Robert Pincus-Witten