Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, At the Studio #1, 2018, oil on canvas, 82 × 108".

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, At the Studio #1, 2018, oil on canvas, 82 × 108".

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

The title of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s current exhibition, “Paintings About Paintings,” seems to second poet Rod Mengham’s assertion that their canvases “exist within quotation marks . . . acts of ventriloquism, speaking as, or for, others, rather than finding and keeping a voice of their own.” But as writers of fiction know, there’s always a voice within the voice—one hears through characters and narrators, however distantly, the author.

Painting as citation, not of particular paintings but of various ideas of painting, is evident everywhere here, but most explicitly in a pair of gargantuan canvases attributed to an invented artist, Charles Rosenthal (1898–1933), and dated, within the ventriloquist fiction, to 1927–28 (though in fact they were painted in 1998). One is a realist depiction of an art auction, the other an Orientalist fantasy featuring horsemen in Indian garb. Both works are equipped with a mechanism that allows viewers to push buttons to illuminate various details from behind, revealing the canvases as translucent.

But do such Verfremdungseffekte—or Brechtian alienation effects, of which there are many in the exhibition—represent the whole substance of the Kabakovs’ paintings? If so, then what is one to make of a piece such as At the Studio #1, 2018, in which we see Ilya Kabakov himself at work in his studio along with a small child, presumably his granddaughter, who is making her own art at one of his easels? This is a painting about painting without any apparent distancing—except for the evident fact that it represents a viewpoint that could not possibly be the artist’s own. I propose this resolution of the conundrum: One depicts oneself in the third person and others in the first person; that is, one inhabits the fictive persona and observes as if externally the ostensibly authentic one. The Kabakovs are closer, in the end, to Fernando Pessoa than to Bertolt Brecht.

Charles Rosenthal’s paintings were made as elements in what Ilya Kabakov has called “total installations,” but there’s an ambiguity: whether, as Mengham wonders, “the painting is the germ of the installation and has priority over it, or that the installation is a fuller realization of the idea.” Here, with the canvases presented as autonomous works, it becomes apparent what loving care has been lavished on the execution of imagery dismissible as banal, outmoded, and academic. Yet the Kabakovs override such disclaimers—nothing is disowned. In an interview from the mid-1960s, Marcel Duchamp observed that the only shocking thing in contemporary art was the work being made in Russia, painted, he said, as “in the 1850s, very naturalistic and anecdotal.” For the Western public, that is, “for us who have been beyond and away from that,” Duchamp said, “when we see it today, it’s shocking to see the young girl at the window on the Red Square, seeing the parade of the soldiers.”

That shock is still operative, all the more so when one realizes that what one had always been taught to see as ugly can actually be beautiful and moving—when one learns to heed the “voice” of the painter as embodied in so many unexpected nuances of tone and color, light, and energy. Really, the effect is unambiguous: The Kabakovs stand above their fictions, however discreetly, as their paintings transcend the contexts that might incorporate them. The last room here, in fact, is a kind of installation that’s been synthesized into a suite of paintings—comprising the massive canvas Construction of a Cupola, 2020, and five smaller works on the same theme, which were painted in 2021. The arrangement constructs a fictive architectural space—a cupola, in fact—where any number of paintings might find a place, and where most of the places remain blank: An open future is waiting to be filled.