Ilya Kabakov – farewell

We remember the Ukrainian-American conceptual artist Ilya Kabakov, who died on May 27 at the age of 89.

(c) Ilya Kabakov 1933 -2023, Portrait | Art Thessaloniki
(c) Ilya Kabakov 1933 -2023, Portrait | Art Thessaloniki


At he 6th Art Thessaloniki in 2022, the artist was honoured by our partner for his life's work together with his wife and artist partner and presented with one of his early projects: Four stories of escapism. It is one of the most famous and influential works by Ilya Kabakov, created in Moscow between 1968 and 1974.

Kabakov's works dealt with his life experiences in the Soviet Union. He dealt with themes of totalitarian oppression and frustrated dreams in civil society, while Steinewerke offered hope for a more utopian future. The outstanding quality of his working methods was striking. In the last three decades of his life he had a close artistic partnership with his wife Emilia.

Since 1983, his "total installations" have emerged as a genre in their own right, often conveying dramatic narratives through the cast of fictional characters. Together with his wife and artist partner, he created over 200 of these large-format works.

Ilya Iosifovich Kabakov was born in the city of Dnipropetrovsk in 1933, when Ukraine was still part of the former USSR. His interest in art awoke as a young boy, and he attended the Leningrad Art Academy during the Second World War. At the age of 18 he enrolled at the Surikov Art Institute in Moscow to study graphic design and illustration. After joining the official Union of Soviet Artists in 1959, Kabakov worked as a drawing artist for children's books in the state-sponsored style of socialist realism.

Privately, however, he joined an unofficial underground group of conceptual artists, the Stratensy Boulevard Group, and met like-minded artists and the philosopher and critic Boris Groys. It was around this time that he began creating works that satirically dealt with the Soviet social system. At the same time he experimented with new media such as assemblage. From 1983 he began to produce his famous installations.

During this time his works were also shown in the West for the first time, beginning with an exhibition in 1985 at the Kunsthalle in Bern. In 1987 he was able to move to Austria on a scholarship from the Grazer Kunstverein and settled in the USA just a year later.

Shortly after arriving in New York, Kabakov met curator and dealer Emilia Kanevsky (née Lekach), whom he had known since childhood - she was a distant niece. They married in 1992 and were intensely together for over three decades. Milestones in their collaboration were certainly their participation in the 1992 Documenta, their representation of Russia at the Venice Biennale in 1993, one of the first solo exhibitions dedicated to a living artist in the State Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg 2004) and the major retrospectives at the Tate Modern and the Hirshhorn (both in 2017).

(c) Kabakov, Ilya & Emilia, Ship of Tolerance
(c) Kabakov, Ilya & Emilia, Ship of Tolerance


The Kavakovs caused quite a stir in the art and media world with the humanitarian art project "The Ship of Tolerance". With a ship whose sails are decorated with children's drawings, they demanded respect for foreign cultures and conveyed a different understanding of tolerance. They work together with local kindergardens, schools, training centers and art institutes. Children and young people from different continents create a joint work of art: in various classes and workshops they deal with these terms "tolerance" and "respect" and then formulate messages that are immortalized as painted sail pictures. This project was first conceived in Siwa, Egypt, but has since been shown at the Venice Biennale, the Sharjah Biennale, the Havana Biennial, and institutions in Rome, London, Chicago, and Zug, Switzerland (

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