In Memory of Ilya Kabakov (1933–2023)

Donald Judd first met Ilya Kabakov in the winter of 1991, in Vienna, having previously seen and admired his work. In August of the following year, Ilya and Emilia, his wife and artistic collaborator, visited Marfa on Judd’s invitation, and in 1993, Kabakov, as an act of kinship with Judd, gifted School No. 6 to the permanent collection of the Chinati Foundation.

The work occupies an entire building that is subdivided into rooms reminiscent of an abandoned schoolhouse in the former Soviet Union where Kabakov was born. The spaces are filled with faded posters, flags, and emblems; everything is broken, boarded up, and neglected. Bookcases and desks with Russian notebooks and memorabilia scattered throughout the disordered classrooms tell an elliptical story about memory and another place and time.

As Kabakov noted in a 1994 interview with Robert Storr, “When I first came to Marfa, my biggest impression was the unbelievable combination of estrangement, similar to a holy place, and at the same time of unbelievable attention to the life of the works there. For me, it was like some sort of Tibetan monastery; there were no material things at all, none of the hubbub of our everyday lives. It was a world devoid of all trivial and banal existence—a world for art.”

Ilya Kabakov, School No. 6, 1993
Ilya Kabakov, School No. 6, 1993. Photo by Florian Holzherr. © 2023 Ilya Kabakov / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

In 2003, on the ten-year anniversary of School No. 6 and Kabakov’s seventieth birthday, the Chinati Foundation published a selection of letters to Ilya in its annual newsletter (vol. 8). These tributes, from twenty years ago, reflect the impact Kabakov had on his friends and fellow artists. Then and today, we are appreciative of his kindness, curiosity, generosity, criticality, and independence. As the German writer Joachim Sartorius wrote in his letter to Ilya, “Artists are without age. Their energy and imagination allows them to turn time upside down. … You were always—and you continue to be—concerned with the historic meanings of a simple human being who suffers under the catastrophes of the system and of world history. Your work leads to a different, more humane understanding of universality.”

Our thoughts are with Emilia and with Ilya’s friends, family, and loved ones.