Remembering Ilya Kabakov

A reflection written by Marianne Stockebrand, Director Emerita, The Chinati Foundation

Donald Judd and Ilya Kabakov visit Judd’s ranch, Ayala de Chinati, in 1992. Courtesy of Emilia Kabakov.

When Ilya Kabakov passed away on May 27, 2023, it was only four months before his 90th birthday on September 30. For years, this date has had a firm place in my recollections—I remember it for its simple numbers and because many memories are attached to it. Precisely thirty years ago, Ilya’s 60th fell into the period that he and his wife, Emilia, spent in Marfa. They worked on the large installation, School No. 6, which opened a week later during Chinati’s Open House. A birthday dinner, held at the Arena, was attended by a small group of Chinati friends and associates. It was a pleasant night with the typical gorgeous sunset that was only topped by a rising full moon. Ilya was in good spirits as the installation was developing well and would be finished in time for the opening.

The Kabakovs had come to Marfa the previous summer when they saw Chinati for the first time and discussed a permanent installation with Donald Judd. A former barracks building was selected—a dilapidated structure that pleased Ilya precisely for that condition. Back home, he began planning the installation. He made a number of drawings, some depicting a largely empty space, evidently neglected and forlorn, others showing a sequence of rooms with pieces of furniture randomly placed, standing or fallen over. He also drew each type of furniture—closets, desks, showcases—that would depict remnants from the former classrooms, all painted in a specific reddish color. 

For the actual installation in 1993, they brought along a great selection of memorabilia—postcards, posters, children’s journals, maps, photos, and other souvenirs reminiscent of the Soviet times; these were laid into showcases, hung on walls, or simply strewn on the floor. School No. 6 was unmistakably embedded in that historic period.

By September 1993, it had been less than two years since the Soviet Union had ceased to exist, but right at that moment, when the Kabakovs were in Marfa, the new Russia made headlines. About a week before Ilya’s birthday, Boris Yeltsin dissolved the Russian parliament and called for new elections. It was a very tense situation. Walking by their apartment, we saw Ilya and Emilia anxiously watching the developments on television.  

Now, thirty years later, School No. 6 has lived at Chinati as a steady reminder of those past times—somewhat of an oddity amid its peers and the artist’s sole permanent installation in this country. But what seemed to be a tableau of a temps perdu has achieved at once actuality with the events of February 24, 2022. Suddenly past and present shift. With reality catching up, Ilya’s school is also a tableau vivant. I cannot imagine how Ilya, who was born in the Ukrainian town of Dnipropetrovsk, today’s Dnipro, felt during the last year. We, on the other hand, have begun to look at his oeuvre with new eyes as it has gained yet another dimension and our esteem for him yet another intensity. He is missed.

Marianne Stockebrand

Director Emerita, The Chinati Foundation