Rejecting Modernism’s Pieties

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The New York Sun

Since emigrating from the Soviet Union in 1987, the dissident artist Ilya Kabakov, together with his wife Emilia, has dazzled Western audiences with a series of fascinatingly complex installations whose intelligence, scope, and ambition recall epic Russian novels. Mr. Kabakov’s current exhibition at the Sean Kelly Gallery feels minor in comparison, but it is only a small part of a larger project – no less, it turns out, than a sweeping revisionist history of Soviet art.

In the fashion of such postmodern novelists as Paul Auster and Jonathan Safran Foer, Mr. Kabakov has attributed the 20-odd paintings and two sculptures gathered here to a fictional artist named I. Kabakov, whose oeuvre constitutes one chapter of Mr. Kabakov’s conceptual project “An Alternative History of Art.” The work of two other invented artists, C. Rosenthal and I. Spivak, completes this speculative trajectory, which imagines what 20th-century Russian art might have looked like had the 1917 Revolution taken a different course. This show encompasses five years of I. Kabakov’s career, his output between 1970 and 1975.

The real Mr. Kabakov has considerable ambition for the art of his eponymous creation. In almost every one of I. Kabakov’s paintings, the official Soviet history of Politburo fantasists meets the chaotic everyday experience of ordinary Russians. Envisioned as a duel of artistic styles, the work places ordered, idealized images of Soviet life, which are meant to mimic propagandistic Socialist Realism, within the same compositions as abstract patchworks of dark autumnal colors, representing disorderly reality.

Often these two styles coexist in a cold peace, each staying within its prescribed boundaries. But in three large oil canvases, the most impressive pieces in the exhibition, the confrontation turns violent. In “A Ski Outing, 1973” (2003), three horizontal triangles resembling clawmarks rip into a muted depiction of a snowy Russian village. Small red patches, like regular drops of blood, color the incisive, abstract strips. Like many other “realist” scenes in the exhibition, this painting’s underlying image is not as idyllic as it initially seems; its disquieting juxtaposition of villagers on cross-country skis and nearby parked cars alludes to the country’s stillunreconciled relationship to modernity.

If Soviet history is I. Kabakov’s primary target, four nonrepresentational paintings pursue another adversary: the pure abstraction of the pre-Revolutionary avant-garde. “Dark Painting I, 1973” and “Dark Painting II, 1973” (both 2003) straddle the back corners of the gallery, diagonally linking adjacent walls. This unusual hanging mimics the placement of Kazimir Malevich’s iconic “Black Square” at the 1915 exhibition “0.10: The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings,” one of the signature triumphs of Russian modernism.

By repeating this gesture twice, I. Kabakov mocks the pretensions of Malevich – who placed the black square in the space traditionally reserved for an Orthodox icon – as well as his belief that his abstractions represented an end of painting. The title “Dark Painting” also teases the austerity of Malevich’s solid black.

Having endured harsh lessons of history, I. Kabakov rejects the naive pieties of modernism along with Soviet propaganda. But if his world-weary art is intended to represent a way forward, rather than mere criticism of the past, it fails to convince. The combined pressures of totalitarian oppression and a paucity of meaningful stylistic choices only partially explain the claustrophobia and visual limitation of the fictional artist’s canvases. His true nemesis appears to be none other than the real Mr. Kabakov, whose weighty ambition is more than this historically determined character can bear. Ultimately, I. Kabakov, unlike his formidable creator, fails to transcend historical circumstance and transform adversity into brilliant art.

***

If Mr. Kabakov creates an art of friction and resistance, Olafur Eliasson’s work is one of limitless expanse and unimpeded freedom. Using the most elemental materials – light, sound, water, wind – the Danish-Icelandic artist creates installations that examine the nature of perception, challenging viewers to consider how initial sensual impressions evolve into more complex mental responses.

“Your Negotiable Panorama” (2006), the most spectacular of the artist’s four light installations currently at the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, presents a circular black enclosure, 41 feet in diameter. At its center stands a large lamp surrounded by a water basin, which casts reflected light onto the surrounding wall. This creates a narrow white band suggesting the horizon at dawn or dusk (or one of Saturn’s rings).

The visitor enters the installation by crossing a small ramp, which, when stepped on, triggers a wave in the water. Every time a new guest arrives, the band of light vibrates like a plucked string; a parabola in constant motion.As the water settles and the wave stills, the viewer’s focus shifts from outer to inner experience. Increasingly self-aware, he notices the way his own shadow disrupts the work, splitting the band of light in two. Seated against the curved wall, his head lowered beneath the cast light, he restores the work to its most sublime – a wide horizontal expanse recalling the white nights of the artist’s Nordic homeland.

Mr. Eliasson’s “Your Compass” (2006) begins in a disorienting black room, whose far wall is lit by a sequence of arrows, each one enigmatically pointing in one of the eight directions of the compass dial. They beckon forward, and the viewer comes to a curtain leading to a second room, this one bright white, with neon tubes that prove to be the source of the first room’s mystery. The entire installation, it turns out, is a giant camera obscura, with the white room being the positive original and the black one its inverted negative.

While the black room’s arrows indicate a direction (toward the white room), the neon originals are empty signs. Their apparent meaninglessness will frustrate some, whereas others will discover, by analogy, precious moments outside the normal flow of time in this odd, directionless space. Mr. Eliasson’s installation invites the viewer in, but makes no attempt to predetermine the experience or meaning of the work – that is left to each visitor’s internal compass.

Kabokov until June 3 (528 W. 29th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-239-1181). Eliasson until May 27 (521 W. 21th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-414-4144).


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