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Indepth Arts News:

"The Teacher and The Student: Charles Rosenthal and Ilya Kabakov"
2004-09-10 until 2005-01-02
Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland
Cleveland, OH, USA United States of America

The Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland presents a major solo exhibition, a “total installation,” of Ilya Kabakov, curated by MOCA Director Jill Snyder. A leading figure of the 1980s Russian art movement known as Moscow Conceptualism, Kabakov is considered one of the most important artists of his generation. His “total installations” have depicted the gloomy bureaucratic and communal environments of Soviet life while celebrating the survival and strength of the human spirit. Kabakov’s often-melancholic installations are surreal environments where longing and imagination coexist.

In The Teacher and The Student: Charles Rosenthal and Ilya Kabakov, a classic retrospective of monumental paintings and drawings, the fictional artists Rosenthal and Kabakov, both inventions of the real Ilya Kabakov, seek to reconcile the political and aesthetic fragmentation between representational and abstract genres that evolved during the Soviet experiment over the course of its evolution and demise from 1917 to 1991. Like Winston Churchill’s oft-repeated description of Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, so too is this fascinating and somewhat complicated Kabakov exhibition. Consistent with Kabakov’s concept of total installation, the artist will transform MOCA’s contemporary gallery spaces into a Beaux-Arts style museum. The assemblage of paintings, drawings and objects will cover 1,200 linear feet in MOCA’s 7,000 square foot reconstructed exhibition space.

About past Kabakov total installations, esteemed New York critic Amei Wallach has written, “Perhaps ‘total’ is shorthand for totalitarian” implying that Kabakov is emphatic about controlling the atmosphere of his installations, leaving little room for personal interpretation or response. Indeed the exhibition, The Teacher and The Student: Charles Rosenthal and Ilya Kabakov, may do just that as it leads MOCA’s visitors along one prescribed path through its many galleries and interpretive wall text authored by Kabakov to confront this revealing conclusion in the final room in a string of galleries: the exhibition is as much a ruse as it is real and the artists, Charles Rosenthal and Ilya Kabakov, are products of Kabakov’s imagination. Curator Snyder looks forward to this ‘ah-ha’ moment when visitors to MOCA reach the end of the exhibition. Says Snyder, “I hope visitors bring with them their curiousity and willingness to suspend disbelief when they step over MOCA’s threshold. As a museum without a permanent collection, we always promise our visitors a totally new and unique experience with every passing season but they’ve truly never experienced that quite as literally as with this exhibition!”

The complex and multi-layered approach of The Teacher and The Student: Charles Rosenthal and Ilya Kabakov will both reward and challenge viewers. Didactic information will introduce the real artist Ilya Kabakov as a seminal figure in the post-war period. Within the exhibition space, wall texts will introduce the two fictional artists and describe the relationship between teacher and student. Charles Rosenthal, born in the late 19th century and trained as a representational painter, encounters the avant-garde paintings of Kasimir Malevich and subsequently seeks to integrate abstraction with Soviet style realism. After he is tragically killed in 1933, his work is stored away from public view and only surfaces in 1999 when exhibited in Japan at the Contemporary Art Center, Art Tower Mito. (This work was, in reality, first shown there.) There, in a twist of fate, the fictional Kabakov, a provincial Russian realist painter, encounters Rosenthal’s work and becomes obsessed with the radical vision of his predecessor. Working feverishly over a brief two-year period, the fictional Kabakov abandons his previous work and develops a new body of work that, like Rosenthal, seeks to resolve the tensions between socialist realism and abstraction. (This work is, in reality, being shown for the first time in the MOCA exhibition, The Teacher and The Student: Charles Rosenthal and Ilya Kabakov).

When the two bodies of work are seen together, one recognizes Kabakov’s imagined outcome of the Soviet experiment, a new strain of synthetic resolution, not reductive, but complex, embracing the populist spirit and idealized subjects of socialist realism and utopian symbolism of abstraction. Kabakov asks an important theoretical question: “At the end of the modernist paradigm, what is the next step?” Then he offers a possible answer: the next step may be a return to history and to realism, but an informed realism that reflects a self-conscious awareness of the evolution of culture. Kabakov’s installation also confronts art historical and museological tropes: the model of the provincial artist; the nature of the museum retrospective; and the epoch of the avant-garde. Consequently, this exhibition is imbued both with romanticism and detachment, a juxtaposition that cogently defines the cumulative artistic production of the prolific painter and installation artist Ilya Kabakov.

A scholarly catalogue documenting the installation process of The Teacher and The Student: Charles Rosenthal and Ilya Kabakov at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland will be produced and available for purchase following the September 10, 2004 opening of the exhibition. Designed by Ilya Kabakov, the catalogue will be distributed internationally by D.A.P.

The Teacher and The Student: Charles Rosenthal and Ilya Kabakov, is sponsored by an anonymous donor.

Ilya Kabakov Before the Exam [detail]
Oil on canvas
98 x 63 inches
Photograph courtesy of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov and D. James Dee, photographer.

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