An Alternative History of Art


with Emilia Kabakov

YEAR: 2008



Collection of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov.


Not preserved as installation. Paintings in the Collection of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov as well as in various public and private collections in Germany, Japan, Russia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the UK and the USA.

Consisting of no. 144 Life and Creativity of Charles Rosenthal and nine additional rooms.

See CRP, vol. 2, nos. 304–320, pp. 21–39; nos. 323–324, pp. 42–43; nos. 326–335, pp. 45–54; nos. 337–349, pp. 56–72; nos. 351–373, pp. 74–91; nos. 403–438, pp. 123–161; nos. 459–482, pp. 192–219; no. 617, p. 358.

See CRI, vol. 2, no. 144, pp. 376–385.

See CRB, no. 125, pp. 490–493; no. 132, pp. 513–515; no. 132, pp. 513–515.


Центр современной культуры «Гараж» / The Garage Center for Contemporary Culture (since 2014: Garage Museum of Contemporary Art), Moscow, Russia
Илья и Эмилия Кабаковы: Московская ретроспектива / Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Moscow Retrospective, organized by The Ministry of Culture and Cinematography and The Moscow Biennale Foundation, September 17 to October 19, 2008

Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
The paintings were exhibited as a unified group of works in Frankfurt, Germany, in 2000: Ilya Kabakov stellt vor: Leben und Werk von Charles Rosenthal 1898–1933 (Ilya Kabakov Presents: The Life and Creativity of Charles Rosenthal 1898–1933), December 10, 2000 to March 4, 2001, and in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, in 2004: The Teacher and The Student: Charles Rosenthal and Ilya Kabakov, Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, September 9, 2004 to January 2, 2005


  1. The exhibit takes the form of a suite of halls where the expositions of the three artists follow one another in chronological order. The exposition of each artist takes up a few halls, each hall representing one of the periods in the artist’s creative life. Accordingly, C. Rosenthal is arranged in 8 halls, I. Kabakov in 2, and I. Spivak in 3. In all, 14 halls of various sizes and configurations are needed for the entire exhibit.

  2. The ideal (complete) number of expositions for the whole exhibit is 280 items, which includes approximately 150 paintings, with the rest being comprised of drawings and objects. The maximum dimensions of 4 of the paintings in the exhibit are 480 x 600 cm.

  3. The exhibit itself represents a normal “classical” exhibition of three retrospectives united and time-tested in a tranquil museum setting. The walls of the halls are like those in classical museums (the Metropolitan, London’s National Gallery, etc.). The walls are painted a soft pastel color with panels covering the lower part of the walls; there are benches arranged in the middle of the halls, and soft “contemplative” lighting. The entire installation should speak about the eternal, serene current of History flowing inside these halls.


Two ambitious concepts are at the heart of the exhibit. The first is to introduce the names of three artists into the already finished, completed and canonized History of Art of the 20th century, names that have not taken root there, or more precisely, that simply don’t exist in that history yet: Charles Rosenthal, Ilya Kabakov, Igor Spivak.

The second is to construct the local history of the art of Russia of the 20th century, taking into consideration these three names, and doing so in such a way that these artists would participate in the defining “axis” of the development of Russian art the course of the entire century, and that they would even come to characterize the history of this very process.

As it appears today, the history of 20th-century art consists of two halves with a dividing line somewhere around the 1940s: the art of the classical avant-garde and the art of conceptualism. At the same time, given all the differences, both halves are characterized by the clarity and, one might say, the simplicity of the conception lying at their respective bases. Characteristic for the classical period of modernism is purism, a skeptical minimalism and geometry, formalism, and an appeal to internal artistic problems. What had been forbidden, made taboo by the avant-garde, became characteristic for post-modernism: the mixing of genres; the refutation of the lofty; the abrogation of the privilege of professionalism over dilettantism; the linking of different criteria for artistic success to the success of the artistic work itself. In their own work, the artists proposing this exhibit all move along the courses of both of these tendencies on the one hand, while on the other hand each of their resolutions can be considered fully unique: each moves in his own works via the path of mixing avant-garde and postmodernist tendencies, mixing or rather co-mingling them on the field of their own paintings. It should be emphasized here that all three work in the old genre of “the painting” that by the end of the century was able to preserve and in some sense even to fortify its own central status as a genre, despite all the battles with it and the numerous funerals held for it throughout the entire century.

The exhibit illustrates what each of the three artists unites in his respective works. C. Rosenthal, who internally resisted the total victory of radicalism and reductionism of Malevich and his pupils, attempted to create a “soft” variant of modernism, fusing minimalism with the classical painting of past history, in particular, of the history of art of the 19th century. I. Kabakov also combines realistic painting with the rigid geometry of forms; moreover, he still imparts to everything a “picturesque” significance inherent in the pre-avant-garde period of modernism. I. Spivak combines a familiar avant-garde element – the unpainted white field – with photo-realism as represented in its monochromatic variation; furthermore, he imparts a special direct significance to the subjects depicted in his paintings. Furthermore, all three attempt to demonstrate in their work that the art of modernism is distinct from that of past centuries, not by its radical refutation of humanistic values (which, of course, is present in the modernist tendencies of the 20th century), but rather by its insistence precisely on the preservation of these values in the new situations of its own time.

As far as the history of Russian art is concerned, then each of the artists in this exhibit represents one of the three periods of this history, shown here in its sequential development:

The period at the beginning of the century was characterized in Russia not only by catastrophes and wars, but also by the concentration of hopes aimed at the near, and without a doubt, bright future; such are the paintings of C. Rosenthal – he sees and believes in that future, even though he is living and creating in emigration. In contrast to him, I. Kabakov and his generation, living and working in the period of “real socialism,” clearly saw the results of this future that had already arrived, that had become the “eternal today.” The bright background in the paintings of C. Rosenthal became dark and murky chaos positioned behind any depiction of “actual reality” in the paintings of I. Kabakov in the 1970s, reflecting the stability and the despondent conformism of life in Russia in the middle of the century.

And finally, I. Spivak, creating his paintings in the 1990s, reflects a new period in the life of Russia after the dissolution and disappearance of the USSR. After this disappearance of an entire civilization, what commences is an inevitable nostalgia in new generations for the “great and powerful” country, for “ironclad order” and, as it seems in hindsight, a firm and stable lifestyle. It is this mood that Spivak reflects in his “retro” works, again after C. Rosenthal: even though Spivak does not know anything about Rosenthal, he incorporates Rosenthal’s white shining backgrounds into his own paintings.

Hence, the parabola of life of the 20th century in Russia turns out to be completed and finds its reflection in the work of these three artists. In this conceptualization of this history, the positive origin, being mythological and invented, is located both at the beginning and the end; the negative and the sad, but the actually experienced, comprises the middle.



2008Megan BartonComment