A Look at a North Fork Artist Couple’s Home and Studio
by Jeff Bachner for New York Daily News
Artist Ilya Kabakov has breakfast at 7 a.m. every day. Emilia, his wife, a former world-class pianist, wakes up at 5 a.m. if she sleeps at all. She prepares her husband’s food in a kitchen with 20-foot-high wood-beam vaulted ceilings. Birds eat from metal feeders hanging from oak trees in the front yard. The soft waves of Peconic Bay sway against the shore down the hill.
At 9 a.m., he goes to work. His art studio is steps from the kitchen. It’s filled with light. From the table where he draws, cuts and carves, he sees the front yard. Kabakov, one of the foremost installation artists and painters in the world, recently won the Japanese Art Association Praemium Imperiale Laureate Award, that country’s version of the Nobel Prize for art. Almost 80, he works till 5 p.m. except on weekends, wearing a white T-shirt and drawstring pants.
He’ll break for a simple lunch of soup that he’ll take with his wife. They’ll talk Russian politics, his choice. Then they’ll talk imminent travel and the business of art, her topics. They have been in love 22 years, or according to her, longer, since the first time she laid eyes on him when she was 14 years old in Moscow, and he was 27.
He started drawing the first time his mother put a pencil in his hand. Emilia played the piano with force at 3 years old. Now, they collaborate on everything. There is a simplicity to their life that has a softness that stops time, and a force that makes creativity rain like a storm.
This is the life artists live on the North Fork, long considered the anti-Hamptons and one of the most peaceful, farmlike areas on the East Coast. The Kabakovs live in Mattituck, down a tree-lined street that is as much like a jungle as Long Island can get. Like everything in their life, how they came to live here is a story filled with emotion, mystery, fantasy and truth.
“We were visiting friends next door,” says Emilia. “An old couple was sitting in chairs outside their front door. He was 92. I walked up to them, and asked, ‘Can I buy your house? I love it.’ This was 18 years ago. The woman said, ‘It’s not for sale. My father built this house when I was a child.’ We started talking. Three weeks later, I bought the house. They stayed in the house for a year. At the closing, the man said, ‘You can have this house on two conditions. You must never sell this house, and you must love it like we do.’ I told him I would never sell it, but we can never love it like them, but we would try. This is the first real home, I think, my husband has ever lived in. To us, this is an old-fashioned American house. It’s what everyone thinks when they think of America.”
The home is simple. A rug, a wedding gift to the couple who sold them the house, still decorates the open living room. Chinese chairs and comfortable couches dominate the room. A piano sits in the corner. Emilia plays it occasionally. A small study has books and photos of their years traveling together to museums and exhibitions. The studio off to the side of the house was built after they moved in.
Two new barns, one for storage and one giant white room awash in natural light, sit separate across the lawn. The giant room is meant to show art as it will appear in museums. Voices echo in there. The current work is so large it feels as if you’re in the Louvre. It’s dark, sometimes brooding, but always heavy on emotion. In a pastel piece, a little girl disciplines a boy bully while surrounding children are gleeful and aghast.
Ilya’s work has shown at the Museum of Modern of Art as well as top European museums. Nine galleries around the world — from Tokyo to Chelsea to Cologne — show his work. His sculptures sit outside housing developments and in public squares in cities and villages around the world. Emilia runs the business side. Works can sell from $550,000 to $5 million.
“I am more ambitious,” she smiles. “And I have a temper, too.”
At 11 years old, she was arrested with her parents trying to escape the Soviet Union. The police said they were going to break her fingers. Her father stayed in jail 10 years; her mother for three. Emilia went to live with her grandmother.
“I wasn’t afraid,” she remembers. “I was angry. Material things do not matter to me. I can walk away from things without care. People, relationships and connections — that matters. It’s people that you miss when they are not there.”
Ilya does not talk to the press. He believes art speaks for itself. He works and works, seeing the creation of art no differently than a bricklayer sees the laying of bricks. He takes breaks to walk to the water. He eyes any stranger in his house (me, the photographer) as a distraction. It’s comical at times and inspiring at others.
The Kabakovs’ work combines giant illustration with a series of paintings. All of it involves compassion, cosmic energy, empathy, creativity and the notion of time. Many pieces never get bigger than small wooden models. One idea is a monument to unknown people.
“Why do we only have monuments for people who do great things?” asks Emilia. “Every person who lives and loves does great things.”
In one of their most famous pieces, “Ship of Tolerance,” the Kabakovs build ancient vessels on the shores of the Nile, St. Moritz, Venice, Havana and other cities. In Egypt, it was in the town of Siwa. For the project which spreads tolerance, children paint drawings that cover the ship’s sail. Carpenters from Manchester, England, build the ship while townspeople help. The ship launch is a celebration where children dress in costumes. Boats stay in town after installation is complete. More are planned.
A lack of world leadership concerns Emilia. She’s not sure if the best and brightest go into business for money and fame or if there is a lack of political leaders. She believes, like her husband, that art has the power to move people more. She believes it ensures you are remembered.
Art, to her, ensures legacy. Still, there is a woman she takes care of. She is older than 100, and lives in a nursing home on the North Fork. Emilia was a little girl when she knew her in the Soviet Union. They reconnected living near each other on the upper West Side, as Russians in New York do.
“She has no more things,” Emilia says. “She doesn’t even remember anyone. But for some reason, she knows me. See, people are what’s most important.”