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Ilya KABAKOV, excerpt from memoirs

Gatherings in Ilya Kabakov’s Studio

The spring of 1963 is connected to the exhibition on the Highway of Enthusiasts. Before that, there were, one after the other, exhibitions in scientific institutes—Yankilevsky, Rabin, and others—a boisterous and active artistic life in the underground that was seemingly just about to break out into the light on the waves of the Thaw and gain a normal life and a normal artistic existence. The exhibition on the Highway of Enthusiasts with the press in attendance, well organized, if a bit over-crowded, presaged the coming of a new day and interest was huge. Sooster urgently, in one night, made frames from some simple planks for his display at this exhibition (these frames are still in my studio with their machine-typed labels).

In the summer, I went to the dacha, then to mother’s in Berdiansk, and then in the fall is when the main events began to roll in. The disoriented authorities at first forbade, but then allowed the exhibition of “unofficial” artists at the Youth hotel, and then finally, I think in October, came the Manège affair. Ernst Neizvestnyi enjoyed a great reputation at that time, working wildly and actively, and the Manège was his crowning moment, his highest rise.

This is linked to a general trend in unofficial art in those times.

The 1960s without any doubt were a time of flowering for underground culture in all its spheres and in the first place in painting, poetry, and prose. For me, of course, it is easiest to speak of the first. The period of the 1960s falls, in my mind, into three spheres: the socio-political, the artistic, and the spiritual, the substantive, so to speak.

Artists working in the 1960s knew each other and it can be firmly said, made up one generation which contained within itself nuances of age that divided the generation into “elder,” “middle,” and “younger” members. As I remember it now, this difference carried a rather substantial significance.

In practice, this meant that in 1963, each artist approached the Manège affair differently. The more artistically seasoned artists by this time were all of the members of the Lianozovo circle, Ernst Neizvestnyi, the Beliutin circle, Sobolev, Yankilevsky, Sooster, and Brusilovsky.

Prior to Manège, it was a time of great anticipation—terrible fear, but also great anticipation—after, it was only fear, fear that something could happen to you any day, something could take place, a life of fear day after day. After the Bulldozers and the appearance of the Gorkom, some of that fear went away.

* * *

The most interesting part of the 1960s was the particular climate of the underground artistic life that prevailed, like a thick infusion in all the basement studios and cramped rooms inhabited by the artistic bohemia. Existence was stitched from a mad and intensely charged sense of “them” (“they” were the administrators, the work-givers and superintendents), who were perceived as an other, hostile, and dangerous breed of people, living “upstairs,” in the official world “up there”; while, below this world, closely socializing with each other, loving and respecting one another, lives as though “underneath the floor of life,” a different community, a very special tribe of people. It is precisely the climate of community that was so characteristic to the lives of artists, poets, jazzmen, and writers who had, as though by some happy accident, encountered one another in the same stratum of Moscow at this time. No one had any common, everyday interests at this time, every concern, encounter, or conversation touched only on artistic or poetic problems. But at the same time, for every one of us, it was the “beautiful” age, and all the studios and apartments buzzed with carousing and wild congregation with dancing, wine, songs, and the reading of poems. A multitude of homes, and not necessarily only those of artists, were places for these merry evening gatherings. Today we go to the Shterns, to Kuperman, on Wednesdays unfailingly (for many years) to Sooster’s on Krasina Street, to Grobman’s in Tekstil’shchiki, to Stesin’s, to Rabin’s, to Sapgir’s, to Bulatov’s dacha. The uncommon, close, and constant socializing of that time, full of knowledge and discussion of everything that was going on in the studios, the open, regular showing of everything to each other, and the electrifying, neurotic atmosphere of danger “from above,” from “them,” ready to destroy our entire life, this “unsanctioned” life…

With regards to those “people up above” there were three different options: to show “them” that “we” also exist; a calm, indifferent acceptance of this separateness into upper and lower, aboveground and underground; and third: a panicked feeling of danger, a desire to forget oneself and become invisible so as not to get crushed. I belonged to these last ones, the ones who “did not stick their necks out.”

The constant desire to exhibit “like everyone else” gave social life connected to the “underground” its particular air. It must be said that “unofficial” is a label that came into use after the “bulldozers,” since before then, they were “underground,” as though living underneath the floor.

After the Manège affair, exhibits begin to spring up all the time in scientific institutes, and are as a rule immediately closed, then in apartments, and also, for the sake of “exposure,” in the Blue Bird café from 1963 to 1966, where Erik Bulatov and I exhibited together.

Source: Ilya Kabakov, 60-e – 70-e…Zapiski o neofitsial’noi zhizni v Moskve [1960s-1970s… Notes on unofficial life in Moscow] (Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, Moscow, 2008): 24-7. Original manuscript from 1982.

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