The Art Couple

When an established artist becomes an artist couple, what does this mean? Does the work change? Why is it always the wife who gets added on to the famous husband’s career, and there’s not one husband appended to a woman’s?

The Soviet/post-Soviet “conceptual” artist Ilya Kabakov and his wife Emilia are now publicly a husband-and-wife team. They join the illustrious ranks of the late Ed Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz; Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen; Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

Although it might be an interesting study, we are not considering Newton and Helen Harrison, who have always been a team, as have Gilbert and George. The latter are British, and as far as we know are rather like Gilbert and Sullivan, only more so: not married to each other in any sense of the word. Furthermore, we can’tput those other Soviet/post-Soviet conceptualists, Kolmar and Melamid, in any matrimonial boat. I also know two brothers, Einar and Jamexde la Torre, working in glass-based assemblage, who function as a team but, unlike the others mentioned, also make art under separate signatures.

In the case of the Kabakovs, the Oldenburgs, the Christos, and, before them, the Kienholzs, the partnership came well on into the husband’s career, probably to acknowledge the ongoing contributions of the wife and, I would venture to guess, to make ownership, copyright and possession of artworks airtight. But who knows what darkness or devotion lurks in the congruently beating hearts of couples — of any persuasion. As far as I am concerned, anything that contests the hegemony of single-person authorship and gives someone his or her fair due is a step in the right direction.

Furthermore, I have observed that artworks may change when studio assistants change, and that often the artist is more like the auteur/movie director than the sole agent.

Perhaps every artwork should have the label equivalent of a movie crawl. Carpentry, welding, prep-work, lighting,color mixing, photography, and the writing of didactic statements should all be credited. Preliminary drawings or digital work also require some acknowledgement. And how about a nod tothe hidden world of secretaries, bookkeepers, and just plain gofers?

In any case, here’s an assignment for some future graduate student: in all four cases of the married art couples cited above, did the work change after the double byline emerged?

As a start, we now know Ilya and Emilia Kabakov have been working together since 1989. She too endured life in the U.S.S.R. A graduate of the Moscow Music Conservatory, she later made her way to the West.The Kabakovs have lived in New York since 1992. Ilya made installations before as well as after 1989.

Looking through the documentation in Amei Wallach’s Ilya Kabakov: The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away (Abrams, 1996), I can see a sort of zigzag progression from language-laden and intentionally cluttered works to this year’s The Empty Museum at the SculptureCenter (44-19 Purves St., Long Island City, to April 11).                  

This oddly spectacular new installation can be classed with, and may be an outgrowth of, Kabakov’s Incident at the Museum, or Water Music (1992) or The Life of Flies of the same year, which represented “a series of halls in a scholarly provincial Soviet museum that receives few visitors.” Incident at the Museum, which was at the Feldman Gallery in New York, displayed fake paintings by a “re-discovered” Russian modernist by the name of Stepan Yakovlevich Koshelev and looked extremely convincing. The flash-point however is that there were buckets and tarps everywhere and water dripping from the ceiling. In The Empty Museum, there is no water. In fact, there are no paintings, only spotlights on the deep red walls.

If Kabakov’s wife has influenced him to move beyond thesomewhatcluttered and “literary” installations of the past, she surely shouldbe applauded. It is not that I have anything against smudging the border between art and literature. I just don’t like it when there’s so muchnarrative that I yearn for a book rather than an exhibition. You might say that Kabakov has — rather, the Kabakovs have — stopped being a novelist (a mixture of Dostoyevsky and Kafka) and become a poet.

This grammatical awkwardness through which we have just passed is another reason why art coupledom is resisted. Language balks.

The Empty Museum takes up nearly the entirety of the SculptureCenter space. You see the metal studs and wallboard construction all around the outside of the built room. I find this satisfying in a sculptural way, just as I have always preferred the photos of Glen Seator’s 1999 Check Cashing Store that show the gallery side rather than the street side of that jolting replica (see my Seator essay). From the street, the work looked so real that some people tried to get inside to cash checks, whereas from the gallery it was all beams and wallboard. I like seeing how things are made, which is my traditional, pro-sculpture side. Of course, installations are usually lumped with sculpture, prompting me to define sculpture as anything that is not painting.

Actually, the first thing you see of The Empty Museum is a door ajar. It doesn’t open beyond a certain point, so you have to edge your way in, where, embraced by Bach’s Passacaglia, you can rest on the Victorian seating in the middle of the room and contemplate … nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. You can meditate upon the spotlights. You can gaze upon moldings or on the two sealed exit doors. You contemplate the absence of paintings and what that might mean. The Kabakovs finally let you make up your own story and your own meanings. Here are some of mine:

The paintings have been removed because they are on loan to some casino in Las Vegas; because they were recently discovered as fakes; because war has broken out and they are in storage for safe-keeping. They have been removed because suddenly it has been discovered paintings are not art. Or, to the contrary, they were too controversial and excited the museum-goers to weird sexual acts, revolution, sabotage, and sudden bouts of lethargy.

Or — and this is my favorite — the paintings were not removed:they merely steadily diminished in size. The huge numbers of people looking at them day after day robbed them of their auras and they shrank to nothing. Or maybe they disappearedbecause not enough people were looking at them. People make auras, infuse objects with mana.

So, after all, The Empty Museum is not really like Yves Klein’s notorious empty gallery of 1958 (Le Vide/The Void). That great French mystic was trying to exhibit the Void or Nothingness, rather than nothing. The Kabakovs are a bit more down to earth. They offer a “Total Installation,” meaning an artwork you step inside of and thereby enter another world. This new world is one where paintings simply — or not so simply — disappear, have disappeared. I smell a kind of nostalgia.

Or is The Empty Museum antinostalgia? A certain very powerful wing of the art world has an overwhelming nostalgia for painting, so overwhelming that really bad painting is embraced just for the sake of upholding painting. Then too I also like that The Empty Museum, a work about painting as it is institutionalized, is in a sculpture space. Is there a painting space that can return the favor?

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Also at SculptureCenter is a group exhibition called “In Practice.” Highlights are Nicolas Dumit Estevez’s hilarious Toilet Training, a sound piece for both the men’s and women’s restrooms. A woman’s voice, somewhat like the moving sidewalk voice at various airline hubs, instructs you on proper use of the facilities.

On the Lower Level (i.e., the basement), Karin Waisman’s beautiful Patience consists of four neatly made, full-size, white paper chairs inflected with meticulously cut-out lacelike areas, the debris left on the floor. I certainly liked Juliane Stiegele’s Skyline, which coincidentally also uses paper. It’s a video that shows paper skyscrapers moving about and then for the most part collapsing. They are attached to live snails: 42 snails were used in the three-hour 56-minute production, here edited down to 11 tasty minutes.

I love art in odd places. Consider, for instance, various stabs at using P.S.1’s funky basements and attics. I’d like to see MoMA itself and the Whitney let a few artists tackle presently out-of-sight, backstage spots.

Because the SculptureCenter building was once a trolley repair shop, the piece that best uses the actual space is Karyn Olivier’s evocative Ridgewood Line (BQT Ghost NO. 6064). Train tracks are imbedded in the floor of one of the long arched alcoves

Outside: You shouldn’t miss Stephanie Diamond’s billboard on the roof of the building. You have to walk to the nearby Thomson Avenue Bridge to see it, but there are clear instructions at the front desk. The title is These Are the Men Who Hit on Me on the Street (Buenas Tardes). The artist, using a disposable or point-and-shoot camera,captures the culprits who harass her and then makes billboards out of the images. Buenas Tardes shows a man “hitting on her” from his car.

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