The most comprehensive story of unofficial postwar Soviet art yet to appear in any language, "The Experimental Group" takes as its point of departure a subject of strange fascination: the life and work of renowned conceptual artist Ilya Kabakov. Kabakov's art - iconoclastic installations, paintings, illustrations, and texts - delicately experiments with such issues as history, mortality, and disappearance, and here exemplifies a much larger narrative about the work of the artists who rose to prominence just as the Soviet Union began to disintegrate. By placing Kabakov and his conceptualist peers in line with our own contemporary perspective, Matthew Jesse Jackson suggests that the art that emerged in the wake of Stalin belongs neither entirely to its lost communist past nor to a future free from socialist nostalgia. Instead, these artists and the work they produced are inextricably part of transnational art world for which the Soviet Union is largely a memory, fading fast.
Though remembrance tends to paint the past in broadly heroic tones, "The Experimental Group" leaves aside the art-hero in order to explore the everyday activities of individuals who circulated in a cultural environment that ultimately unmade the Soviet Union. Encompassing most of the nonconformist art world that emerged between the late 1950s and mid-1980s, Jackson's narrative builds outward from the life and art of Kabakov to the multimedia undertakings of the Moscow Conceptual Circle, bringing into focus a forgotten avant-garde that flourished in the shadow of the official Soviet art establishment. Lavishly illustrated in full color, and including many rare and previously unpublished documentary images, "The Experimental Group" is not only a vital contribution to a neglected chapter in the history of twentieth-century art but also a brilliant illumination of the life and work of one of its most remarkable figures.
Matthew Jesse Jackson is assistant professor of visual arts and art history at the University of Chicago, as well as cofounder of Our Literal Speed, the international art history as practice and performance collective.