The Experimental Group

Ilya Kabakov, Moscow Conceptualism, Soviet Avant-Gardes

Matthew Jesse Jackson

The Experimental Group
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Matthew Jesse Jackson

336 pages | 54 color plates, 86 halftones | 8-1/2 x 10-1/2 | © 2010
Cloth $60.00 ISBN: 9780226389417 Published July 2010


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 professional illustrator and 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 a 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 bring to life 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 burst forth 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 Lavishly illustrated in full color, and including many rare and previously unpublished documentary images, The Experimental Group is not only a vital contribution to a neglected chapter in the history of twentieth-century art but also a brilliant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.

Vucinich Book Prize Committee

“Matthew Jesse Jackson's The Experimental Group is an engaging, beautifully written, and erudite study of unofficial Soviet art. It makes a strong case for Kabakov's achievements across multiple art forms, and provides brilliant readings of numerous individual drawings, albums, mixed media work, and installations. Moving far beyond his own field of art history, Jackson makes a major statement about Soviet society, culture, and politics as a whole. Without idealizing the late Soviet period in the least, he shows how its norms of cultural conversation, the organization of work and free time, occasional but critical moments of access to Western innovations in the arts, emerging new philosophies of the artistic process, and the important role of viewer (or reader) response all conspired to make possible extraordinary art. Jackson prompts us to recognize the "period of stagnation" as a time of intellectual ferment--with the Soviet citizenry acting as the ultimate "experimental group." This monumental study of creativity in and after the late Soviet period is a remarkable scholarly achievement.”

New York University

"Matthew Jesse Jackson combines vast art historical and theoretical erudition with a rare ability to understand the specific social milieus and psychological motives that govern individual artistic strategies."—Boris Groys, New York University

Institute of Fine Arts

"Matthew Jesse Jackson's writing and quality of mind put him in the forefront of the next wave in modern art studies."—Thomas E. Crow, Institute of Fine Arts


"[Jackson's] rich narrative . . . reads almost like a novel."

"Jackson's thorough account is now the best introduction in English to this peculiar and fascinating period."
Art Monthly

"Very few contemporary art history books are of such note that they appear to revise completely their chosen topic, as well as potentially a few others along the way, but Matthew Jesse Jackson's The Experimental Group does precisely that."

Jonathan Fineberg | Slavic Review

The Experimental Group is the best art historical text I have read on postwar Soviet art . . . for me this book is as close to a page-turner as any art history book is ever likely to be.”

Art in America

"Jackson demonstrates . . . a deep familiarity with the era's artistic milieu."

Third Text

“A rich account…a rigorous analysis…the most comprehensive treatment of the most distinguished living post-Soviet artist has arrived.”


"Jackson engagingly combines an analysis of Kabakov's work with perceptive analysis of contemporaries. . . . [His] access to Kabakov and familiarity with Moscow's cultural milieu give readers a sense of direct contact with the intensely nuanced world of Moscow conceptualism. Recommended."

Russian Review

"[T]he certainty of Jackson's substantial scholarship make[s] The Experimental Group well worth reading."

Art Journal

“The most concretely informative book on the Moscow Conceptualist milieu to date. Jackson’s lucid, engaging prose further recommends his study, especially to readers seeking an introduction to Soviet unofficial art.”
“With The Experimental Group, Matthew Jesse Jackson has produced an informative and exciting blend of a monograph on Ilya Kabakov and a broader discussion of Moscow unofficial art from the 1960s to the 1980s. The author draws on an impressive array of material collected through thorough research and numerous interviews with artists and art theorists. The breadth and richness of the text testifies to the fact that the author interacts with his subject as a fish moves in water.”
Slavic and East European Journal
“Like a good novel with a protagonist and an interesting story, The Experimental Group thus comes to its closing page leaving the reader with a feeling that it truly is art history at its best. In addition to its numerous analytical merits, the book has great narrative power.”
Oxford Art Journal
“Jackson takes careful analysis seriously, at the level of both form and content, producing nuanced readings that meticulously unfold a wealth of references and inside jokes to a new audience. Key works and exhibitions that form the canon of Moscow Conceptualism sit politely in their chronological places and are brought alive by socio-historical passages designed to instruct us about the realities of late Soviet life.”

List of Illustrations        



1          Dead Souls      

2          Bureaucratic Expressionism      

3          Answers of the Experimental Group                 

4          The Rituals of Nonlife  

5          Kasha and Humanism              

6          The Man Who Collected the Opinions of Others          



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