The Russian art market hasn’t had the same vigor in recent years since the sanctions imposed upon the country after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. But there are a few Russian artists whose international caché reaches far beyond the category. Among those artists only Ilya Kabakov resonates through the Contemporary art world. Tomorrow, September 24th, Sotheby’s Escape Artists—The Non-conformists Online opens with more than 90 lots of Russian Contemporary art from the post-war era. These artists were not officially sanctioned but also flourished as a sometimes called, ‘second avant-garde.’
Leading the sale is Kabakov’s Conditional Reflex (£350k-500k) which was made in 1964. The work is considered Kabakov’s the second conceptual piece. The title refers to the Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov, but also to the reality of life in Krushchev’s Soviet Union. The work is also the earliest piece made by the artist to be sold at auction. It has never before been offered.
In the catalogue entry includes this explanation of the work by the artist:
Firstly, the title and subject of the painting. Conditional Reflex was a scientific discovery made at the beginning of the 20th century by the great Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov, forever inscribed in the annals of the history of science. The essence of the discovery is as follows: a piece of meat is placed before an animal (a dog), to which it reacts by salivating. Simultaneously, a bell is rung. If this is repeated a certain number of times and then the meat is removed, the dog will salivate in response to the bell alone. So too does man, essentially a member of the animal kingdom, react with different feelings to the appearance of images in his consciousness. In the painting this is the image of a house with a rocking chair and a car parked nearby. At a compositional level, the painting uses the conflict between the horizontal arrangement of some elements and the head-on placement of others: the dog is rendered in profile, along the plane of the painting. The man’s head is placed at the centre of the painting, facing us, creating the stereoscopic effect of being perpendicular to the motion of the painting’s surface. Since the contour of the head connects with that of the dog, the contradiction and tension between the two structural elements of the painting is perpetual.