In their century-old home on the East End, artists Emilia and Ilya Kabakov have found the perfect setting in which to live, work, remember, and dream.
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov in front of works in progress in Ilya’s painting studio.
Although Emilia and Ilya Kabakov are both Russian-born and have traveled the world as acclaimed artists—with exhibitions in top museums like the Tate in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and installations in countries as far-flung as Egypt, Cuba, Italy, and France—the East End of Long Island is the place they ultimately call home.
It’s been that way since 1996, when Emilia was visiting a friend in the area, saw a 1917 shingle-style house nearby, fell in love with it, then knocked on the door and made an offer to buy it. Initially, the elderly couple who lived there declined, but with patience and persistence, Emilia convinced them to sell on the condition she and her husband would never sell it to anyone else.
An accessory building on the Kabakovs’ property was constructed specifically to house the paintings that together make up an installation called Dark Chapel.
“The house has a soul,” Emilia says. “It had been in the same family for generations, so I wanted to keep its soul.” Aside from updating some bathrooms, renovating the kitchen, and opening it up to a welcoming dining area—“we have guests all the time and I don’t like to cook, but I do it well and quick,” she notes—the Kabakovs have kept much of the house just as they found it.
They peppered the living room with a few pieces of old Chinese furniture, “but we had to stop,” Emilia explains. “It’s an American house, and it couldn’t take more. The previous owners were Irish, and they left me much of their old American and Irish handmade furniture—it’s beautiful, homelike, and not pretentious.”
Even the large woven rug that grounds the living room is part of the home’s legacy. “It was given to the couple who had owned the house as a wedding gift, and we asked them to sell it to us, but they wanted to keep it,” Emilia recalls. “Yet one day, their son came back with the rug in his arms and told me his father said, ‘Bring it back to the place it belongs.’”
Some paintings by Russian friends, curios from India and Mexico, and a talisman given to Emilia by an African artist to protect her lend a few extra touches of international flavor. And a pair of new accessory buildings, including Ilya’s studio and a modest museum-like structure that houses models and drawings of unrealized projects, afford the couple places to continue to explore their global approach to artistic ideas, many of which emerge from the challenges they and their families endured in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union during and after WWII.
The entire property also roots them with a spirit of belonging. “Long Island is a very peaceful place with a sense of neighborhood,” says Emilia. “People are very good here and they help each other. There’s a sense of community that’s disappearing in Russia.” The Kabakovs’ exhibition called “The Arch of Life” at the LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton this August is bound to reinforce the connection they’ve developed with the East End—along with the connection its residents have cultivated with them.