“Children are the ways the world begins again and again,” wrote the poet and activist June Jordan. As someone who has two of them, I feel qualified to say they can also occasionally feel like how the world ends. That’s the thing about kids: They inspire such a breadth of emotion — just getting to school some mornings is a journey from euphoria to despair and back again — that honest circumspection feels like a luxury reserved for later days, when they’re grown and gone and neck deep with kids of their own. (Grandparenting, I’m assured, is what you really look forward to.)
So, prepare to have heartstrings tugged at in “To Begin Again: Artists and Childhood,” which just opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art. It’s hard to imagine a more relatable theme. Even if you don’t have any kids, you’ve been one, and that means everything in this show — and I mean everything — is relevant to you in one way or another, whoever you are.
For more than a century, children have been the center of gravity around which our society revolves, their roles transformed from extra hands on the farm or in the factory to, as Jordan suggests, gleaming beacons of the future. That comes with heavy baggage. Current culture wars have put kids at the center, like a prize to be won. Amid book banning and school curriculum sanitization, there’s been so much rancor about what children should know and learn and be, they hardly have a chance to become. That’s as backward as it gets.
“To Begin Again” is a reminder: The current rancor is nothing new, despite persistent idealizations of childhood to the contrary that neglect the lived reality of a kid’s day to day. Across six discreet chapters, 70 pieces and dozens of artists explore the see-saw rhythms of frustration, fear, pride, and joy inherent in childhood and parenting both.
Tau Lewis sets the tone just inside the show’s entrance with “Untitled (play dumb to catch wise),” 2017, ragged and forlorn. A kid-size figure perched amid dolls and stuffed animals on a rocking chair, it’s finished with a plaster cast of Lewis’s own face. Pieced together, with clothes stitched from Lewis’s childhood garments, the diminutive figure is impassive, maybe a little broken; it feels glum and unsoothed despite the standard trappings of kid-dom. To make it, Lewis backtracked her own memories and found a story apart from the storybook narrative of childhood bliss. In its stead are ambiguity and doubt, a feature of human experience at any age.
That standard is delicately picked apart throughout the exhibition’s first gallery (called “Among Children”), eerily full of kids frozen in place. The scale, which is human, unnerves; the little girl in Duane Hanson’s “Child with Puzzle,” 1978, feels transported directly from a suburban rec room. The biggest and most boisterous piece is “Homage to the People of the Bronx: Double Dutch at Kelly Street — La Freeda, Jevette, Towana, Staice,” 1981-82, by John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres. Four ebullient Black girls — plaster casts of real kids in the artists’ Bronx neighborhood — are embedded in the wall, jumping rope, a surreal and unsettling artifice of joy.
The larger question here is about agency, always at issue when children are portrayed by adults, where consent is given — or just taken — as a matter of course in the child-grown-up hierarchy. There’s another story behind the piece, eloquently told in Jane Kramer’s “Whose Art Is It?” Her 1994 book, about Ahearn’s practice of casting much of his work using his Black and Latino neighbors near his Bronx studio, stirred all kinds of questions about appropriation, and even exploitation. A white artist, Ahearn built a very successful career from the work, with his subjects’ consent, but the benefit was largely his. Torres, his longtime studio collaborator, has been named as a coauthor of much of the work only recently. Bringing the piece here re-ups old issues that have fresh currency.
Next to Lewis’s work is Karon Davis’s “Pattycakes,” 2022, a pair of tweenish girl figures sitting cross-legged on the floor. Dripping with pale, plastered strips of cloth, they have a rough and unfinished air — because really, what kid doesn’t? And isn’t that the point?
Looming at the far end of the gallery is an outsize sentinel by Charles Ray of what I‘d guess is an 11-year-old boy (because I have one) with the same intentions conveyed by very different means. Ray gives the 2014 piece, “School Play,” the heroic weight of classical sculpture — the toga swathed around the boy’s shoulders surely helps — with a chilly steel sheen. For all the precise drape of fabric, the face is soft and de-featured, a material representation of everything about childhood that’s unsure and unfolding, yet to harden into permanence.
Curators Jeffrey De Blois and Ruth Erickson have portioned the show into chapters that toggle smoothly from playful to profound. Connections echo between them; the second gallery, “Draw Like a Child,” shifts from art about children to works by them, a natural follow. It might sound twee and fetishy; it’s anything but. Both Picasso and Kandinsky, proto-Modernists, were obsessive collectors of kids’ art, part of their own fetishization of “primitivism,” a patronizing notion that imagined a primal aesthetic buried deep in every human mind, still alive and untainted only in tribal cultures and, apparently, children.
Neither turn up here, I’d guess for that reason. But Paul Klee does, a welcome surprise, with “Hot Pursuit,” 1939, with its pair of stick figures embedded in a hectic array of mark-making. More importantly, the museum has on view some of Klee’s own childhood drawings, which he kept all his life; they’re shown alongside puppets Klee made for his son Felix. Upon seeing them, I was definitely not moved to tears right there in front of everyone. Nope. Not one bit.
Anyway, the Klee display is completely absent the patronizing lens of his high-Modern contemporaries; for him, art was a common language across generations. The spirit of Klee’s engagement is tightly knit to the work of Brian Belott, who worked with the Rhoda Kellogg International Child Art Collection to create forgeries of kids’ paintings and drawings, which he affectionately calls “failures.”
Kellogg, who was a pioneering early childhood scholar, developed an analysis of children’s art across cultures suggesting their graphic sense evolved at the same rate and in much the same way (with close to a million pieces in her collection, she’d know). The futility of Belott’s task is the point, lovingly made: There is no path back. In his installation “Dr. Kid President Jr.,” 2022, his message is conveyed with a bright-eyed wistfulness: His “failures” are pinned to a banana-yellow wallpaper festooned with Kellogg’s scribble diagrams mixed with his grown-up doodles.
“To Begin Again” sprawls from darkness to light and back again so often that its irregular rhythms feel something like, well, life. Erickson said something to me that echoed strongly: There are as many childhoods as there are children, though there are synergies to be found.
Trenton Doyle Hancock’s childhood drawings of Torpedo Boy, his childhood superhero alter-ego who evolved into his grown-up artist’s main protagonist, says plenty about how children find portals into fantasy worlds when reality is either too bland or threatening to live in exclusively. That he’s matched up here with one of the astonishing two-sided watercolor scroll paintings by Henry Darger is a little bit of perfection to savor. Darger’s painting depicts one of the many chapters of his saga of childhood rebellion starring the Vivian Girls, leaders of an enslaved-child revolt. Darger, who was a hermetic Chicago custodian, spent decades building his fantasy world. A victim of childhood trauma, he had kept secret hundreds of paintings and drawings, and thousands of pages of writings in his tiny apartment. They were discovered after lingering effects of an accident forced him into a nursing home in 1972. He died the next year, at 81.
What I might love most about “To Begin Again” is how it ends: With Oscar Murillo’s “Frequencies,” a long-running project where the artist wraps school desks in canvas, returning months later to see what the kids left behind. The project started in 2013, at his own school in Colombia, and blossomed to 350 schools in 30 countries, which have yielded 40,000 drawings accrued through the happenstance collaboration of whoever happens to sit there. You don’t need to be multilingual to catch the vibe: Piled up in stacks here, they’re wildly different, but united in ebullient silliness — scribblings and doodles of superheroes, sports teams, balloon letters; one sketch, of a terminally bored kid fixed to his desk, made me laugh out loud.
Is it too simple a conclusion to draw that through hardship or privilege, kids are kids, wherever they are? Undoubtedly, but I’m going to go with it. Goofing off when the opportunity presents itself is a high ideal worth remembering, especially as childhood fades.
TO BEGIN AGAIN: ARTISTS AND CHILDHOOD
At Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 25 Harbor Shore Drive. Through Feb. 26. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org