Artists and Childhood at ICA Boston

On October 6, 2022, the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA) opens To Begin Again: Artists and Childhood, the first thematic group exhibition in the U.S. to explore the influence of children and childhood on the practice of visual artists. Years in the making, this groundbreaking exhibition examines how childhood is an important yet undervalued subject in the history of art. It begins with the observation that artists have long been inspired by children—by their imagination, creativity, and unique ways of seeing and being in the world—and explores how artists grapple with timely issues of creativity, risk, power, care, labor, and learning through their engagement with childhood.

Featuring 40 artists—including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Deborah Roberts, Glenn Ligon, and Faith RinggoldTo Begin Again: Artists and Childhood is comprised of more than 75 artworks, including painting, sculpture, photography, installation, video, and over 20 works made by young people. Using unique exhibition design and didactics, the exhibition brings awareness to the range of ways that different people experience art in museums. To Begin Again is organized by Ruth Erickson, Mannion Family Senior Curator, with Jeffrey De Blois, Associate Curator and Publications Manager, and will be on view October 6, 2022 through February 26, 2023

“This is an exciting exhibition with a range of art that explores the influence of children on visual artists from Paul Klee and Jean-Michel Basquiat to Jordan Casteel and Sable Elyse Smith. Presenting a diverse array of artworks spanning time, geography, generations, and cultures, To Begin Again crafts an important narrative about modernism, innocence, and the institutional structures surrounding childhood,” Jill Medvedow, the ICA’s Ellen Matilda Poss Director, said. “Through focused approaches to accessibility and design—including tiered reading levels, lower hanging heights, interactive drawing and reading spaces, and special programs—the exhibition highlights the museum as an intergenerational gathering place, where visitors of all ages and backgrounds can enjoy the critical pleasures of art, learning, and reflection together.”

Henry Darger, Ekua Holmes and Mary Kelly also feature in the artists and childhood exhibition.

“The artworks in To Begin Again demonstrate how artists have reflected on and contributed to notions of childhood: they may depict children or involve them as collaborators, represent or mimic their ways of drawing or telling stories, highlight their unique cultures, or negotiate ideas of innocence and spontaneity associated with young people,” said Erickson.

Though artists have been inspired by children for millennia, the works in To Begin Again: Artists and Childhood offer distinctive viewpoints and experiences, revealing how time and place, economics and race, and representation and aesthetics fundamentally shape how we experience and understand childhood. Themes explored in the exhibition include representing childhood, drawing and the creative capacities of children, books and storytelling, dynamics of power, caretaking, and forms of learning. 

To Begin Again includes historical and contemporary artwork made by young people from across the globe, in different configurations. The exhibition underscores that while there is no single, uniform idea of childhood, it is nevertheless the ground upon which so much of society is built, negotiated, and imagined.

To Begin Again features several recently commissioned works and unique iterations of existing projects. Brian Belott’s newly reimagined installation Dr. Kid President Jr. (2022) includes selections from the massive collection of children’s art assembled by the early childhood educator and psychologist Rhoda Kellogg and his own “failed” copies of the children’s art, staging a dialogue that invites closer reflection on the aesthetic and communicative qualities of children’s drawings and mark-making. Carmen Winant’s new large-scale installation What it is like to be (2022) assembles more than 300 instructional books intended for young people on a wide variety of subjects, from geography to ceramics. Her project traces the capacity of books and their images to travel, to teach outside of language, and to have unintended lives.

Oscar Murillo’s Frequencies project (2013–ongoing) totals more than 40,000 canvases, each made by installing a blank canvas on a classroom desk and leaving it in place for a few months. Described by Murillo and his collaborators as inserting a free space for self-expression into the school, the installations have taken place in more than 30 countries throughout the world, generating a vast collection that registers the presence and creativity of students. In To Begin Again, this iteration of Frequencies includes a collaboration with members of the ICA’s Teen Arts Council, who selected canvases from the archive which will be presented on a video monitor within Murillo’s installation.

The exhibition is divided into six thematic sections: “Among Children,” “Draw Like a Child,” “The Page Is a World,” “Born into Being,” “Gestures of Care,” and “After School.”

Among Children

Sculptors today have employed the child figure to generate representations of childhood in rich and varied ways, registering experiences of joy, play, creativity, vulnerability, and resilience that reinvent centuries-old forms and motifs. Conjuring the presence of children and their interior lives, the sculptures included in this section stage encounters between the viewer and the child figure. They negotiate the power of scale and perception, and they become containers for hopes, beliefs, fears, and ideas about humanity. This section includes artworks by John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres, Karon Davis, Duane Hanson, Tau Lewis, Berenice Olmedo, and Charles Ray.

Draw Like a Child

Artists have long sought to imitate, incorporate, or investigate “child-like” drawings in their own work. Children’s evolving ability to communicate is a fundamental aspect of their development, and within this uneven process, contemporary artists have discovered immense potential for invention and collaboration. Capturing an enduring interest in the expressive and creative capacities of children, this section features artworks by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Brian Belott, Allan Rohan Crite, Mary Kelly, Paul Klee, Helen Levitt, Glenn Ligon, Rivane Neuenschwander, and Sable Elyse Smith. Visitors are invited to make their own drawings at an interactive drawing table included in this section.

The Page Is a World

Just as books shape the lives of children, the vast world of children’s literature has also affected artists. Since the twentieth century, illustrated books intended for young people have offered platforms to innovatively explore relationships between word and image, and provided source material for artists to articulate their own novel visions and worlds. The page has offered artists and children a tremendously rich space for reflecting the world and imagining it anew.

This section features works by Henry Darger, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Ekua Holmes, Faith Ringgold, Rachel Rose, and Becky Suss, as well as an interactive reading room—developed in conversation with librarians from Boston Public Schools, Boston Public Library, and a children’s book author—that will invite visitors of all ages to explore the world of children’s literature as a site of significant artistic production.

Born into Being

Dynamics of power—and attendant issues of disenfranchisement and agency—shape the experiences of children from the moment of their birth. Those dynamics are sometimes apparent, but at other times and in other places, they are invisible yet inform conceptions of childhood. This section includes artworks by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Robert Gober, Mona Hatoum, Sharon Hayes, Deborah Roberts, Heji Shin, and Sable Elyse Smith. These artists give form to the complex processes of becoming, attending to the structures that empower and marginalize young people.

Gestures of Care

Numerous artists reflect on the practical and intangible needs of children and the many individuals who meet those needs, often with an extended hand or a warm embrace. This section considers the figure of the mother in dialogue with fathers, siblings, peers, and domestic workers, highlighting questions of labor and visibility. Featuring artworks by Ann Agee, Jordan Casteel, Lenka Clayton, Ramiro Gomez (now Jay Lynn Gomez), Justine Kurland, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and Cathy Wilkes, this section invites us to reconsider caretaking as an act shared in communion rather than the labor of an individual.

After School

Models of learning sometimes appear at the margins of institutions and sanctioned structures, and often involve the imagination of artists and children collaborating. The distinct projects in this section of the exhibition illuminate unexpected paths of learning and the unique competencies of children and artists in navigating them. They also reveal the breadth of expression, play, and knowledge generated by and for children, reminding us that there are as many childhoods as there are children. This section includes artworks by Francis Alÿs, Oscar Murillo, Tim Rollins and K.O.S., and Carmen Winant.

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