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Plato’s Retreat

Contemporary art is reflexively cynical. But a cynic is nothing without a utopian ideal.

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I n its contemporary galleries, MoMA has put on view Untitled (Paperbacks), an installation by the British sculptor Rachel Whiteread. The room contains the plaster cast of a library interior—a ghostly imprint, or negative, of a roomful of books. It appears hollow but filled with echoes, barren but warmed by memory. In this room, the empty seems to dream of the full, the surface of the interior, the silent of the written. Whiteread has made similar casts of other places (including a room that evokes her childhood home) and they, too, appear haunted by the lost positive.

Paperbacks has become a private symbol of mine. It seems to embody the way, increasingly, I experience contemporary art. What isn’t there captivates me. Steps away from the Whiteread is a new pair of installations by Josiah McElheny that addresses the utopian dreams of the early twentieth century. Alpine Cathedral and City-Crown are two models of glistening glass buildings illuminated by changing colored lights. In provocative and subtle ways, McElheny’s piece renders the place of utopian thought in our culture. He has a certain detachment: Utopian thought is not, today, viscerally at hand. (His models date back to the work of the early-twentieth-century utopians Paul Scheerbart and Bruno Taut.) He compares and contrasts—utopians long for either the mountaintop or the city—and conveys the ineffable nature of dreams. The models melt and shift in the eye.

What’s not there? When I first heard about McElheny’s glass piece, I had imagined a visionary installation. An enveloping work of art. I was naïve: That future belongs to the past. For good reasons, among them the disasters that visionaries have recently visited upon the world, utopian convictions today rarely claim strong Western minds. McElheny’s work is instead finely, thoughtfully, filtered. It’s about, not of, Utopia. A meditation, not a passion. But it left me with a desire for the true Platonic fire—for what was missing. And so, upstairs at MoMA, I visited the great Russian visionary Kazimir Malevich, whose airy pictures appear so roughhewn and evanescently there.

T he Guggenheim’s “Family Pictures” is a small new show of photographs and videos about families and children—the artists range from Robert Mapplethorpe to Rineke Dijkstra—that also made me look for what’s not there. The title evokes the sentimental snapshots that rest on every American mantel. I knew what to expect: snakes in the family garden. At the start of Nathalie Djurberg’s video, for example, a jolly puppetlike man is playing with dollish girls as a cheerful ditty sounds. (Uh-oh.) After he paddles their bottoms, the girls clobber Dad with a bat. In Anna Gaskell’s work, a child who looks like Alice does not appear to survive Wonderland. And, of course, Mapplethorpe and Sally Mann famously eroticize children.

Art and literature have always explored the primal difficulties of family. In that respect, nothing’s wrong and much is right with “Family Pictures.” What’s often missing is a powerful counterpoint to the clichés of contemporary despair. You must love childhood’s promise —also imbued with Platonic ideals—to destroy it with imaginative power. You must know paradise to lose it well. Something too easily won sent me into the Guggenheim’s show of Spanish painting, where family is nothing if not knotty. And yet, several photographs called me back. One was Catherine Opie’s Self-Portrait/Nursing, an image of fierce physical vitality in which the heavyset and tattooed artist clasps an exquisite blond child to her breast. The image is psychologically rich, at once brazen and tender. Madonna-and-child is beauty-and-beast. For a moment, I could escape the echoes in Whiteread’s library.

Untitled (Paperbacks), Rachel Whiteread and Projects 84: Josiah McElheny
The Museum of Modern Art. Through April 9.

Family Pictures
Guggenheim Museum. Through April 16.


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