Over the course of three decades, beginning in the late 1940s, the Bay Area psychologist and nursery school director Rhoda Kellogg collected more than one million pieces of art made by children living all around the world. Last winter, the artist Brian Belott, who is a longtime Kellogg fan, finally found himself at the storage site in Connecticut where her vast archive was moved following her death, in 1987, at the age of 89.
“When I got to the collection, it was kind of like—I can only imagine what it was like when Cortés saw the City of Gold, or when you hear people go mad over gold hunting,” Belott told me excitedly one afternoon last week. “I went nuts. I’m obsessed. And obviously she was obsessed. Her obsession has resonated with me, and I’ve just gone goofy for kids’ art. I can’t stop.”
Belott has plowed his long-running love for young people’s art, and for Kellogg (he began snapping up her books on how children make art on eBay years ago), into “Dr. Kid President Jr.,” an exuberant and heartening exhibition in a cavernous gallery at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in Harlem, where we met up for an interview.
“I wanted to make a church to children’s art, and the space is so large I didn’t want to hang the stuff in a polite manner,” Belott said, as he motioned to the action-packed walls, which feature pieces from Kellogg’s collection, his own copies of pieces that she acquired (“devotional paintings,” he termed them), and a large reverse-glass tondo painting based on a chart that she made showing how simple symbols later develop into recognizable figures in children’s art (“a rose window”). There is also an art classroom (“the holy spirit”) that kids from neighborhood schools have been using while working with artists like Sam Moyer, Eddie Martinez, Chloe Wise, and Raúl de Nieves, as well as Belott. Over the past two months, the space has been been growing more and more dense as student art has gone on display.
Belott is a youthful 44, with a bushy head of hair (which, it must be noted, he once set ablaze for a characteristically absurd video), and he speaks with an earnestness that barely conceals a current of zaniness running underneath his thoughts. He suggests a high school science teacher who keeps it together during the day but who always seems to be cooking up a weird experiment in the lab after hours and who plays in a free jazz band some weekends. Taking me around the show, he rattled off where works in Kellogg’s collection were made (“India, an orphanage in Tibet, this is from Switzerland in the ‘50s, this is from Japan, Egypt”) and marveled at marker and crayon drawings, collages, tempera self-portraits, and prints made by kids from the area.
“Isn’t this crazy?” Belott said as he went from work to work. “Aren’t they amazing?” A bright green and yellow octopus-like figure against a purple background caught his eye, and a fox-like animal made with a circle divided into blue and orange segments, hovering in a vortex of stripes. He crouched down to a difficult-to-decipher drawing—a landscape of houses with faces, perhaps—that its young creator had covered quickly with thick, rough dots of paint, and recalled how it came together. “This class was particularly rambunctious, as you can tell!” he said. “Look at that! Bang! Bang! Bang!”
Paints and brushes, crayons and markers were arrayed on tables. “One thing I really, really love is that in this classroom the kids are not surrounded by these legends who are up on high,” Belott said. There are no posters of “Michelangelo, Escher, Dalí. There’s stuff made by them. They’re surrounded by their own work.”
As we toured the show, speakers played recordings of children talking, laughing, gurgling, and making all sorts of other nonsense noises—a roughly two-hour compilation that Belott and the artist Billy Grant spliced together from scavenged tapes. When Brown proposed playing the sound piece in the show, Belott said he told the dealer, “I think that after a while your staff may go nuts.” Brown, however, insisted that it would be alright.
Like Kellogg, Belott is also inveterate collector, and his Brooklyn studio overflows with his finds, which include thousands of photographs that he has picked up at yard sales, as well as rocks, records, and dollar-store items, like calculators, fans, cotton balls, and remote controls, all of which he has been stuffing into his paintings in recent years. He has made about five trips to Kellogg’s archives, and he plans to make more. (GBE has printed an unpublished volume by Kellogg that Belott found in storage.)
Belott is fascinated by the way in which she conducted her research, cataloguing marks and copying them herself when she needed to reproduce them for books. “What she found is that, in a kind of Joseph Campbell kind of way, no matter where you are on the globe, kids are making the same art,” Belott said. As they get socialized, that changes, but “she showed that we all start as one family,” he added.
In some works in the show, Kellogg sliced out drawings by the children and mounted them on colored construction paper. “You see this ultra-sophisticated adoration of the scribble, of the seemingly nonsensical thing,” Belott said as he marveled at a line dashed in crayon. “And the fact is that what you’re seeing here is a collaboration between a teacher-philosopher and a two-year-old.” Many of the sparest drawings that Kellogg collected have the look of ultra-elegant contemporary art. “If Cy Twombly was alive, he would lose his mind, you know?” Belott said. “Someone like Richard Tuttle would lose his mind!”
“Dr. Kid President Jr.” runs through this Saturday, July 1, and will conclude with a party for the childrenwho have been using the classroom and hanging their art, which they will pick up and bring home. “I’m going to be really sad to see it go,” Belott said, wistfully, of what he has come to term “the most priceless worthless collection.”
Often, Belott noted, as kids grow up, their art is filed away, discovered only when a parent is packing up for a move. Then it typically ends up being discarded. “But if it winds up being thrown out, then it’s kind of like the class is worthless, the teacher is worthless, the action is worthless,” he said. “And not only in this regime is education, you know, getting threatened, but art education is an intensely endangered species. So I feel like this exhibition is important to keep pumping the life into why it’s important.”
Even as children’s art is regularly treated as disposable, Belott pointed out, “so much of modernism has spent its time digesting it.” It has inspired countless artists, and dealers have occasionally even gotten into the game. Alfred Stieglitz showed very young artists’ work at his 291 gallery in New York in the 1910s, and Walter Hopps presented it at Syndell Studio, his pre-Ferus gallery in Los Angeles in the 1950s.
A huge garage door opens the show onto the street and as we talked passersby strolled in and asked what was going on. Belott darted off to fill them in, and some said they would return with children to use the classroom. “We also don’t stop the adult children that come in,” Belott said. “I remember one Saturday we were closing at 7 and there were these two bodybuilders painting away. And I was like OK, your inner child! Go for it!”
Though GBE has shown Belott’s work at some art fairs, this is his first proper show at the gallery, and he said that some of his friends questioned his decision to devote it to a show of children’s art. “No, dude. Listen. This is a beautiful thing,” he said that he told them. “Kids art, I just feel like it’s an unstoppable force, you know? It’s being made as we speak somewhere around the globe. And kids won’t be stopped.
“And they won’t be stopped by their lack of knowledge or life experience, you know? And I don’t know if that really matters. And maybe that’s what’s so unnerving. The kids don’t have life experience and yet they are little Buddhas when they pop out of their moms.” He was walking from drawing to drawing again, taking it in. “It’s actually kind of threatening that life experience could mean nothing after a certain point,” he said, happily. “A fresh loaf of bread could actually have a vision and a clarity that an adult doesn’t.”