Findings in Cleveland

I’ve had a lingering obsession with the idea that literature and art have at least one obvious function in the modern world. That function is to try and retrieve and make sense of memory and past experience. The obvious great-granddaddy of this tendency in modern art and literature is Marcel Proust. But, interestingly enough, painting has continued to play a quiet if important role in dealing with memory and experience as regards the 20th century. For example, some of the paintings of of Gerhard Richter are, arguably, more powerful attempts to deal with the traumatic history of Germany in the 20th century than just about anything one can point to in prose or any other medium (some nod should probably be given here, though, to the poetic works of Paul Celan.
This week, I had the pleasant experience of running, purely accidentally, into an artist who is clearly a major figure in precisely this project. I happened to wander into the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland. There, I discovered a painter I was shocked never to have heard of before. His paintings were an attempt to reconcile social realism with the abstraction of the Soviet Suprematists. The works, painted in the 20s, were out of time and yet timely as hell, and disconcertingly so. They were painted by Charles Rosenthal. Only at the end of the exhibit did I learn, by finally reading the exhibition pamphlet, that Charles Rosenthal is a fictional artist, created by the contemporary artist Ilya Kabakov. The entire exhibition of works by both Rosenthal and a double fictional version of Kabakov himself, also named Ilya Kabakov, was a grand installation by the artist.
The exhibit is one of the most profound reflections on the dilemmas of the 20th century, aesthetical, political, historical, and experiential, that I have come across in quite some time. If you’re in Cleveland between now and January 2nd I recommend stopping by.