Take a Sip From the Fountain of “Eternal Youth”

Photo: Larry Clark American, b. 1943 Untitled (KIDS) 1995 Chromogenic development print 16 × 20 in. (40.6 × 50.8 cm) Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago Gift from The Howard and Donna Stone Collection 2002.16.8 Photo: Michal Raz-Russo, © MCA Chicago (detail).

When Larry Clark released Kids in 1995, he set the silver screen ablaze with his vision of New York City youth as it tore itself apart through sex, drugs, and manipulation. He thrust a new cast of characters onto the world stage, taking us through a day in the life of a group of kids who embodied a combination of sexual precociousness and racial dysmorphia.

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Kids was designed to wreak havoc and cause fright, playing with paranoid fears of HIV in a new generation of adolescents coming up just a few years after the disease had decimated a generation right before their eyes. In the ‘80s and ‘90s sex did not create life; it created a death sentence from which there was no recourse at that time. In light of this apocalyptic vibe, the film embodied fully embodied the nihilistic existentialist crisis of the times. Not surprisingly, not everyone in the cast survived. Two of the film’s biggest stars Justin Pierce and Harold Hunter would die young—while Chloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson would go on to become Hollywood stars.

In many ways, Kids embodies the metaphor of American youth, of the perils of faux sophistication combined with a rebellious attitude and a sense of entitlement that makes adolescence an interminable period in many people’s lives. In the words of Maya Angelou, “Most people don’t grow up. Most people age. They find parking spaces, honor their credit cards, get married, have children, and call that maturity. What that is, is aging.”

Is it any wonder Americans have been obsessed with the fountain of youth for nearly five centuries? It’s not simply that youth is full of beauty and energy; it is a time of promise, of possibility, of any number of choose-your-own-adventure stories. Youth is the crossroads between who you are and who you will become, a time where you know very little about the ways of the world and are filled with idealism, nerve, and hope.

In celebration of this period of life, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago presents Eternal Youth, a photographic survey curated by Omar Kholeif, Manilow Senior Curator, with Grace Deveney, Curatorial Assistant, on view now through July 23, 2017. Presenting a selection of works by Larry Clark, Dawoud Bey, Mona Hatoum, Thomas Hirschhorn, Jack Pierson, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Francesca Woodman, the exhibition looks at issues teens face during their coming-of-age.

Eternal Youth looks at the spaces where desire and fear meet, exploring the social, political, and cultural spaces that teens have navigated since the 1990s. Here we can consider this curious period of confidence and insecurity, of pushing against social constraints in a way that is both innocent and knowing. Perhaps the greatest take away is the fact that no matter what befalls each generation there will always be another in its wake, ready to pick up the mantle and press forth, to challenge the status quo and redefine the world.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.