We all have a little hoarder in us. Some more than others. Or maybe you have that weird friend who just won’t throw stuff away, and you wonder when someone is inevitably going to mistake his detritus for an art installation. Well, there’s now something for everyone at the New Museum. Its newest show, The Keeper, is an astounding assortment of collections amassed by artists, scholars, conspiracy theorists, survivors, weirdos, and everyday folk alike.
The show, which has over 4,000 objects spanning almost every floor of the museum, has the largest amount of items in the museum’s history. It’s a collection of collections, a hoard of hoards, a love letter to devotion. Similar to how many of the collections exhibited took years or decades to gather, curator Massimiliano Gioni has spent years on The Keeper; Lisa Phillips, the museum’s director, calls the show his “lifelong obsession.”
Some, like French theorist Roger Caillois’s massive and gleaming rock collection or Wilson Bentley’s historic microscope photographs of snowflakes, are more scientific, revealing how cataloguing something almost obsessively can both make an aesthetically interesting product and contribute to the documentation of the natural world. Anthropologist and artist Susan Hiller’s audio documentary of extinct and endangered languages creates a chilling narrative of societies and communities, not always aware the words in their mouths may not be understood in the future.
Others are both unusual and ordinary, like Arthur Bispo do Rosário’s ragtag-looking tapestries, made over the course of 50 years in a mental institution in preparation for Judgement Day. The childlike pieces are made of soft, faded cloth clumsily stitched together, or cardboard covered in unrefined scrawl, or a toddler’s forgotten toys, plastic and worn down. They have these qualities presumably not for some grand purpose, but because Rosário was working with items like forgotten clothing and blue thread unraveled from hospital uniforms.
Yuji Agematsu creates small gift bags of sorts, if you consider a gift a small collection of stuff picked off the street, like hair (a lot of hair), used gum, sequins, and a chicken foot. The line of miniature cellophane displays began and ended with small field notebooks, where the artist jotted down details about the trash and the locations where he found it. They bore a satisfying similarity to the small notebooks nearly every journalist surrounding me also held, and for a moment I imagined someone devilishly switching them out.
Though populated with more ordinary found items, the institutional atmosphere inherent in museums is still quite present here, despite many of the displays looking more like a friend’s cherished collection of knickknacks than a formal exhibit. Security guards still linger, forbidding photos when they have been told it is necessary (in this case, the forbidden zone was Vladimir Nabokov’s series of studies examining butterfly wings, which I found to be a nice parallel to the taboo nature of Nabokov’s most well-known work, Lolita.)
Another unique aspect of The Keeper is its ability to make the museum’s wall placards into a more direct part of the show. In some (most) shows, the placards only serve to espouse art world jargon only a couple of people might care about. In The Keeper, they should be required reading.
If one were to skip the placards, they would perhaps assume everyone who earned a spot in the exhibit identifies formally as an artist, as having work in a museum usually means such. This is the case with most of them, but not all, such as those who maintained more scientific collections. Some are artists who work mostly in other mediums but kept up odd side practices, like writer Nabokov’s butterfly drawings or artist Shinro Ohtake’s countless neon colored scrapbooks, bulging as if they’ve been waterlogged but with bright magazine clippings and train tickets instead of liquid.
Without any context, the works on display just look like art. Sometimes that’s compelling enough, but all of these people collect and create for a reason. Looking at Hilma af Klint’s large paintings, I found them immensely beautiful, all with soft textures, entrancing colors, and patterns reminiscent of a mixture of astrology, genetics, geometry, and psychedelica. Then, I learned that she became interested in spiritualism and the occult after her sister died and passionately created esoteric paintings. However, she insisted her works be hidden from the public until twenty years after her death, a private collection only recently unveiled.
Another question The Keeper raises is why we hold onto items and attach value onto the ordinary, especially when the ordinary exists in multiples. The exhibit argues this desire can largely stem from trauma or unrest; those who experience loss feel compelled to surround themselves with the tangible, to put their mark on the world before it or they disappear. For instance, Vanda Vieira-Schmidt created hundreds of drawings each day in a fierce attempt to counteract the demonic messengers she believed had been sent to Earth to destroy it. The curator tells us that the show “could be described as a series of imaginary museums piled onto each other, or a series of cemeteries where individuals have preserved images that were in danger or threatened.”
A significant portion of the show is created by people or artists who have experienced the Holocaust; one of the most chilling displays is a selection of drawings from a sketchbook that is the only substantial visual record of the Auschwitz camp. At first glance, the drawings look almost everyday, until you notice the man on a roasting spit or the skeleton that is not a skeleton at all but rather an emaciated man.
Again, context is an important and often poignant factor here. Korbinian Aiger’s many paintings of apples and pears look like pleasant still lives at first, but a bit of reading reveals that he was an antifascist sentenced to forced labor at the Dachau concentration camp in 1939, where he elected to work in agriculture and meticulously documented the literal fruits of his labor there. Hannelore Baron’s found object wooden box assemblages look like they’ve experienced wear and tear because her family and their shop experienced the trauma of Kristallnacht, and Baron considered worn or splintered items items that have survived and prevailed.
Ydessa Hendeles is a child of Auschwitz survivors and calls her work,Partners (The Teddy Bear Project), “a post-Holocaust document.” Her installation of 3,000 portraits of people with teddy bears accompanied by related paraphernalia, is called the “centerpiece” of the exhibition–but that’s almost doing it a disservice. It is astonishing in its spread, filling nearly every inch of two floors in two rooms. It was one of the last displays I saw on my visit. I was getting a little tired of painstakingly examining art, and had nearly forgotten about the behemoth collection that drew me to this show in the first place.
Its size creates multiple ways to experience it; you can take it in as one large entity, you can examine each face and detail in each photo if you have a large amount of time to spend, you can focus on the display cases with various stuffed bears in various states of old age and handwritten cards. You could do it all, if you wanted. And you very well may: the moment I walked into the room, I had a visceral response, even getting sort of teary-eyed at the sheer scale of it all. I never even had a teddy bear as a child, but witnessing someone care about something so much that they’d create such a massive display was jarring.
Someone with a stuffed toy is not by any means spectacular, but the installation really gives sight to just how many people treasure the same objects, whether they be Nazis, buxom women, or smiling children. Curator Massimiliano Gioni writes in the exhibit’s program that the subtle differences in the portraits reveal “the quest for originality and individuality that seems to be the ultimate goal of every human life translated into an image. But in these codified repetitions and poses we can also glimpse the drama and bliss that may ultimately lie at the root of human nature: the desperate need to be unique and extraordinary, and the realization—both harsh and comforting—that we are, in fact, just like everybody else.” Harsh and comforting indeed.
It’s not all heavy and emotional; there are some chuckles here and there, like Henrik Olesen’s Some Gay-Lesbian Artists and/or Artists relevant to Homo-Social Culture Born between c.1300–1870, a science fair-esque ode to exposing queerness in art history. Consisting of large wooden stands covered with handwritten labels and printed white paper with glued-on photos, it breaks down the history of queerness through the lens of art. Categories like “Some Faggy Gestures,” “Paris Femmes,” and “Monsters and Sodomites” are plastered with old paintings and historical factoids, revealing a humorous but real commitment to reframe these works and make visible interpretations that were most likely skipped over in most high school art classes.
In total, the exhibition is massive, spanning three full floors and the lobby’s gallery. I only am able to describe a smattering of the works on view. Subsequently, experiencing it all is exhausting, and it may be wiser to make two trips in order to view everything with a fresh eye. I found myself getting weary at times and paying less attention to the works, but was always revitalized by something that took me by surprise, something that wasn’t what it seemed.
This physical and mental exhaustion that comes with devoting time and focus to inspecting so many objects in a way mirrors the devotion inherent in keeping up a collection. You may be tired from looking, but imagine the energy it took to care about something so much to gather it in droves or display it en masse. So collect your thoughts, collect your friends, and get to it.