The Keeperby Jason Rosenfeld
NEW MUSEUM | JULY 20 – SEPTEMBER 25, 2016
New York’s most important exhibiting institution without its own permanent collection is at present featuring a remarkably stimulating show about the act of collection and preservation. The Keeper, deftly curated by an in-house team of Massimiliano Gioni, Natalie Bell, Helga Christoffersen, and Margot Norton, with its absorbing text panels and catalogue, turns SANAA architects’ irregularly stacked aluminum mesh boxes on the Bowery into a temporary cabinet of curiosities. It is a show that demands close reading and concerted looking, while encouraging deep empathy. Everyone collects something. The Keeper has opened a window into this basic human drive, and leaves you both wanting to see more of such compulsive stockpiling while simultaneously thinking there really should be an institution solely devoted to the focused documentation of such practices.
The twenty-nine installations form not a one-dimensional display of collections, but rather a history of the collectors themselves—either those who accumulated or those who sought to preserve and protect the impulses of others. In the lobby, Arthur Bispo do Rosário’s (ca. 1909 – 89) bric-a-brac sculptural constructions, made while confined to a psychiatric institution in Rio de Janeiro for fifty years, display a kind of borderline outsider art, representing the products of an original mind. And Mario Del Curto’s (b. 1955) photographs of Richard Greaves’s (b. 1952) curious and slowly deteriorating architectural follies in the backwoods of Quebec represent the kind of collaboration that is so essential to telling these personal histories.
Throughout, the text panels are extensive and essential. Howard Fried’s (b. 1946) The Decomposition of My Mother’s Wardrobe (2014 – 15)—an array of brightly colored garments hanging on four industrial pipes above shoes and handbags in an illuminated vitrine—is like a show of the borderline tawdry in a Costume Institute in which, per the title, the fibers and materials will inevitably decay. But the text reveals that the artist’s intentions are more generous, performative, inclusive, and intricate. Fried’s mother died in 2002, and in this project he initially displayed and then distributed articles from her closet to interested members of the art world; the plan now is for people to fill out an online survey, select an item to be photographed in, then wear it to an event organized by Fried. The wardrobe decomposes in terms of being deaccessioned: in a moving way the artist has managed to maintain his mother’s presence in the world.
Many of the works just flat out delight, such as Levi Fisher Ames’s (1843 – 1923) valises containing real and imagined animals whittled from basswood and displayed in small valises that he trucked around the Midwest, telling tall tales at sideshows of their purported exploits. Hilma af Klint’s (1862 – 1944) gorgeous suite of sixteen large, ebullient abstract oil paintings externalize a private mythology, and remained unseen until two decades after her death. A selection of 126 model houses by Peter Fritz, procured from a junk shop by Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser, represent less than half of the full collection of constructed domiciles crafted by this Viennese insurance clerk. While recognizably modeled in an Austrian vernacular, they are neither real structures, nor buildable architectural plans; Fritz made them from some inner need. The Japanese artist Yuji Agematsu (b. 1956) has lent a selection of his trademark flotsam and jetsam amassed through his perambulations around New York in 2014. Agematsu meticulously arranges the materials in the cellophane wrapping from cigarette packs creating miniature terraria of urban debris. Arranged on a shelf that ribbons along two sides of a gallery along with notebooks that records his peregrinations, they combine Kurt Schwitters’s (1887 – 1948) accumulative impulse with the diaristic approach of On Kawara (1932 – 2014), in a quietly emphatic assertion of presence.
The Keeper concludes with Ydessa Hendeles’s (b. 1948) Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) (2002)—the Kusama Infinity Room of this exhibition—at once a spectacular showstopper, but also eminently special. Consisting of 3,000 photographs from family albums of teddy bears, related materials, and some of the stuffed animals themselves, the installation completely fills two rooms along with salvaged antique vitrines and spiral staircases leading to a mezzanine. Reminiscent of early scientific institutions, it is at once overwhelming, ridiculous, and deeply affecting.
If there can be one criticism of the exhibition’s selection which, defined by the reasonable limits of museum floor space and visitor tolerance, is necessarily focused, it is that no installations represent a more troubling side of human acquisitiveness. Yes, some of the subject matter is weighty and documents a lost world or truncated life: delicate and devastating pencil drawings of life and death at Auschwitz secretly made by the artist only known as “MM;” Hendeles’s photographs, similarly overlaid with the loss of love, innocence, and life in the Second World War; or the exceptionally moving antiquities from the National Museum of Beirut, deformed during Lebanon’s Civil War of 1975 – 90 and doggedly preserved by the institution’s director. But the demented aspect of collecting, the one that motivates the lepidopterist-turned-kidnapper Frederick Clegg in John Fowles’s thriller, The Collector (1963), the one that has resulted in caches of preserved medical anomalies, death masks, post-mortem photographs, or collections as the by-product of the spoils of empire or war, such as the Amazonian shrunken heads in the University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, are absent. The result is a celebration of an impulse that seems pure, laudable, introspective, if consuming, but which elides the equally compulsive if unsettling. Nonetheless, The Keeper remains a palpably intelligent and most engrossing exhibition, one that encourages the rarest level of reflection onto human nature.
JASON ROSENFELD, Ph.D., is Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College. He was co-curator of the exhibitions John Everett Millais (Tate Britain, Van Gogh Museum), Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Tate Britain and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and River Crossings (Olana and Cedar Grove, Hudson and Catskill, New York).