This Is a Collection of Information

Photograph of George Waterman by Antony Hudek, 2005.

George Waterman’s collection of 20th-century art documentation, currently based for the most part in Manhattan, consists of approximately 40,000 books and catalogues—growing at an estimated rate of 4,000 to 5,000 items a year—as well as numerous cartons tightly packed with gallery and museum invitations, cards, and ephemera. Waterman wants to see his collection reach the bar of 100,000 documents before setting out to locate a permanent home for it, presumably a well-established East Coast academic institution with the resources and interest to carry the collection’s current average growth rate into the distant future. He ultimately foresees the establishment of a research center devoted to art from around the world, spanning the late 19th century to the end of the 20th.

The project raises the critical issue of re-collection in a digital culture haunted by the dread of memory loss. As global corporations determine the format of our “private” records for optimum clarity and compactness, the question of knowledge transfer—particularly acute in the case of ephemeral visual traces—becomes paramount. Here the competing interests of institutions and individuals responsible for memorializaing a consensual past come to the fore. For while the museum—the curator, the collector, the board member, the librarian, and the artist—may each entertain the hope of constituting a usable reflection of shared experience, their ideological perspectives differ substantially. Waterman’s collection allows for a critical assessment of these divergent roles in the production of a common culture, at a time when the speed, inexpensiveness, and planned obsolescence of the images and texts that constitute our history increase exponentially.

Waterman began collecting artworks in the late 1960s, but switched to print in the early 1980s. “I found that [collecting books] was much easier and more enjoyable because I could spread myself much wider…the information about the objects is more interesting to me than the objects.” In choosing to collect information rather than objects, Waterman distanced himself from the role of the philanthropist upon which museums, particularly in the U.S., have traditionally relied. In 1974, then MoMA curator William Rubin highlighted the problematic position of the museum as a “public” collection of formerly “private” passions: “To me, museums are essentially compromises. They are neither like a really public place, nor are they private—like an apartment. Their weakness is that they are necessarily homogenized—emptied of all connotations other than art. And this is, finally, an artificial situation.” By contrast, Waterman’s collection unequivocally emphasizes the public. The many thousands of documents that enter his collection do so based precisely on the potential aesthetic and intellectual value they might hold for future readers and scholars. Waterman accepts the short-term fate of many of his books: that few members of the public, at least in the U.S., will need to consult documents from areas and periods now considered marginal to current histories of modernism—for example, realist Eastern European art from the 1950s to the 1970s, or Swiss outsider art.

Picking a monograph from a four-foot stack of books in his Manhattan apartment, Waterman points out that the artist is “well known in Bulgaria. Someone I had never heard of before. But he is thought enough of in Bulgaria to be published…I think that if you want to know about Bulgarian art, you want to know about this man.…My purpose is to get out there, get the stuff, and then let somebody else decide.…It’s important to Bulgaria, and therefore it should be important in a library.” Yet by focusing on documentation instead of objects, on a library rather than on a museum collection, Waterman replaces the compromises of the museum with those of the modern art library. As the librarian is well aware, inherent in all “universal” systems of classification are deep-seated cultural patterns. In Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences, Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star explain, “Multiple voices and silences are represented in any scheme that attempts to sort out the world. No one classification organizes reality for everyone.” People “work every day on the design, delegation, and choice of classification systems and standards, yet few see them as artifacts embodying moral and aesthetic choices that in turn craft people’s identities, aspirations, and dignity.” Scrutinizing efforts such as Waterman’s to unpack the notion of “library” involves “understanding how standard narratives that appear universal have been constructed.”

How then is “reality” represented in Waterman’s project? While internationalist in scope, his collection is organized in part along national lines, reflecting his belief that “art is a very nationalist thing.…If you could put into your [library] system…the word Norway and get 3,000 artists and books…you could get a cohesive group of artists.” Whereas libraries generally classify pre-19th-century and nonmodern (e.g., “tribal,” “ethnographic”) material according to national styles, they tend to divide the literature on modern art by author and medium. Waterman, on the other hand, deconstructs these “master narratives” that divorce artists from their social and political contexts. By organizing art and artists regardless of their position vis-à-vis the modernist capitals New York and Paris, Waterman reinscribes art within local histories. He nevertheless realizes that new compromises emerge when he imposes nationalist classification systems on art that itself resists modernist conventions of style and influence, such as digital and Web-based media. And while his system may be critiqued for its nationalist and historical essentialism, Waterman’s categories accentuate, rather than muffle, the inescapable blind spots to which Bowker and Star allude above. Because his collection can account only in part for the more recent trends of contemporary art, Waterman acknowledges the historical limitations of his personal vision and the inevitable ideological biases it embodies.

Neither a collector of objects nor a librarian proper, Waterman moreover distinguishes himself from the prototypical book collector, as his strategy relies less on an intimate knowledge of what he collects than on the exchanges and ties afforded by his collecting activity. His guiding principle is his ignorance of the other—an ignorance which in his case does not prompt him to seek artifacts of the other but rather gather data about the other. Hence, in addition to a network of collectors, curators, and dealers, Waterman’s global web of associates includes friends, librarians, art historians, and artists who channel documents his way. For instance, in the case of the Bulgarian monograph, purchased on the advice of a local curator, all Waterman knows for certain is that a book about an Eastern European artist published in Russia during the cold war will likely contain important information for a researcher interested in the cultural interface between Moscow and former “satellite” countries. In other words, Waterman’s is not so much a collection of information but one of disinformation—a complex web of silences awaiting future completion. He once went so far as to make silence the topic of a seminar at the Rhode Island School of Design on “fifty great artists you’ve never heard of.” His proposal was turned down.

Guided by blind insight, Waterman does not seem motivated by the irrational desire usually driving the collector. It matters little to him if he cannot lay hands on an out-of-print edition or if he must defer a purchase because of an excessive price tag. In this Waterman falls outside of Walter Benjamin’s definition of the book collector: “the period, the region, the craftsmanship, the former owner—for a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopedia.” Benjamin goes on to say that “dates, place names, formats, previous owners, bindings, and the like: all these details must tell him something—not as dry, isolated facts, but as a harmonious whole.” The incalculable facts contained in Waterman’s holdings may not be “dry, isolated facts,” but they certainly fail to amount to a “harmonious whole.” If one accepts, with Benjamin, that the defining properties of the committed collector is a passionate desire for systematic rigor, then one must conclude that Waterman subverts the paradigm: his growing archive of for the most part unreadable data bespeaks of a rigorous inventorying of irrationality itself. The more heterogeneous his collection—aspiring to the chaos of Babel—the more ostensibly complete it becomes, irrespective of prevalent aesthetic standards. In A Gentle Madness: bibliophiles, bibliomanes, and the eternal passion for books, Nicholas Basbanes argues that culture is literally saved by this combination of passionate and systematic collecting. However, the image of culture that Waterman’s collection reflects will always be one of perpetual inquiry: culture, as such, will be saved at the cost of its anarchic disintegration into national, i.e., nonuniversal fragments.

The incomplete histories Waterman registers break down the certainty one might infer from a coherent image of the past. Whereas, for Hannah Arendt, Benjamin’s collecting acts as a revolutionary means to reach both a “remote or bygone world” and a future “in which things are liberated from the drudgery of usefulness,” Waterman’s inventory seems to lack any precise chronological direction: a book that might make sense today might well appear indecipherable tomorrow. Waterman’s collection of information thus replaces the past, present, and future into what Giorgio Agamben calls the “Museum Theatrum,” the imaginary scene where collectables act out their virtual existence without interference from the beholder or the artist. Except that Waterman’s “Theatrum” is one that specifically awaits the contemporary public: only on this future condition will the past take on as many shapes as there will be interpreters. Like Piranesi’s Prisons, Borges’s Library, or Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet, Waterman is the architect of a ruined platform from which he derides the ambition of total knowledge and invites us to imagine pasts that could have been.

Waterman’s anachronistic project parallels, more so than other institutional efforts, indexical systems developed by artists since the late 1960s. For example, he compares his boxes containing invitation cards, posters, and ephemera to Andy Warhol’s 600 Time Capsules. To cope with Warhol’s boxes, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh warns that “researchers will not find the linear archival formats of more traditional collections.…Reorganization of the material by conventional standards would lead to a significant loss of information.…The challenge to the Warhol Museum is to maintain this apparent chaos while preserving the collections and making them accessible in a coherent way. Like a contemporary-culture archeological dig, the layers of disorder will reveal valuable insights into Warhol and his time.” Just as Warhol tested the “linear archival formats” of collections, artists’ museums pry open the institutions they mimic, unearthing discrepant layers of disorder. Marcel Broodthaers called his Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, first exhibited in 1968, “a museum of meaning,” and wondered if art could ever survive outside such a negative institutional frame. Broodthaers’s question resonates today in the work of Meschac Gaba, Marysia Lewandowska, and Neil Cummings, among other contemporary artists who interrogate the complex and contradictory relationship between ideals of nationhood and the making of history by powerful collecting institutions.

From 1997 to 2002, Meschac Gaba—who recently exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem—developed the Museum of Contemporary African Art. Installing various parts of his Museum in institutions around the world, primarily in Europe and the U.S., Gaba questioned the “hospitality” of Western museums that accommodate “other,” stereotypically “spiritual” objects at odds with the supposed neutrality of the exhibition setting. Insofar as aesthetic judgment is withheld in both endeavors, Waterman’s project is comparable to Gaba’s. Waterman, however, appears to perceive the world as a comprehensible whole open to the uniform gaze of the open-minded Western collector. However, it could be argued that the ultimate unfeasibility of Waterman’s project protects it from the colonialist premises that Gaba critiques. Doomed to fall short of its dream of completeness, Waterman’s archive eludes institutional totality. The library that will eventually house Waterman’s collection will need to enforce a nonlinear classification system so as not to incur a significant loss of information—namely the ethical impartiality of Waterman’s partial collection.

The future host institution will also need to contend with the books’ existence not merely as isolated documents but as glimpses of unbroken collaborative chains of authors, artists, critics, and other collectors who for the most part still exist, though their numbers are dwindling rapidly. By cataloguing each book with details of its provenance, Waterman’s collection resembles Enthusiasm by London-based artists Marysia Lewandowska and Neil Cummings, an archive of films created by Polish workers during the Communist era. In Enthusiasm the two artists catalog the films and make them available on DVD for better distribution. Importantly, Cummings and Lewandowska stress the fact that each film owes its existence to many individuals whose names constitute a second-level, more ephemeral archive of genealogies and personal histories. The memories echoing in Enthusiasm and in Waterman’s collection add yet one more layer to the archeological dig which modernist art history had thought exhausted, and which collecting institutions, be they museums or libraries, would rather silence.

With or without a long-term home in sight, Waterman collects: “My main goal is to find a way…to double or triple the amount of books I accumulate in two years. So if I could get to 15,000 books a year, then I’ll be really humming along.”


Antony Hudek