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the keeper

3 october 2016

The exhibition called "The Keeper," at New York's New Museum in the summer of 2016, was baffling, intriguing, and highly-regarded. Like cabinets of curiosities themselves, it was utterly eclectic. As a result you could be bored or put off by some element of the show, turn a corner, and become enthralled for the next half-hour. The catalogue, edited by Massimiliano Gioni and Natalie Bell, conveys this eclecticism by pairing brief accounts of each artist or collector with slightly longer essays by ten very different writers from different artistic and cultural perspectives.

I started the exhibit on the top floor where the catalog starts it as well, alphabetically, with paintings by the early-20th century Swedish artist Hilma af Klint. These austere abstracts are landmarks of Scandinavian art – I had seen a show of af Klint's work at Louisiana, in Denmark, the year before – but it was difficult to understand what a room full of rather standard paintings, conventionally hung, had to do with the themes of "The Keeper": collecting, assembling, arranging, categorizing. But I suppose it has to do with af Klint's conception of her canvases as part of a larger whole, so that they must be seen as an ensemble: difficult to bring off, because they are quite large. As I said, though, eclecticism was the rule of this exhibition, and if you didn't like the first room, just wait till the next.

The individual units of "The Keeper" range from fairly standard (if obsessive) records of collecting all the way to things that seem quite mad, then through the other side to self-conscious fabrications of collecting impulses that are ironically mad (though it's sometimes hard to tell where the irony begins). But are even the maddest collections mad? Massimiliano Gioni notes that "the act of finding order within a collection is a challenge to time" (11). The wingèd chariot hurrying near spells death and dissolution to us all, and keeping a little stuff in order keeps it at bay. Don't be too quick to scoff at the collector of bottle caps if you have every episode of every Star Trek on your hard drive.

Korbinian Aigner's paintings of apples and pears are unremarkable as individual works; the striking thing about them is that he made 900 of them, as a record of his botanical labors. (Even more striking is the fact that Aigner, an anti-Nazi priest, continued to work on planting and painting while surviving Dachau.) These little archival records typify the "standard" type of collecting impulse on display in "The Keeper." Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley is another of these ur-collectors. Bentley is famous for developing a photographic technique that enabled him to record snapshots of snowflakes before they melted. We owe to him the common wisdom that no two snowflakes are alike. Thus we also owe him the disparaging phrase "special snowflake," come to think of it. Vladimir Nabokov's drawings of butterflies are also in this category, and precious if not intrinsically remarkable. (They were some of the few items in the show that you were not allowed to photograph.)

Roger Callois collected polished cross-sections of rock crystal. The editors reprint commentary by Marguerite Yourcenar on Callois' work in The Keeper, praising Callois' sense of human interconnectedness with the mineral world, but his collection still looks to me like something you'd see at a roadside rock shop up in Arkansas. Perspective is everything.

Arthur Bispo do Rosário was literally mad, creating most of his work while committed for much of his adult life. He assembled collages and schematic drawings, in a highly "naïve" style, "in preparation for Judgement Day" (88). One rolling cart he made looks like an elaborate artist's conception of the accoutrements of the ultimate bag lady. In fact "The Keeper" is where obsessions deemed psychiatric meet those we deem artistic. Similarly, Vanda Viera-Schmidt, who has been in and out of institutional care in recent decades, makes line drawings that demonstrate arcane knowledge that only she can understand; the New Museum displayed them snowing under a desk and chairs, showing the burdens of enlightenment.

I'm not sure if Peter Fritz was mad. His tiny models of houses made one of the strongest impressions of the show on me. Preserved by Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser, laid out in orderly rows on a huge table, they look, Chris Wiley writes, like parts of "a particularly ingenious model train set" (128). They are not representations of existing buildings, but they are completely representative and realistic. Their purpose is obscure, unless it's enough of a purpose that Peter Fritz really liked making little buildings.

Richard Greaves really likes making big buildings, out of scraps and bailing twine, in the Canadian woods, and then letting them slump toward the ground, in which condition Mario del Curto photographed them, so that it's del Curto's work, not Greaves' directly, that was shown in "The Keeper." They're buildings and they're not: they cannot really function, since they start to fall down as soon as they're built; but they seem to reach a succession of various stases, during which you can apparently go inside them and hang out a little if you like a sense of things falling down around you.

With the work of Zofia Rydet, one begins to see the border between obsession and meta-obsession. Rydet became fascinated with the project of documenting the interior of every Polish home during the momentous decade of the 1980s. These photographic interiors, crammed with objects, displaying a collection of countless collections, are worth a lifetime's study just for themselves, though one was limited at the exhibition to a few passes in the midst of a crowd. Ironic, or sympathetic? Like so many things in "The Keeper," these photographs are just there, and don't ask why. Fittingly, the curators chose one of Rydet's photos, of an elderly man on a daybed in front of a wall covered to the last millimeter with framed images and documents, for the cover of their catalog volume.

Yuji Agematsu's collections are distinctly ironic: little plasticine envelopes full of trash and dirt that the artist picks up from the street. I've seen several artists with this kind of project, which obviously parodies collections but at the same time (everything here is doubled) engenders a kind of serious expertise all its own. You have to have a sharp eye to grab attractive garbage.

The highlight of "The Keeper," truly an exhibition-within-an-exhibition, was Ydessa Hendeles's collection of photographs, Partners (The Teddy Bear Project). Thousands of found photographs, mostly black and white, mostly old, line a large room with an upstairs constructed to hold more of the same. Partners is extremely hard to take. You'd think a couple of thousand pictures of teddy bears would be somewhere between cloying and comforting, but of course the installation goes way off that scale and ends up somewhere between oppressive and horrifying. The Holocaust is the historical backdrop, and I didn't see that coming. But teddy bears have long been associated with nationalism, whether it's mom and apple pie for America or swastikas and jackboots for the Third Reich. The banality of evil, indeed.

My personal favorite in the show was a series of photos of Ye Jinglu, taken annually by studio photographers from 1907 to 1968. Ye Jinglu got in on the ground floor of a now-popular Internet project where you take a picture of yourself every day for a month; they anticipate more formal concepts like Nicholas Nixon's annual portraits of the Brown sisters, which are now more than 40 years in the making. But we know far less about Ye Jinglu than about the Brown sisters, or about the average Instagram user; we have them at all because of a collector named Tong Bingxue archived and arranged them for display. All lives are a succession of fleeting moments. Somehow, regular attention to their fleetingness is one of the best ways of understanding a life.

Just as a book, The Keeper is a sturdy little block of a volume with copious images on toned-down matte paper. For all the showiness of the big exhibition it derives from, it's a modest catalog visually (though gorgeous intellectually) and costs a reasonable $49.95. The essays are somewhat miscellaneous, like the show, themselves frequently collected rather than commissioned, but they add to the texture of the volume. Art libraries in particular should collect this little exercise in the shoring of fragments against ruins.

Gioni, Massimiliano, and Natalie Bell. The Keeper. New York: New Museum, 2016.