At the New Mu­seum, Where Every­one Is a Col­lec­tor

Forward Magazine - - Culture - By Talya Zax

There’s much to be learned from the name of the New Mu­seum’s new ex­hibit “The Keeper.” The show is in fact an as­sem­blage of the ef­forts of nu­mer­ous keep­ers, artists who have col­lected, ar­ranged, stored and dis­played ob­jects in un­usual ways. It makes the sin­gu­lar ti­tle a bit of an odd fit. Is the ex­hibit a med­i­ta­tion on the role of the Keeper as a broad char­ac­ter, not as a sin­gle artist? Or, per­haps, a sweep­ing state­ment about the mu­seum’s mu­seum-ness, paint­ing it (sorry) as a sin­gle, ma­jes­tic Keeper, bring­ing the var­i­ous Kept un­der — well, into — its wings?

It’s an am­bi­tious show, one with many strange and lovely in­clu­sions. It cer­tainly brings to light pieces of art that might oth­er­wise lack ex­hi­bi­tion op­por­tu­ni­ties in New York. Yet for all the grand­ness of its con­cept, the ex­hibit finds lit­tle co­her­ence among the va­ri­ety of loosely linked in­ter­pre­ta­tions of “kept” to which it ex­tends. There are things that have not been kept so much as kept away, in­clud­ing a se­ries of paint­ings by the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint, who stip­u­lated that her art not be shown to the pub­lic un­til 20 years af­ter her death; cu­rated col­lec­tions, most no­tably Ydessa Hen­de­les’s “Part­ners (The Teddy Bear Project)”; art made of sal­vaged ob­jects, in­clud­ing Han­nelore Baron’s as­sem­blages, boxes of found ob­jects brought to­gether with a me­lan­choly in­ten­sity; etc., etc. Each cat­e­gory in­trigues, but the ex­hibit’s reach is too broad to lend any over­ar­ch­ing mean­ing to the idea of the artist as col­lec­tor, although there’s nu­ance to be found in in­di­vid­ual artists’ adop­tion of that iden­tity.

The ex­hibit does act, how­ever, as a nice frame­work by which to un­der­stand the mu­seum as the Keeper, an idea that, by link­ing the iden­tity of the mu­seum to the idio­syn­cratic, fond, ob­ses­sive in­stincts of an in­di­vid­ual col­lec­tor, gives a per­sonal turn to the ob­vi­ous. (It barely de­serves stat­ing that mu­se­ums, with the pri­mary jobs of col­lect­ing and cu­rat­ing, are keep­ers by def­i­ni­tion.) That idea man­i­fests most di­rectly in the evoca­tive, com­pact mi­cro­cosm of a mu­seum cre­ated in Hen­de­les’s “Part­ners,” the ex­hibit’s cen­ter­piece, an in­stal­la­tion con­sist­ing of two small mul­ti­level rooms pro­duced from por­ta­ble walls. The walls are hung with 3,000 framed pho­to­graphs, of teddy bears with their own­ers. The floor is dot­ted with dis­play cases — an­tique, of course — con­tain­ing teddy bears, along­side ma­te­rial de­tail­ing their his­tory.

Like a minia­ture mu­seum, at first glance “Part­ners” feels si­mul­ta­ne­ously full of mean­ing and de­void of it; the mass of ma­te­rial it con­tains

both ex­cites with pos­si­bil­ity and, in its tremen­dous­ness, feels in­ac­ces­si­ble. (It’s worth not­ing that this ef­fect mim­ics not only that of a mu­seum, but also that of “The Keeper,” which oc­cu­pies four of the New Mu­seum’s seven sto­ries.) The seem­ing ho­mo­gene­ity of the pho­to­graphs dis­played, most of which are black and white, and all of which are mounted with match­ing white mat­ting and sim­ple black frames, makes the piece ap­pear all the more un­ap­proach­able. It’s a de­mand­ing im­pas­sive­ness; in order to un­der­stand the piece as a whole, view­ers must make it fa­mil­iar, ex­plor­ing it on the scale of its in­di­vid­ual com­po­nents.

Do­ing so re­veals a sur­pris­ing breadth of life. Yes, the pho­tos in “Part­ners,” most of which date back sev­eral decades, de­pict what you’d ex­pect — mid­dle- class chil­dren with one or both par­ents — but they also shock and sur­prise, no­tably in a sec­tion show­cas­ing uni­formed Nazis pos­ing hap­pily with their bearhold­ing chil­dren. (These in­clu­sions, which are stag­ger­ingly un­set­tling, are es­pe­cially in­trigu­ing, given that the Jewish Hen­de­les was born to two Auschwitz sur­vivors.) This seg­ment is one of many in which Hen­de­les deftly em­ploys her col­lected bears to il­lus­trate so­cial, po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic pain and per­ver­sion. Oth­ers in­clude a tiny set of pic­tures of black chil­dren with toy bears, a gen­tle re­minder of the im­pact of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion on chil­dren; a sur­pris­ingly large set of pic­tures of naked women pos­ing with bears in sex­u­ally sug­ges­tive ways, and a dis­play case fea­tur­ing minia­ture bears de­signed for soldiers to keep in their breast pock­ets, a heart­break­ing view­point on the two great wars that dom­i­nated the early 20th cen­tury and were largely fought by men barely past child­hood.

What to make of this of­ten dis­con­cert­ing rich­ness, the many im­pli­ca­tions of the teddy bear it shows? In her

es­say on

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