At the New Museum, Where Everyone Is a Collector
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