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The Keeper

New Museum - New York

By Keren Moscovitch

The New Museum’s “The Keeper” is a shining example of the fine line between curatorial vision and artistic strategy, and a testament to the museum’s consistent advancement of contemporary artistic discourses. By grouping a diverse cohort of image-makers, collectors and archivists into a multi-storied investigation of the quirky world of collecting, this homage to obsessive cataloguing asks important questions about the nature of creativity and the constitution of the art object. Notably, it invites us to incorporate gestures that may have been lost to private histories into a critical engagement with the origins of artistic production.

Perhaps the most enchanting experience of the exhibition is Ydessa Hendeles’ Partners (The Teddy Bear Project). A floor-to-ceiling display of over 3,000 vintage photographs and doll figures of the iconic Teddy Bear is mounted inside a cavernous chamber complete with spiral staircases and wood and glass displays that denote the preservation of precious memorabilia. The dizzying installation, which may appear at first as merely a wistful chronicle of mid-century Americana, reveals the hopeful nationalist ideology of mid-century life radiating from the bear’s image. Sinister associations also abound, with images of young children holding bears and rifles, referencing the war and trauma of the era following World War II.

Ydessa Hendeles, Partners (The Teddy Bear Project), 2002. “The Keeper,” 2016. Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio

Ydessa Hendeles, Partners (The Teddy Bear Project), 2002. “The Keeper,” 2016. Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio

Headed by artistic director Massimiliano Gioni, the museum’s curatorial team embraced the fraught relationship between art and mental illness through their inclusion of several artists known to have suffered from psychotic disorders. Arthur Bispo do Rosario, a Brazilian artist who lived the majority of his life in a mental institution, produced over 850 objects during his confinement. Despite the pleasure of seeing his larger, more intricate works, some aspect of his biography is lost by the completeness of the pieces on display. The artist’s daily obsession manifested in his constant need to construct tiny objects out of hospital detritus, often hanging them by threads from the ceiling. This tendency, comprising such a strong aspect of his artistic character, is somewhat overshadowed by the decision to exhibit the most sophisticated works from the collection. As stunning as these pieces are in illuminating the complex ecosystem of do Rosario’s mind, their grandeur obfuscates the compulsive patterning of his ritualistic practice, fueled by the belief that he was on a mission from God. A more explicit example of the unique output birthed by psychological struggles are Vanda Vieira Schmidt’s towering stacks of letter-sized white paper, each covered in scrawls and shapes. Suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, Schmidt believed these to be a written code that could be used by the German military to counter evil energies transmitted by aliens. The shock and discomfort of discovering her intention illuminates a dark secret of human subjectivity, filtered through pathology and artistic production.

The most surprising addition to the show are a series of paintings by early 20th century Swedish painter Hilma Af Klint. Executed prior to the emergence of Minimalism, the works employ a mysterious set of symbols shared among “The Five,” a group of female artists interested in magic and the occult. This display helps visitors make the leap from marveling at the collecting mechanism itself, to understanding how the compulsion to categorize, analyze and mystify ordinary objects translates into a coherent formal vision.

In his epic treatise on capitalism, Das Kapital, Karl Marx defined the fetish object as that which projects meaning and value beyond its practical use, and which calls to us through its enigmatic power. “The Keeper” presents a fascinating twist on fetishism, one that circumvents a single art object’s status as a commodity in favor of the gestalt of a complete collection. Through this meta-collection, we are invited to see the inner workings of the uncontrollable urge to create.

(July 20 - October 2, 2016)

Keren Moscovitch is an interdisciplinary artist, curator and scholar exploring the intersection of the sexual and the spiritual. She is based in New York City where she teaches at the School of Visual Arts. Her work has been featured in numerous exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad, and reviewed in publications such as Der Spiegel, The Huffington Post, Playboy, Policy Mic and New York Magazine.

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