Loaded for Bear

John Haber
in New York City

The Keeper, Hanne Darboven, and the Art of Collecting

For once, the New Museum deserves a hug. It even comes with a teddy bear—and then some. Step behind a partition in "The Keeper," and you may think that you have stepped into not just another installation, but another museum and another age. Meanwhile Hanne Darboven at Dia:Chelsea has a cultural history closer to the present.

Ydessa Hendeles fills two rooms with three thousand family photographs, all of them with teddy bears. Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) also contains any number of stuffed animals themselves (hugs!) and additional photographs of their owners. In a show about the impulse to preserve and to collect, it takes that impulse beyond the point of excess, to something more like a dream. It also insists on that excess as part of both a museum's collection and memories of home. Ydessa Hendeles's Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) (New Museum, 2002/2016)Just whose memories? With its four floors and countless obsessions, from more than a century and around the world, "The Keeper" is big on spectacle but short of answers.

Finders keepers

Hendeles has arranged her project as antiquities, in museum vitrines beneath mahogany lamps, amid spiral stairwells connecting floor to ceiling shelves. It opens all at once onto something very much like J. P. Morgan's 1906 library in the museum that bears his name. Those who miss the old comforts of the Morgan Library, before a Renzo Piano renovation directed a visitor elsewhere, will sigh in recognition. And those who come to the former New Museum of Contemporary Art for the contemporary and for art may wonder if it has cast aside either one. They will find remnants from the National Museum of Beirut, shattered and displaced by fifteen years of civil war, but nothing of their history. They will find dust, pills, thread, and chewing gum from New York streets, scavenged by Yuji Agematsu, but little sense of place.

"The Keeper is like that"—filled with familiar sights, unrestrained obsessions, and puzzling directions. Sometimes the contributors seem to be working out the puzzle, too, as they go. You might not even notice a space behind that partition, but for the narrow corridor it leaves on the other side. There a row of photos carries Ye Jinglu through sixty-three years, until his death in 1968. As discovered by Tong Bingxue, the sitter returned each year to a professional portrait studio, starting as a dapper young man of age twenty-one. In the process, he was not just aging, but also staging his life, struggling with his identity between East and West, modernizing himself and his image, and becoming more fully human.

Others, too, are sorting out their lives and their memories, but hoarding also has a way of burying them all. Hannelore Baron associates assemblages in wood, paper, and metal from the 1970s and 1980s with a family history, including flight from the Nazis. Yet the results, akin to Joseph Cornell boxes, seem to contain nothing personal. Howard Fried displays The Decomposition of My Mother's Wardrobe, but with its emphasis on the decomposition and the sorting. Somehow a sketchbook survived Auschwitz, where any such thing was forbidden, as a day to day record of cruelty and dehumanization. Yet the artist has survived only as his initials, MM.

Those who associate hoarding with an attic or closet will not be shocked at so many in search of a local habitation and a name. And those who associate hoarding with an unruly mess will not be surprised if the searchers fail to find it. Mario Del Curto photographs houses and cathedrals that Richard Greaves built in the wild from garbage, but they look hardly habitable. Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser found nearly four hundred model houses by Peter Fritz in a junk shop, meticulously crafted and individually wrapped in garbage bags, but who is to say where Fritz drew for their architecture? Still others find only themselves. Henrik Olesen displays Western art as a history of homo-erotic impulses, but I doubt that Bronzino, Botticelli, Albrecht Dürer, Anthony van Dyck, or their sitters would agree.

It is hard even to say what counts as a collection. Carol Bove contributes sculpture, but not all that much, although she also serves as curator for an earlier sculptor, Carlo Scarpa. She might appear mostly as a connection after all to contemporary art. (Besides, she has exhibited before at the New Museum, in "Unmonumental.") Is "The Keeper," then, no more than the ultimate in museum blockbusters? Is it only a matter of numbers?

They say that no two snowflakes are alike. Maybe so, but did Wilson Bentley require five thousand glass negatives and fifty years to find out, beginning in 1883? Does Vanda Vieira-Schmidt need half a million drawings for the enigmatic traces, still accumulating, of her World Rescue Project—enough to bury a table and chair? Does Shinro Ohtake need more than sixty books of up to seven hundred pages each for his colorful but motley assemblages, between Pop Art, book art, and manga? The numbers keep coming, like a cryptic record all by themselves. What, though, do they mean?

Losers weepers

If anything holds the exhibition together, it is that meaning is at stake. People cling to objects for their meaning, only to lose any trace of meaning in the stubbornness of facts and of things. Meaning is very much at stake for Susan Hiller, who studies endangered and extinct languages. In The Last Silent Movie, they reduce to a babble of voices and white captioning on a black screen. The contributors to "The Keeper" appear in no particular order, much as in an overstuffed collection. Still, the chaos itself suggests a few themes.

One is that search for meaning and a home. Another is the desire to catalog nature, like Vladimir Nabokov with his butterfly collection. Sure enough, many of the displays bridge art and spiritualism, art and science, or both at once. Korbinian Aigner was a priest and self-appointed "pomologist," with fine studies of apples and pears in pencil, gouache, and watercolor. Roger Caillois collected stones, seeing in their markings an untold cosmic history. Levi Fisher Ames carved his natural history from wood after the American Civil War, but common animals get along just fine with dinosaurs and myth.

The only evident paintings, in gentle washes and more or less regular geometries not far in style from Arthur Dove, are from Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn and Hilma af Klint—followers of theosophy some thirty apart. Harry Smith, better known for his anthology of American Folk Music and seen here with drawings in string, turns out to have been the son of a theosophist as well. If mysticism here seems just one step away from Surrealism, André Breton plays a part as well. Caillois argued with him, and Ed Atkins tours his book collection. If it also seems close to madness, that, too, accords with collecting as an obsession. Arthur Bispo do Rosário in Rio constructed his assemblages, such as clothing and model ships, during five decades in a mental institution.

Madness and the stuff of thrift stores also recall a fully contemporary obsession—with folk art and its recovery for the mainstream. And obviously Ames or Bispo counts as outsider art, if not the entire exhibition. A family of Gee's Bend quilt makers in Alabama also appears. Is an art collection itself an obsession? Aurélien Froment patterns a "picture atlas" after a pioneering art historian, Aby Warburg. The question, though, has to run through the entire show.

It also threatens to undermine the show, not least because the curators, led by Massimiliano Gioni, dance around it. Maybe they were not quite obsessive enough. They miss the chance to explore the growth of the art world and the dominance of wealthy collectors. They miss much of contemporary art along the way. Maybe Bove does not lean to the obsessive object or the obsessive installation, but plenty of others do, like Fischli and Weiss or Tara Donovan. Just a few blocks away at the Drawing Center, Gabriel de la Mora salvages fabric from old radio speakers, set out in pairs facing one another across the gallery, like a veritable echo chamber.

So are no two snowflakes alike? Zofia Rydet took up photography only in her sixties—with the urge to document every home in Poland, some twenty thousand to date, as a "reflection of society." For her, "there are no two similar . . . houses," but their proud or dutiful inhabitants quickly start to look much the same. Thankfully, "The Keeper" as a whole does not, and what may sound like too many objects and too little art gains in interest by its sheer accumulation. Then, too, one collection invites visitors inside its obsession. With the teddy bears, you can discover the old museum in the New Museum.

The culture of clutter

Hanne Darboven left behind an impressive collection, but what exactly was she collecting? Did she herself even know? Her house near Hamburg preserves its contents, and I can only imagine the clutter. It could not possibly have the obsessive organization of her best work, but that, too, is fiendishly elusive. Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983, back at Dia:Chelsea after nearly twenty years, fills nearly sixteen hundred sheets—and every wall and then some. It is always willing to start over and never willing to stop.

Hanne Darboven's Konstruktion (Dia Arts Center, 1998)It rests on sheets of uniform dimensions, many with identical off-red borders from typing paper or the covers of a newsweekly. Yet it may shift in a moment from fine art to clips from popular culture—framed at times only by the blackness of a stage curtain and the triangle of a spotlight. It has sums that add up while accounting for nothing, street scenes without a map, calendar pages that come and go as they please, and music based on nothing more than her number schemes. Even her start and end dates are arbitrary. Darboven surely did not set to work in 1880, and her images include European cities from long, long ago. And then she left off well before her death in her late sixties, in 2009.

She could deliver the "cultural history" of her title, if only one could pin it down. Her found or rephotographed images range from Marlene Dietrich and Casablanca to the Beatles and Frank Stella, with stops for political events along the way. She labels one set Wende, or turning point—a term that, perhaps by coincidence, often applies to Eastern Europe after Communism, although the Berlin Wall had not fallen in 1983. She may also imply a personal history, in the hours spent collecting and her tastes as a collector, although Darboven did not select covers for Der Spiegel. Some sheets contain letterhead from the family business, but with no clues to what it was. Her Opus 17A for double bass plays in the background, like a figure from classical music that refuses to quit.

The whole work occupies a moment in time about to slip away. If Darboven fits with Minimalism and conceptual art, she fell into them naturally during an extended stay in New York in the 1960s. She ends well before the Internet, with images now available at the swipe of a finger. When I first caught her work, I thought of it as quaint as book art, although many of its pages rest too high on the wall to turn or even to see. Devices like postcards are familiar enough now from younger artists—and date paintings from On Kawara. It is chastening to recall that she got there first.

Her collection could have fit comfortably in "The Keeper," if only the New Museum had found room. It even includes a teddy bear, along with a rocking chair, some kitschy mannequins, a crescent moon in wood, a crucifix, and a Bible. The sculpture seems to have tumbled right out of the pasted images, and it helps give them a greater presence. It helps place her cultural history in space and time as well. It invokes a lost innocence and a settled guilt. If Darboven belongs to the beginnings of Postmodernism, she also belongs to the Germany she knew.

She lived in a culture that could still make Hitler the cover story, where an American news magazine never could, because there the weight of the past refuses to lift. Her images keep their distance, even when one spots old favorites. They also retain their immediacy, even when they threaten to lose any meaning at all. They are at ease in the old world, but without nostalgia, and uncomfortable in the new, but without an easy irony. A system, she insists, will never reach totality. Yet she cannot quit searching for either one.

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"The Keeper" ran at The New Museum through September 25, 2016, Gabriel de la Mora at the Drawing Center through September 2. Hanne Darboven ran at Dia:Chelsea through July 29, 2017.


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