“The Keeper” at the New Museum is THE most surprising and powerful museum exhibition this summer. Equal parts wondrous and dark, it is a collection of collections (often of collections). And everything here would not exist if someone hadn’t obsessively, and desperately, saved them. Of the 24+ collections that fill the building, these are my top five, and why I can’t stop thinking about them.
Ydessa Hendeles: Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) (2002)
The showstopper is this bi-level labyrinth of 3000 photographs, collected and assembled by artist/curator Ydessa Hendeles. Each frame contains a found photograph, some older than 100 years, that ALL share only one thing in common: a teddy bear. Apparently the images are also organized by body posture and social positions (of the owner), but honestly I just got blissfully lost for an hour. Note that the plush antique teddy bears in the display cases are THE ACTUAL original teddy bears found in nearby photographs. It’s every emotion from Toy Story, times ten.
2. The Houses of Peter Fritz, Preserved by Oliver Croy and Oliver Esler
In 1993, when he was only 23 years old, artist Oliver Croy found these 387 miniature cardboard houses in a junk stop, each in it’s own trash bag. Later discovered to be the work of Peter Fritz, an Austrian insurance clerk, the structures are made with an obsessive level of detail, and yet don’t appear to fully replicate any existing structures. Peter Fritz, in other words, was a secret architect. The mystery of the whole story is only surpassed by the sense of relief when considering how narrowly these escaped destruction.
3. Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley: Snow Crystal Photomicrographs 1883-1931
As his name suggests, Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley aimed to collect the impossible. Not only was he the first to posit that “no two snowflakes are alike” (yes it’s THAT guy!!!) but he set out to prove it. Bentley was the first to successfully photograph a single snowflake by assembling his own unique camera, advancing both the technology of micro-photography AND the science of ice simultaneously. The 81 images on view here, each no larger than about 3-4 inches are pulled from the over 5000 snowflakes that he photographed over his entire lifetime (!!!!), and thankfully donated to the Smithsonian before his death.
4. Artifacts from the National Museum of Beirut, Preserved by Maurice Chehab
The New Museum contains a narrow staircase between the 3rd and 4th floor with a dark mid-flight display nook that most visitors miss, and there is no more appropriate place for these tiny and mutilated objects. No larger than a couple inches, these are artifacts from the National Museum of Beirut, which had the tragic misfortune of LITERALLY sitting on the frontline of a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990. The curator, Emir Maurice Chehab (1904-1994) desperately tried to protect the collection, hiding objects in tight recesses and often encasing them in concrete to avoid bombs, artillery, and fires. These objects survived, but only with extreme scars, burnt to near-obscurity and fused together with other nearby objects. They are beautiful, and stand as a testament to Lebanese history, both ancient and recent, violent and heroic, in a single object.
MM: The Sketchbook from Auchwitz
The most powerful and incredible works in the whole show are these images from an anonymous sketchbook found at Auschwitz. Beyond the obviously horrific images depicted, is the humbling and heroic spirit of MM (the unknown artist’s initials on every page) who took a tremendous risk to create and conceal these, and then hide them in a bottle near a gas chamber, hoping against all odds that someone on the right side would find them.
The whole experience of this show is a mix of joyous inspiration and strange sadness, all held together with beautiful objects. It is the discovery of mysterious geniuses and incredible artifacts while always wondering how many more collections were lost because someone simply passed them up. In the age of digital collecting (Pinterest, Pokémon) it’s a reminder that original objects are exponentially important, and great collecting requires risk and sacrifice beyond a camera phone. I know – I’m preaching to the choir.
To end on a happy note: After that emotional rollercoaster, you’ll find yourself in the New Museum gift shop: which is currently stocked with teddy bears (some even limited editions, modified by artists). #brilliant
All images courtesy New Museum, and the insane amazing hoarders and collectors who saw what no one else did, and risked inconvenience, debt, and ridicule (and occasionally their own lives) to save them. Thank you.