Collecting can be an act of art-making

'The Keeper,' a new exhibit on display at New York City's New Museum, is devoted to things people have collected or saved, ranging from thousands of photos to butterfly specimens.

Aug 10, 2016 at 11:22 am
Ydessie Hendeles’ 'Partners (The Teddy Bear Project)' - Photo: Robert Keziere
Photo: Robert Keziere
Ydessie Hendeles’ 'Partners (The Teddy Bear Project)'

Ever since Impressionism, and probably earlier, many people have looked at new work in art museums and galleries and — sometimes contemptuously, sometimes perplexedly — asked, “Why is that art?”

It isn’t traditional enough, it isn’t crafted enough or it doesn’t look finished, they say. With each new contemporary movement — Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, performance art, installations — you hear those complaints.

But now there’s a question emerging that even those who understand the definition and look of art change with (or ahead of) the times may have to stop and ask: Is collecting in and of itself an art form?

I found myself pondering that recently after seeing a mind-blower of a new exhibit at New York City’s New Museum, its most cutting-edge art museum. Called The Keeper, it is, at least on first study, an exhibition devoted to things people have collected or saved, as opposed to objects specifically made by artists for exhibition in this show. (It’s on display through Sept. 25.)

Its show-stopping work is Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) “by” the German-born Canadian artist-curator Ydessa Hendeles and bearing a 2002 creation date. It consists primarily of more than 3,000 photos she has collected of teddies throughout the 20th century — with children, with adults, with the famous and the anonymous — that fill the walls and vitrines of two large galleries. 

The dedication and commitment that went into amassing this particular collection and designing the way to show it are truly remarkable. And it is interesting to look at. But does that make it art?

Obviously, collecting is what art museums do in order to have work to display, to exist as museums. That’s part of the process. But can it also be the product? (History museums, library museums, curio museums and others do sometimes show collections because they are collections — they can present objects based on their unusualness rather than their artistic value.)

The other 20 presentations in The Keeper don’t fit neatly into any category; through its variety, the large show is designed to make you think about the nature of collecting. One of the “artists,” for instance, is Vladimir Nabokov, who collected butterfly specimens while traveling the U.S. during summer. He could have written Lolita while amassing some of the very specimens on display here.

An unknown artist called “MM” is credited with the wrenchingly powerful selection of pencil drawings from The Sketchbook from Auschwitz, first-hand depictions from 1943 of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp. These are reproductions of the actual drawings at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. So the New Museum’s purpose in offering this particular exhibit is to emphasize the importance of collecting and preserving — of bearing witness — rather than to show an “original” work of art.

At the same time as the New Museum’s show, Museum of Modern Art is presenting Imponderable (through Jan. 8), a new feature-length film by the surrealist video artist Tony Oursler. Using a hologram-like video effect he calls 5-D, Oursler’s film shows the impact that professional magicians and spiritualists, as well as the strange illusions they conjure, have had on him. 

But while the film is the work of art in the exhibit, there’s a gallery featuring objects that Oursler has collected as part of his own research — for instance, a pamphlet titled Houdini Exposes the tricks used by the Boston Medium “Margery.” 

From what I could see on a busy weekday, people spent far more time with this material, which Oursler didn’t create but did give context, than in watching the movie. MOMA classifies this material as “archival ephemera.” (At the same time, Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies is presenting Oursler’s The Imponderable Archive as an exhibit through Oct. 30.)

MOMA is still fairly traditional about the line between art and the supporting material/documentation. But other art museums are increasingly showing what people collect as art, because it has meaning. And if everything has meaning, are we moving to a time when there is no such thing as “ephemera?”

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]