While the rest of the art world remains in thrall to the whims of wealthy collectors, the New Museum in Manhattan is celebrating a different kind of collector: the ragpicker, the personal archivist, the obsessive-compulsive hoarder of stuff—some of it precious and some apparently valueless.
With more than 4,000 objects from over two dozen collections, “The Keeper” is a sprawling, four-floor exhibit devoted to the art of collecting things, examining not just the method behind the keeper’s madness but the keeper himself.
What does the process of curating and cataloguing objects reveal about the individual collector? What do our collections say about love, loss, the passage of time, and the unpredictable variety of life?
These questions came to mind during the hour or so I spent looking at over 3,000 photographs—almost uniformly black and white—of people with teddy bears.
Collected by Canadian contemporary artist Ydessa Hendeles, most of the photographs hang on walls as part of a floor-to-ceiling installation that looks like a library, with spiral staircases leading up to a mezzanine. Visitors who want to survey every image will likely end up with their cheeks to the floor, scanning photos for harder-to-spot teddy bears as if scanning the pages of “Where’s Waldo.”
The photographs are organized according to social hierarchy and other compositional narratives: famous people with teddies (Elvis Presley, Ringo Starr, Shirley Temple); teddies as mascots of classrooms, sports teams, school bands, army and naval groups; teddies as erotic fetish objects; teddies and toddlers in carriages, toy carts, and sleighs, or clutched by sick children in hospital beds.
Most of the photographs are family-album portraits of babies and young children, the aristocratic ones pictured in fur coats like their cuddly objects of affection.
Other images are displayed in wood vitrines with actual antique bears, including one of the black bears manufactured in 1913 to commemorate the passengers who died aboard the Titanic.
Indeed, the stuffed toy has often been a totem of sympathy throughout history. Immortalized in children’s books like A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh and Corduroy, the teddy bear is both a symbol of youthful innocence and a beloved childhood relic.
Yet there is something chilling about the collection, beyond the photos of teddy-toting Nazis or children who would later die in the Holocaust. (It’s worth noting that Hendeles is an only child of Auschwitz survivors.) Every photo is, in some way, a haunting reminder of irrevocable loss and the fragility of life.
Fear of loss is one of many reasons why we hold onto tangible objects, attaching special value to the mundane. Much of what’s on display in The Keeper suggests that we tend to document traumatic experiences, both real and imagined. The Holocaust, for example, is a real trauma experienced by several collectors in the exhibition.
Korbinian Aigner, a German Catholic priest, pomologist, and antifascist activist, grew fruit trees as an imprisoned worker at the Dachau concentration camp.
On view in the exhibit are the 900 still-life paintings of fruit he created in a methodical attempt to preserve his sanity during the six years he spent there.
Hannelore Baron’s sculptural hodgepodges—assembled from wood scraps, personal belongings, and other refuse—reflect the losses she experienced as a child during Hitler’s regime: before her family escaped Germany, their textile shop was destroyed and their home ransacked during Kristallnacht.
The exhibition also features a series of drawings documenting the atrocities at Auschwitz, from emaciated prisoners being carted off to gas chambers to a man being roasted over a fire like a pig.
While the artist’s identity is unknown, the attention to minutia in these mostly colorless renderings suggest they were sketched at the death camp.
Other collections throughout the museum were inspired by imagined horrors, including 500,000 drawings by Vanda Vieira-Schmidt piled atop one another in towering stacks.
Convinced that demons had invaded Earth and that her art would protect the world from dark forces, Vieira-Schmidt drew compulsively—often hundreds of illustrations a day. She began her World Rescue Project in 1995 when, after several stints in psychiatric wards, she moved into a Berlin care home where she still lives today.
Similarly, Brazilian artist Arthur Bispo do Rosário was admitted to an insane asylum in 1938, where he created junk-pile sculptures and threadbare tapestries from discarded clothing.
He was motivated by a vision from Christ, who warned of the Apocalypse and tasked him with bringing God all earthly possessions Rosário thought worthy of keeping.
Other collections are more empirical, like French theorist Roger Caillois’s colorful stones, Wilson Bentley’s microscopic photographs of snowflakes, and Vladimir Nabokov’s drawings of lepidoptera (“Notes on an evolution of wings”).
The Russian-American novelist became infatuated with butterflies at age seven and, over the course of his life, discovered nearly twenty species of them. In his memoir, Speak, Memory, Nabokov refers to his lepidopteral obsession as both “my demon” and a source of unmitigated joy.
“I confess I do not believe in time,” he writes. “And the highest enjoyment of timelessness…is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love…A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern—to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.”
In a few lovely sentences, Nabokov articulates the emotions and existential impulses that motivate all collectors: passion, devotion, and an attempt to escape the passage of time by turning it into an organized system.
Of course, not all collectors are so organized. “The Keeper” may be a monument to hoarders, but not the “Hoarders” we see on television—the ones whose houses are crumbling under the weight of accumulated stuff.
The exhibition displays junk in tidy presentations, concealing the messy reality of stockpiling. Yet it evokes the hoarder in all of us—the desire to keep objects of sentimental value and things that reflect how we view the world at a particular moment in time; how we digest historical tragedies and cope with personal losses throughout our lives.
It also speaks to the human instinct for nostalgia when lamenting loss. We document things to remember them accurately, but the psychology of memory is tricky: we put a glossy sheen on the past, remembering idyllic times that weren’t so idyllic.
Indeed, the exhibition romanticizes hoarders. It suggests that capitalism is corrupt and trash is treasure—especially when curated and neatly displayed in a museum.