Living in a time of unbridled excess, none of us are strangers to consumer culture—Black Friday sales, social-media shopping, and Amazon overnight deliveries. Yet objects are more disposable than ever: books are free on sidewalks; Forever 21 zippers break after a few weeks; the new iPhone model appears months after you’ve upgraded. While accumulating (and disposing) is ingrained in our contemporary society, what is the psychology behind collecting and keeping a lifetime of objects?
That’s one of the questions behind the New Museum’s remarkable current exhibition “The Keeper.“ Throughout the four floors of the museum, 4,000 eclectic objects from over two dozen personal collections explore what it means to keep, hoard, document, and archive. (Ironically, the museum itself is a non-collecting institution.)
The show, which was organized by the museum’s artistic director Massimiliano Gioni, associate curator Margo Norton, and assistant curators Natalie Bell and Helga Christoffersen, probes the poignant and personal impulses behind preserving. Walking through the “The Keeper” is a deeply intimate experience, as if you’ve entered each collectors’ private emotional and physical space. Throughout, you’re prompted to understand the pathology behind their hoarding and the significance of the collected items, some of which are haunting. An unknown artist who signed him or herself as “MM” drew dozens of eyewitness pencil sketches depicting scenes of abuse and suffering in Auschwitz, which were found stuffed in a bottle. Others are more whimsical, including Wilson Bentley’s (1865-1931) compulsive photographs of snowflakes using a magnifying technique he invented.
Make sure to spend special time with Hilma af Klint’s (1862-1944) paintings on the top floor of the show. The Swedish pioneer of Abstract Expressionism has 16 powerful paintings that remained largely unseen in her lifetime.
Other highlights include: Roger Caillois’ geode collection; agriculturist and Catholic priest Korbinian Aigner’s paintings of apples cataloged during his concentration camp imprisonment; Susan Hiller’s The Last Silent Movie video piece compiling audio clips of endangered and extinct languages; and the Gee Bend’s quilts, made by a collective of female slaves know for “their unorthodox, abstract designs that have more in common with modern art forms such as jazz and abstract painting than with the ordered, symmetrical, and restrained patterns of many Euro-American quilts.”