Possession Obsession

Possession Obsession

What we collect defines us. From the exhibition “The Keeper”: Zofia Rydet, “Zapis socjologiczny (Sociological Record),” 1978-90. ©Zofia Augustynska-Martyniak. Courtesy Fundacja Sztuk Wizualnych and Zofia Rydet Foundation

I consider myself to be a discriminating collector. I say discriminating because my interests tend to the gentlemanly and my means are limited. Books, of course, are a passion and in every room in my life, either on a shelf, on the floor, in the closet or in boxes in the attic and barn. I like having prints and drawings around me. Parian busts of writers, composers and classical figures, small-scale and large, give pleasure. Silver, too. But it wasn’t until I walked through “The Keeper,” the multifloor exhibition on view thru Sept. 25, 2016, at The New Museum, that I realized how small-beer my collecting efforts are compared to the epic endeavors here.

Sociologist Roger Caillois liked polished stones in a big way and left a quarry’s worth. Shinro Ohtake’s scrapbooks contain collages made from found materials and ephemera. There’s a whole row of these books, some stacked one on top of another, others open. A guy named Ye Jinglu posed for a studio portrait every year between 1907 and 1968; his habit and life journey awoke the collecting bug in Tong Bingxue, who is now the caretaker of the black-and-white photographs. Peter Fritz, an insurance clerk from Vienna, had a thing for scale-model buildings of every architectural persuasion: He made hundreds of them, using cardboard, matchboxes, wallpaper. One man’s hobby is another man’s treasure trove: In 1993, artist Oliver Croy found Fritz's constructions, wrapped in garbage bags, in a junk shop; with critic Oliver Elser, he preserves and exhibits them.

The centerpiece is “Partners (The Teddy Bear Project),” compiled by Ydessa Hendeles. Imagine more than 3,000 photographs of people posing with stuffed teddy bears. There are photos of sports teams with their toy mascots; children having tea with their furry friends; bears under Christmas trees, in the great outdoors and as proud members of the wedding. The images are hung academic-style, floor to ceiling. Several vitrines shelter much-loved, falling-apart bears; one little fellow holds his genealogy, handwritten by his owner. The impression is overwhelming; the message as comforting as a teddy bear itself.

The beauty of an exhibition like “The Keeper” is that it is as much about the collector as it is about the objects collected. Each of us, in his/her own way, is a collector, whether of baseball cards, matchbooks, bottle caps, picture postcards, Roman coins or Picasso lithographs. And what we choose to keep, preserve, pass on to others or stow away for ourselves speaks volumes about the human condition.

Great show.

The New Museum, 235 Bowery, 212.219.1222, newmuseum.org