The Delightfully Obsessive Collections Of Modern Artists

Yes, they’re hoarders of photographs, street trash, and rare stones, but not in the disastrously compulsive way (we think).

People collect things for myriad reasons, whether it’s to study the different iterations of a single object, connect with personal history, make an investment, or have “I own it all” bragging rights.


Museums, too, wrestle with why and how they collect and interpret these items. For New York City’s New Museum, which doesn’t have a permanent collection, examining what people hold onto offers a more personal narrative of history rather than the sanctioned version we consume in school, from books, and from museums and institutions that use their collections to reinforce their own importance.

Henrik Olesen, Some Gay-Lesbian Artists and/or Artists relevant to Homo-Social Culture Born between c. 1300–1870, III. Some Faggy Gestures, 2007. Collage with computer prints on board, 55 1/8 x 236 1/4 in (140 x 600 cm).Courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York

“It’s the small rather than the large, the private rather than the state or hegemonic or dominant view,” Natalie Bell, an assistant curator at the New Museum, says of the new exhibition called The Keeper, on view until September 26. “Museums are constantly thinking about how to expand their audience and how to create exhibitions and environments that reflect the interests of more people. How is it that we create systems of value and how can these systems speak to more people? One of the lessons of this show is how to think beyond these grander narratives and this system of art as we tend to know it. We’re looking outside the box at what makes a work of art a work of art and what makes an artist an artist.”

Rather than calling the people collectors, Bell likes to use the word “keepers,” hence the show’s name. “It comes to a sense of desire and urgency and subjectivity than simply “collecting,” which can often have a detached connotation. “These figures left us a self-portrait though the things they kept.”

Here, Bell walks us through a few of her favorite collections in the exhibition.

Wilson Bentley’s Snowflakes

Wilson Bentley is the first person to photograph snowflakes and we’re exhibiting a number of his early snapshots. In a scientific sense he was capturing images for his hypothesis that no two snowflakes are alike. It’s widely accepted now, but niche then. This project shows how accumulation could lead to future knowledge.”

Yuji Agematsu’s Cellophane Assemblages

“Each day, Yuji Agematsu would take the cellophane sleeves from a pack of cigarettes, slip it in this pocket, and use it to hold scraps of street trash that had a texture or shape that captured his eye. Each cellophane wrapper represents a single day and what he collected on his daily walks in New York City. These stunning miniature compositions are basically very little documents and time capsules. It’s maximalist accumulation, but simple and accessible.”


Susan Hiller’s Recordings Of Rare Languages

“There are no images and only sound with this, but in The Last Silent Movie she collected the voices of speakers of dying or extinct languages, thinking that they might be the last people to speak it.”

Ydessa Hendeles, Partners (The Teddy Bear Project), 2002Robert Keziere

Ydessa Hendeles‘s Photographs Of Teddy Bears

“It’s an enormous museum within the museum and it’s an exhibition onto itself composed of nearly 3,000 photos. They’re mostly family photos of people posing with teddy bears. Hendeles became fascinated with photos of people with teddy bears. It was invented around 1902 or 1903 and in a decade it became what she called an epidemic. What’s fascinating in the photographs is you see how thoroughly the teddy bear infiltrated life in the early 20th century. It wasn’t just a child’s toy; it shows up at weddings, funerals, with varsity teams posing with them. Through these images, you’re understanding something about history. You see parallels with WWII, with the Holocaust–which stands out as a particular trauma of the century–and it’s interesting to see that through family photos. So there’s something intimate about the nature of the photos but also through the teddy bear, it initiates the reflection on how we become attached to things.”

Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser, The 387 Houses of Peter Fritz (1916 –1992), Insurance Clerk from Vienna, 1993–2008 (detail). Selection of 126 mixed-medium models, dimensions variable.© Wien Museum and Peter Cox

Peter Fritz’s Houses

“An insurance clerk from Vienna named Peter Fritz created 387 model houses and not much else is known about their origin. They were found in a garbage bag in a thrift store so this is an instance where you have multiple keepers with one body of work. First, there’s Peter Fritz that becomes a cataloger of vernacular architecture, then you have the people who found them and deemed the worth preserving. What’s really interesting is that they are provincial, look European, and catalogue different styles of farm houses, banks, villas, and gas stations. There’s nothing too vernacular or banal. And they’re made with simple materials, like a lot of cardboard, magazine pages, and wallpaper.”

Roger Caillois, Paradoxical agate with a polygonal cut of quartz, from the stone collection of Roger Caillois, n.d. Stone, 11 x 4 3/4 in (28 x 12 cm).Courtesy Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris

Roger Caillios’s Stones

“He was a French theorist active in the 1930s and 1940s and very influential in the Parisian avant grade. He had an interest in empirical discovery and thinking about science through nature and was interested in the dimensions of experience. He collected stones and saw something in them that he deemed precious. He took up the project of analyzing them through a written text. In the exhibition, there are collectors who might be classified as academics, or theorists or amateur scholars. For some of these keepers, the fascination went beyond collecting to dedicating some thought to the objects. It wasn’t just about leaving works to people, but also a theory.”

Today, when more of us are living in small spaces and obsessed with paring back what we own, the New Museum’s show offers a counterpoint.

“Keeping objects takes even more dedication at this point and maybe something people take away is a questioning of what objects have value to them and reaffirming that some are worth keeping,” Bell says.


So go ahead, unabashedly display those Beanie Babies with pride.


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.