The Keeper opens at the New Museum

by William J. Simmons


The Keeper opens at the New Museum

The exhibition will be on display through September 25

While it is true that exhibitions focused on artists-as-collectors or documenters often fall a little bit flat, The Keeper at the New Museum offers a glimpse of the power and elegance of an archival show. The curators should firstly be commended for creating a truly diverse experience in terms of media, gender, and nationality—this is not your average white-males- only summer group show (trust me, such seemingly antiquated exhibitions are alive and well in New York and Los Angeles). The Keeper, however, goes beyond tokenistic inclusion and points to an art historical and conceptual inclusiveness that combines a variety of styles and approaches in one space. Seeing Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn’s meditative and detailed collages in the same show as euphoric quilts by Missouri and Quinnie Pettway and spare string sculptures by Harry Smith is a real treat.

The most potent moment in this exhibition is something that makes so much sense that I can’t figure out why no one has done it before—the juxtaposition of the forgotten pioneer of abstract painting Hilma af Klint with hefty, yet delicate, sculptures by Carol Bove and the late Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa. The latter is not a random pairing. Bove created sculptures in response to Scarpa’s work, such as a steel base for his rippling, Futurist steel object “Crescita” (1968). Towering over the room like a monument in a city square, Bove’s “Cretaceous” (2014)—a totem made of steel and petrified wood—connects the two artists in their simultaneous attraction to natural and industrial forms. It almost resembles the noir post- industrial dreamscape of Twin Peaks.

When one adds af Klint to the mix, things become even more complex. Though she has gained greater notoriety after Josiah McElheny’s recent homage to the lost pioneer of abstraction at Andrea Rosen Gallery, the fact remains that most of the writing on her work centers on her visions, spiritualism, isolation, and dances with the occult. As a result, critics often cloud af Klint’s paintings in an air of “feminine” or “primitive” mysticism that excludes them from the patriarchal rationalism of traditional accounts of modern art. Even though she may well have been the first artist to employ abstraction and automatic drawing, years before the Suprematists and the Surrealists, af Klint often suffers from an active sidelining from accounts of the development of Western painting.

When we experience af Klint alongside Bove, we see two people (two female-identified people) who contend with the feminized tropes of the natural, and in so doing break down heterosexist assumptions about what constitutes art history. The spiritual allusions of Bove’s sculptures, despite the agnosticism of steel, place af Klint’s paintings into perspective in a startlingly simple, yet effective way. Though af Klint’s contribution to—no, her foundational role in—a male-dominated history is only just now being appreciated, we can now understand that her influence is truly alive in Bove, Scarpa, and other artists who have attempted to reach the transcendental using tangible objects and tactile processes. Furthermore, we understand Bove’s contribution to art history to be more than a recent phenomenon; rather, she has captured a history of materialist politics (or materialist feminisms perhaps) that reach back to af Klimt and ripple through Eva Hesse and Kiki Smith into the present.

Image via Aesthetica Magazine