One of the fascinating things about The Keeper, organized by Massimiliano Gioni, with Margot Norton, Natalie Bell, and Helga Christoffersen for the New Museum (July 20 – September 25, 2016), is the sheer number of distinct collections they managed to include in a space that is not particularly hospitable to art. Originally, I went there to see the paintings of Hilma af Klint, which I reviewed two weeks ago, but there were many other collections that caught my eye and made me want to dig deeper and find out more. I also found it interesting that the curators didn’t focus on big names or the latest trend, which is hardly the rule in this personality-obsessed world. There are a number of collections within this show worth revisiting, depending on your own predilections. They were assembled or made by all sorts of people you are unlikely to have heard of.
If you are a fan of Vladimir Nabokov’s novels, and for all sorts of reasons many people aren’t, you should look at his drawings and notes on butterflies. In addition to being the author of the controversial novel Lolita (1955), he was a serious lepidopterist who discovered nearly twenty species of butterflies. If scrapbooks are your thing, check out Shinro Ohtake’s collection – a must-see for poets. In 1977, when he was in his early twenties, Ohtake began assembling scrapbooks out of whatever he could find: flyers, ticket stubs, package wrapping, stamps, matchbooks, drawings, which he often arranges into a grid on the page. His motivation, like anyone’s who has made a scrapbook, comes across as direct and simple, to compile a visual record of wherever he’s been and whatever he’s done or seen, but taken to extremes.
One of the intriguing figures in this exhibition is Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn (1881–1962), who was friends with Carl Jung and Richard Wilhelm, best known for his translation of the I Ching. Interested in theosophy and Indian philosophy, she moved through a number of intellectual circles in Switzerland in the late 1920s. During this time, she built a conference room near her house, which Jung suggested that she use as a “meeting place between East and West.” This gave birth to the annual meeting of Eranos, a discussion group focused on spirituality. Well-known participants of this gathering, which has been meeting yearly since 1933, include Mircea Eliade, Erich Neumann, Henry Corbin, Herbert Read, Gershom Scholem, and Joseph Campbell.
Fröbe-Kapteyn’s collection consists of two parts, precisely delineated works on paper that she did between 1927 and 1934, and images from her archive of archetypes, which in this exhibition focuses on the subject of ”The Great Mother.” The drawings are what got my attention. The central motifs look like an imaginative amalgamation of esoteric symbols, heraldry, customized muscle car designs, Kenneth Anger neo-Egyptian movie stills, and emblems you might encounter in a Peter Behren’s building. You could imagine David Lynch finding use for one if he did a remake of his 1984 film, Dune. Their sharp angles or what Natalie Bell identifies in the exhibition catalog as the combination of “the accelerated energy of Futurism with a cryptic semiotics,” infuses them with a weird modernity, not the clean precision of the Bauhaus, but the side of 20-century art engaged with abstract ornamentation and the decorative. The use of gold leaf and a palette consisting of white, black, blue, and red are no doubt symbolic.
Fröbe-Kapteyn was not an artist; she was a researcher into the arcane and the persistence of symbolic forms. Still, there is something about the precision and polish of her colored drawings that is absolutely captivating, if not also a bit disturbing: her interest in these forms becomes something more than that, though I hesitate to call it an obsession. It is this unlikely combination that prompted me to return to them. Fröbe-Kapteyn, while avoiding the categorization of artist, belongs to the flipside of the reductive impulse running through modernism that culminated in Minimalism and paint-as-paint. It is a side that has been largely ignored, particularly in New York, until recently. In Fröbe-Kapteyn’s mixed media works one sees affinities with Forrest Bess’ “cuts,” Bruce Conner’s mandalas, the late paintings of Stephen Mueller, the works of Marilyn Lerner, Chuck Webster, Barbara Takenaga, and Philip Taaffe.
The tradition that Fröbe-Kapteyn belongs to a tradition that stretches back to Hilma af Klint and, before her, Georgiana Houghton (1814–1884), whose “Spirit Drawings” are currently on view at The Courtauld Gallery in London (June 16 – September 11, 2016). It seems to me that this strain of art history – one that the Museum of Modern Art in New York has erased, marginalized, and ignored for much of its existence – has been slowly emerging ever since Hilma af Klint’s work was first seen in public in 1986. The inclusion of works by af Klint and Fröbe-Kapteyn in The Keeper adds more to our knowledge of what John Ashbery – in a different context – called “The Other Tradition.”
The Keeper continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through September 25.