I will be upfront: Uncommon Denominator: Nina Katchadourian at the Morgan, a collaboration between artist Nina Katchadourian, the Morgan Library & Museum, and Morgan curator Joel Smith, is one of the most unusual and engrossing shows that I’ve encountered in years.
Katchadourian began by asking several of the curators to choose an item from the Morgan’s vast collection that they cherish; some of these works are in the show. Then she and Smith set about selecting disparate artworks and artifacts, some very old, some recent, and all things in between. Interspersed, and often discretely installed, are Katchadourian’s own works, along with treasured things from her family.
Everything connects with themes long important for her: travel, maps, language, books, bodies, history (including personal and family), and the relationship between humans and nature. Her sensibility — keenly intelligent, soulful, playful, boundlessly alert — permeates all. Not just ideational but also abundant visual correspondences help make the show so delightful and enticing.
An engraving by Dutch artist Jan van de Velde shows a sorceress spreading white, bewitching powder through the air to demons (“The Sorceress,” 1626). In Katchadourian’s photo “Prince Charming” (2012), from her ongoing Seat Assignment series, two smiling male airplane pilots eye one another in an airport. Similar white powder bewitches the two men, who seem avid for a torrid encounter.
The show’s centerpiece is a collection of Katchadourian’s 24 lush photographs, commissioned by the Morgan, from her ongoing Look Who’s Talking series. She selected mostly lesser-known books by well-known authors from the Morgan’s Carter Burden Collection of American Literature, and arranged them in stacks with their titles forming messages. One begins: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Edward Albee). The hilarious answer: Don (Zane Gray), Joey (Henry Miller), Charlie (Ben Hecht), Elmer (William Faulkner), Ferdinand (Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson), and Tiny Alice (Edward Albee); save for tiny Alice, all are men. It’s a sly yet potent critique of males terrified of powerful females.
The show easily traverses eras, categories, mediums, genres. On one wall, in an assortment of body-themed works, is an enchanting chalk drawing by Antoine Watteau of a young woman, her rippling dress half sliding off her shoulder, her face turned to one side as she looks out and up (“Seated Young Woman,” c. 1716). Nearby are side by side photographs in an alarmingly titled 1926 book Ein anatomischer Totentanz (An anatomical dance of death) of a male javelin thrower and a skeleton seemingly poised to hurl a javelin, by Albert Hasselwander with Fritz Skell. That’s quite a shift from the Watteau.
A total surprise in an exhibition that abounds with them is a handwritten and illustrated book about the human body, enchantingly titled The Human Body: The Incredibal Machine (1975–76), which Katchadourian made when she was seven years old. One page features her drawing of a smiling “human skeloton”; underneath is the emphatic “Magnificent!” in bold red tinged with blue. Finding this childhood book in an institution renowned for books, many of them rare and famous, is wonderful.
Among the almost 130 things on display are the jagged remnant of the champagne bottle that christened J.P. Morgan’s yacht, along with sundry items from Katchadourian’s family. Her Finnish grandfather meticulously repaired and restored a mundane plastic lid. This minimalist object is odd and alluring, although the grandfather never considered it art. Nearby is Katchadourian’s striking, colorful photograph “Renovated Mushroom (Tip-Top Tire Rubber Patch Kit)” (1998); instead of fixing a tire she altered a mushroom. Renovation and transformation run in the family.
At first, the exhibition can seem overwhelming — a panoramic cabinet of curiosities writ large, minus the cabinet. But after some time and exploration, the ultra-creative logic becomes apparent, with things arranged in thematic clusters. Plants? Golding Bird’s 1839 photogram of ferns, the first published photo, and an anonymous c. 1860s photo of a jungle scene in India. Nearby is an English woman’s album, featuring actual seaweed and a poem, and Katchadourian’s hugely artificial green plant made from paper-covered wire, gouache, and product packaging (“Plant #32,” 2021), from her appropriately titled Fake Plant series. Animals? A striking, anonymous 1960s photograph of a shaggy black dog on its hind legs at a window, Robert Benecke’s grisly 1873 photo of buffalo heads, and a 3,000-plus-year-old Mesopotamian alabaster seal showing bovine animals at a byre. Informational charts? J.P. Morgan’s 1853 pocket diary listing various steamers from Liverpool, third mate L.R. Hale’s logbook of a lengthy 1857–60 whaling voyage, Saul Steinberg’s table of country noises, and Katchadourian’s teenage “Beatle Log” (1981), a notebook chronicling every time she heard a Beatles song.
Most, maybe all, of the non-art objects have probably never been in an art exhibition. A surprising star is an assortment of small leather-stamping tools in a handsome wood case that Katchadourian spied in the Conservation department. Used to ornament leather-bound books, they resemble a mysterious pictorial language.
Directly across is an embroidery sampler by the young Lucy Katchadourian, who was orphaned during the Armenian Genocide (1915–16), made it to a refugee camp in Lebanon, and later joined the Katchadourian family, becoming the artist’s “bonus, third grandmother.” The gorgeous multicolored sampler likewise suggests a pictorial language; it also seems spiritual, with its intricate designs — maybe even cosmic. That Lucy composed it in the aftermath of immense trauma, suffering, and death makes it all the more special, a captivating diasporic work made by a young survivor.
Katchadourian can be a riot, and this exhibition is often refreshingly humorous. The champagne bottleneck is next to a model of J.P. Morgan, Jr.’s yacht — I guess yacht-owning oligarchs go way back. Above, each in a different language, are 31 copies of the book Survive the Savage Sea, long important to the artist (“Every Version of Survive the Savage Sea in Every Language and Every Edition,” 2021). Bottle, yacht, and books evoke impending disaster: a yacht is christened, it sets sail, then yikes!
The exhibition is also often deeply touching. For 12 years, Katchadourian’s Finnish grandmother, Runa “Nunni” Lindfors, took photos of her daughter, Stina (Nina’s mom), on her birthday, wearing her first nightgown. The lovely accordion-fold book shows Stina getting bigger, the nightgown getting smaller. Note the Swedish title of “The story of why Stina’s first nightgown became too small” ( 1939–52): “Berättelsen om varför Stinas första natipaitu blev för liten.” Katchadourian’s maternal family is from Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority.
Behind it on the wall is Katchadourian’s “Lake Michigan” (1996), in which cut paper maps of the lake grow successively larger. The two serial works echo one another, linking the two women. These connections underscore the creativity of what is indeed a remarkable show.
Uncommon Denominator: Nina Katchadourian at the Morgan continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Murray Hill, Manhattan) through May 28. The exhibition was curated Joel Smith, the Morgan’s curator of Photography and department head of Photography.