Jonathan Jones uses the pretext of The New Museum’s The Keeper show on collecting to offer his own precis of what appears to be a basic human need that can be carried to unhealthy—or sublime—extremes:
The exhibition and these reactions suggest a new chapter in the history of collecting. The psychology of the collector seems more traumatised, anxious and defensive. The type of collecting the New Museum draws attention to tends towards the repetitive, and may be hard to explain to or share with others: amassing infinite numbers of the same thing suggests not so much an interest in the meaning or history of objects or a feel for their poetry as a need to surround oneself with reassuring familiarity. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” wrote TS Eliot.[…]
Collecting in modern art started as a flash of poetry, a dreamer’s compulsion. In the 1920s, André Breton and his fellow surrealists visited Paris flea markets to purchase strange objects that seemed to speak to them, to personify hitherto unrecognised longings. “Objects that can be found nowhere else,” as Breton writes in his book Nadja. “Old-fashioned, broken, useless, almost incomprehensible, even perverse …”
The surrealist art of collecting is the very opposite of hoarding. It is the special, unique, magical object that draws the surrealist collector’s eye: a strangely shaped spoon, a glove, an old book. From such found objects the surrealists assembled dreamlike images. Joan Miró’s 1936 Object in New York’s Museum of Modern Art includes a stuffed parrot, a stockinged leg, an old map, a suspended ball and a derby hat. It is a collection that suggests intimate fantasies and elusive poetry.