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“The Keeper” Sleeper: The New Museum Displays the Harrowing “Sketchbook from Auschwitz”

“Start on the fourth floor, but make sure not to miss the second floor,” New Museum director Lisa Phillips advised me when I arrived with only an hour to spare for the press preview of The Keeper (to Sept. 25)—an ephemera-packed exhibition of the stuff assembled and preserved by obsessive-compulsive accumulators of objects and images. Astutely curated by the indispensable Massimiliano Gioni, the museum’s artistic director, the show examines and ennobles the visionary and/or documentary impulses behind these eccentric labors of love.

When I arrived on the second floor, I wondered which of its agglomerations I wasn’t supposed to miss. I suspect that Lisa was referring to the display that the press release identifies as “the centerpiece of the exhibition”—Ydessa Hendeles‘ “Partners (The Teddy Bear Project),” 2002, consisting of more than 3,000 images of people with their cuddly companions, as well as several objects of their adoration.

Here’s a detail from that ursine extravaganza:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

And here’s my personal favorite:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

But what most riveted me was an unassuming, unforgettable line-up of meticulously detailed drawings, unmentioned in the press release and easy for others to overlook.

They are reproductions of pencil drawings from “The Sketchbook from Auschwitz,” an album from the collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. An anonymous artist (signing only as “MM”) violated the prohibition against making such images, leaving behind “the only extant [eyewitness] visual account of the full range of abuses suffered by the prisoners of the camp—from their arrival by train to their mass extermination,” in the words of the New Museum’s wall label.

Four examples:

Ausch1

Ausch2

Ausch3

Ausch4

All photos by Lee Rosenbaum

The “most probable date” for these drawings is 1943, the year when Auschwitz’s gas chambers and crematoria opened, according to the wall label.

It also tells us:

Based on the artist’s attention to minute details such as license plates, armbands, signs, and the layout of the camp, it is clear that the drawings were created while the artist was at Auschwitz. Specific buildings and SS officers have been identified in the drawings, and they survive as unusually descriptive historical documents….

The drawings were found stuffed into a bottle at the foundation of a barrack close to the gas chambers, evincing the artist’s determined effort to preserve these images for future viewers.

They were found in 1947 (as I learned later) by former prisoner Józef Odi, who was then a watchman at the Auschwitz Memorial.

I would have preferred to have seen these drawings in much more weighty company, rather than chock-a-block with tchotchkes. But I was grateful to have gotten to see them at all.

In 2012, the 22-page sketchbook was published in its entirety for the first time. It can be purchased at Auschwitz-Birkenau’s online bookstore. Each image is accompanied by a historical explanation and survivors’ accounts:

AuschSkBK

Notwithstanding its current focus on “Keepers,” the New Museum does not intend to become one itself. Phillips told me her institution will not acquire a permanent collection, even when it expands to the adjoining property that it owns. The $80-million capital plan (announced in May after $43 million had been raised) would double the museum’s gallery space for temporary exhibitions.

The New Museum and the small building on the right that it will renovate Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The New Museum and the small building on the right that it will renovate
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Lisa yesterday expressed the view that it doesn’t make sense for a strictly contemporary art museum to collect (notwithstanding the fact that some contemporary museums do so).

“What would we do with those things,” she asked rhetorically, “50 years from now?”

an ArtsJournal blog