Nina Katchadourian: Uncommon Denominator
On ViewThe Morgan Library & Museum
February 10 – May 28, 2023
Language, in the hands of Nina Katchadourian, instructs like a map drawn from memory. Weaving through her associations yields a visual scavenger hunt, and getting lost is the aim. These thrills begin early in Uncommon Denominator, the artist’s engagement at the Morgan Library & Museum where Katchadourian has placed a vast array of artifacts from the museum’s collection alongside her family’s heirlooms and her own works of art. A floor-to-ceiling reproduction of Saul Steinberg’s 1964 line drawing Untitled (Braque) invites visitors inward. In the bottom left corner of the sketch, a man stands in front of a painting by Georges Braque, contemplating the abstract figures before him. A thought bubble consumes the remainder of the page, populated with a free associative ramble of words. “Braque, bric-a-brac, break, bark, poodle, Suzanne, 72nd St.…” begins the flow of names, places, and things that tumble in succession, only for the words to deconstruct into a line of doodles before picking back up again. It’s in this moment of nonsense, a moment Katchadourian describes as “language becom[ing] ornamental noise,” that the exhibition finds its shape.
Just beyond the Steinberg wall, a scrambled map charts the path. To make World Map 2 (1995–96), Katchadourian sliced a standard world map into hundreds of horizontal strips and reconfigured the pieces to form an image of fantasy landmasses with fragmented names. It looks like a glitch, a momentary lapse in processing something familiar where the picture never resolves. Katchadourian positions her map as the starting point of a visual progression of “clusters,” as she calls the presentations of works culled from the Morgan’s holdings: from a series of stacked paper collages, to a British physiognomy card game from the 1940s, to a collection of anonymous, twentieth-century photographs of subjects obscuring various body parts. In this last grouping, a snapshot of a row of feet barely visible under a hanging sheet is positioned near a most peculiar specimen. In the flat files of the museum’s conservation lab, Katchadourian discovered an etching whose iron gall ink had seeped through the paper. On the verso of the page, only the subject’s shoes were visible, floating among the splotchy expanse. She requested that the Morgan frame the drawing backwards. “When something in an image is concealed,” the artist writes in one of the many introspective plaques throughout the exhibition, “a gap opens where anything might fit, and all the possibilities are available.”
For Uncommon Denominator, Katchadourian created a new series of photographs for her project Sorted Books (1993–ongoing), drawing from the institution’s Carter Burden Collection of American Literature. To make her alluring compositions, the artist catalogs the titles of books in a given collection (the libraries of Isamu Noguchi and William S. Burroughs were previous subjects) before arranging them in piles where the spines read like stories. Dynamic and often humorous, these pairings enliven otherwise functional libraries through Katchadourian’s idiosyncratic care. With the library of the one-time New York City politician’s, a donation to the Morgan, she highlighted both the high- and lowbrow titles, balancing pulpy detective novels atop modern classics. A personal favorite: “A Letter Explaining Why He Could Not Write an Introduction for This Book / The Dogs Bark / The Hovering Fly / Spring and All / Summer / Summer / Summer.” Seen among the thirteen other “clusters” in the series, an intimate portrait of Burden’s interior life—a devoted lover of Steinbeck, a collector of multiple editions of a single book—begins to come into view.
Resisting the impulse to list every artifact on view in the exhibition is a challenge. What about the case of hundreds of ornamental bookbinder’s finishing tools? Or the four, quarter-sized medallion portraits of each member of The Beatles? There’s the broken bottleneck of a champagne bottle that J. Pierpont Morgan’s wife christened her husband’s yacht with, and a bird nesting log kept by Katchadourian’s grandfather Lale, as well. I learn that these latter two artifacts are classified in institutions like the Morgan as realia—objects collected from life and preserved for education. The word sounds like a lullaby when spoken, a sweet quality that emphasizes a collecting practice that borders on sentimentality. Perhaps the most moving example of realia found in Uncommon Denominators is the storage box lid that Lale meticulously repaired with dozens of screws, filed down and painted to elevate its appearance. A broken container, easily replaceable, becomes an exalted thing. Katchadourian notes that the lid lives in her family’s home like a sculpture. Her exhibition holds such objects up to acknowledged works of art on view to ask those who wander through, what do you see in the space between these connections? Where do they take you? I think back to Steinberg, iceberg, Titanic, Leo, astrology, apology, laundry… on and on, until I’m found.