In Nina Katchadourian’s current exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum, the contours of two very distinct personalities take shape. There’s Katchadourian herself: a multimedia artist who turns modest materials into quirky, conceptually witty works. And there’s John Pierpont Morgan, the 19th-century American financier who used his unimaginable wealth to build a collection of art and manuscripts so grand that The Times of London, in 1908, called it “one of the wonders of the world.”
Their two sensibilities merge in a joyful polyphony in Katchadourian’s show, “Uncommon Denominator,” which brings together nearly 130 artworks, artifacts and heirlooms drawn from the artist’s own practice and possessions, as well as from the Morgan’s extensive holdings. “Uncommon Denominator” focuses on photographs but offers much else, too: a figure drawing in chalk by Antoine Watteau; sketches and scribbled notes by Saul Steinberg; the broken top of a champagne bottle used to christen Morgan’s yacht.
Katchadourian’s artwork is a key part of the show. Some of it crouches in the weeds, among other artifacts. Other pieces take center stage, like the 24 photos in the middle of the room, all from her series “Look Who’s Talking.” In them are books Katchadourian pulled from the Morgan Library’s Carter Burden Collection of American Literature, and then arranged into jagged stacks, photographing their spines so that their titles can be read together as pithy, surreal poetry. (One such verse: “Big Sur / Oh What a Paradise It Seems / Suddenly Last Summer / Fires / Burning Bright / Ah, Wilderness!”)
Over the past several decades, Katchadourian has become known for unassuming, playful art that tinkers with the natural order of things to question what we take for granted, or point out the vast possibilities that exist in the smallest of realms. The results can be outright humorous, but as she once said in an interview, “I am not just making little jokes.” Her work has been shown at the Palais de Tokyo, Turner Contemporary, and in the Armenian Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale. She’s mended broken spider webs with red sewing thread, then chronicled how her gestures of good will were received. (The spiders rejected her handiwork, replacing it with their own.) She’s sliced and diced geographic maps into new arrangements. Perhaps her most popular works were self-portraits she shot in airplane bathrooms, wearing paper toilet-seat covers on her head that she’d folded or torn to resemble the hoods worn by 15th-century Flemish women.
Those photos aren’t on view, but others made 30,000 feet in the air are: namely, her “Seat Assignment” pieces, for which Katchadourian, determined to treat her economy-class seat as a temporary artist studio, transformed whatever she had on hand — in-flight magazine spreads, rolled-up paper napkins — into odd tableaus she photographed with her camera phone. Katchadourian’s D.I.Y. approach makes the lingering impact of Morgan’s aesthetic seem all the more extravagant.
The tycoon’s most show-stoppingly famous acquisitions, like the only surviving manuscript of Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” aren’t shown here, though there is a Mesopotamian alabaster seal from 3400-3000 B.C. that wows. Rather, oddly personal items — like a pocket diary from Morgan’s youth — give visitors a glimpse of the mogul himself, but also a sense of the many people involved in preserving and expanding the collection after his death. In selecting the show’s final works, Katchadourian met with Morgan staff members from 15 departments, inviting each to share an object from the museum or library collection that held personal significance. “Uncommon Denominator,” as it turns out, is a portrait of many people: from the show’s curator, Joel Smith, to the Morgan patron Peter J. Cohen, whose donated photographs on view include a silver gelatin print descriptively titled “Group of seven boys behind a blanket, with shoes visible.”
This exhibition follows a 16th-century “cabinet of curiosities” approach, in which mollusk shells sit alongside Greek coins, united by nothing more than a shared capacity to inspire marvel.
Skeptics could find fault with the show’s willfully optimistic tone. Family trauma is but hinted at: Alongside a needlework sampler made by the artist’s “bonus grandmother,” Lucine Katchadourian, a wall label notes that Lucine grew up in an orphanage in Jubayl, Lebanon, as a refugee of the Armenian genocide. But that tragic history quickly gives way to idyll, as viewers, moving on, find themselves face to face with a bird-watching journal kept by Katchadourian’s grandfather, or the black-and-white snapshots of the artist’s mother as a child, shown every year on her birthday standing barefoot in a nightgown against a backdrop of lush forests and fields.
Nor is there much material that tackles difficult political histories (out of more than a hundred works, there are maybe two or three exceptions, one being a 1956 photo showing Steve Poston and Jessalyn Gray, two Black students, as they were blocked by white supremacists from entering Texarkana College). J. Pierpont Morgan’s ostensible trespasses against society go unaddressed; we’re shown nothing of his reputation among contemporaneous critics for being a “red-faced, thick-necked financial bully, drunk with wealth and power,” as the populist Wisconsin senator Robert M. La Follette put it in 1910.
Usually, these days, when artists are invited to explore collections of museums and galleries, terms like “institutional critique” or “intervention” are often bandied about: words that evoke whistle-blowers or perhaps loving family members gathered to end a destructive addiction. Given J. Pierpont Morgan’s complicated history as a public figure, I’d anticipated “Uncommon Denominator” to be another show in this vein. But institutional critique this project is not. An institutional romp, maybe. And, I suppose, not every single foray into an archive has to right a wrong, even if there are endless wrongs that still need righting. “Uncommon Denominator,” ultimately, is a meditation on how objects, images and relics become portraits of the people who make them; and the people who buy them; and the people who, decades later, pull them out for a closer look. If that premise sounds interesting — if you want to get lost in a Victorian notebook preserving locks of hair, or revel in the first photographic image ever published, of three delicate fern fronds — then this exhibition will make for a highly engrossing visit.
Uncommon Denominator: Nina Katchadourian at the Morgan
Through May 28 at the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street, Manhattan; 212-685-0008, themorgan.org.