Collector of Americana With Eye for the Absurd

Interview Alex Shear

Alex Shear claims to own one of the largest collections of popular cultural objects in the United States. The former marketing consultant and self-described cultural anthropologist is a passionate collector of Americana.

His Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan is barely under control, objects piled ceiling high and all around, rattling when one walks on the parquet floors. A Frank Gehry cardboard armchair competes for space with emerald-green and ruby-red glass irons from the 1940s, a barber's comb for flattop haircuts, and a 1977 Farrah Fawcett doll.

Mr. Shear's collection stems from his desire to catalog American ingenuity. "I deeply feel I have a mission: to cull and collect for this national archive of the American dream," he says.

Americans have given the world its future through innovation, says Shear, pulling out a 1950s Sears Kenmore vacuum cleaner in the shape of a rocket ship, but the problem is that they have stopped dreaming.

He hopes his Americana collection will inspire people to create once again. Although this sounds like a serious mission, the rich collection is immediately accessible and full of humor, a result of his trained eye for the absurd.

Shear's collection may look like a jumbled mass of everything from the 20th century, but he has carefully assembled both folk art and consumer culture products, maintaining a delicate balance between the two. In fact, he sees himself as a link between museums and corporations, and has, at times, been a consultant to both. He's been a major contributor to exhibitions such as the Smithsonian's "Mechanical Brides: Women and Machines," at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York in 1993.

Perhaps one of the best examples of a marriage between the two art forms is Shear's collection of factory folk art: whimsical robots and tinmen made from scrap metal by factory workers during their lunch breaks, inspired, says Shear, by Frank Baum's "The Wizard of Oz," Jules Verne's retro-future, and Buck Rogers. These workers were unknown artisans, working eight to 10 hours a day making consumer products.

Shear is often on the road searching for the American soul, probing and digging to get a window into people. "I can't get a reading in New York," he says. He travels mainly to Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, and deep into the Midwest.

It was in Virginia that Shear found his FloJo doll - Florence Griffith Joyner - joining what he calls his group of "American icon" dolls, which includes Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Dolly Parton, and Vanna White.

FloJo's main feature is a full set of nail stickers. "My question is," he says, "as Flo was hitting a world record, was she thinking, 'Am I wearing the right nails?' This is the beauty and absurdity of it.

"I was very active during the 1989 Desert Storm operation," he says, producing Schwarzkopf, Powell, and Bush dolls. "I try to understand who buys these - are we talking about infants in cribs hugging George Bush?"

Shear, like his collection, is in constant evolution. After CBS's "This Morning" did a seven-minute segment on him in early August, he reinvented himself as a marketer for the millennium.

He has been discussing the possibility, with several big corporations, of producing a traveling millennium show, which would depict the American consumer over the past century.

Corporate archives are flat, says Shear. In order to make the 20th-century consumer come alive in an exhibition, it is necessary to show how these products define our culture.

Salesmen's models of swimming pools or sample telephones, kitchenware from the 1930s, appliance art including a toaster in the shape of a piece of toast, toy cars, airplanes, boats, sleds spanning 20 years from the 1930s, and transistor radios all have a story to tell in Shear's hands.

"I tip my hat to creative contribution," he says. "I don't care which medium. I buy from the heart, what speaks to me. I'm a patriot, but instead of wearing flags, I collect stuff. I have a love affair going on with America."

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