Jean-Christophe Ammann (1939–2015)

Cover of the catalogue for Transformer: Aspects of Travesty, 1974. Photo: Bice Curiger.

WALKING THROUGH the extraordinary first large US retrospective of Peter Fischli & David Weiss currently at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, I remembered how I initially encountered the work as a teenager in 1985, in the artists’ inaugural major solo show in a European institution. Curated by Jean-Christophe Ammann, that exhibition, “Ein ruheloses universum” (A Restless Universe) at the Kunsthalle Basel, was one of the biggest epiphanies of my life, prompting me to visit Fischli & Weiss, which in turn launched a conversation that never ended and has since strongly influenced and informed my own thinking and practice.

After that Fischli & Weiss encounter, I never missed one of Ammann’s exhibitions at the Kunsthalle, where he was director from 1978 until 1988. In 1988 alone, Ammann showed Richard Serra’s wall drawings, Dennis Hopper’s photographs, Anselm Stalder, and the first institutional exhibitions of Rosemarie Trockel and Katharina Fritsch. Fritsch created her iconic piece Tischgesellschaft —a breakthrough moment—for that exhibition, and Ammann arranged for it to be acquired by the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt. Ammann’s program in Basel was truly a tour de force. Thanks to him, I experienced groundbreaking artists and was confronted with challenging ideas from an early age, which fostered my interest and curiosity to meet and work with artists.

After studying art history, Christian archaeology, and German literature at the Universität Fribourg, Ammann went to work at the Kunsthalle Bern, under the directorship of Harald Szeemann, in 1967. A year later, Ammann took over the Kunstmuseum Luzern at the young age of twenty-nine and ran the institution until 1977, using the museum as a laboratory for contemporary art and ideas. His experimental and rigorous program was staggering and highly influential: He created an energy field that allowed for the formation of new ideas and concepts. In his nearly decade-long leadership there, Ammann showed myriad exceptional artists such as Niki de Saint Phalle (1969), Gerhard Richter (1973), and Alighiero Boetti (1974). Fischli told me how he traveled there on his motorcycle to experience the living sculptures of Gilbert & George in their 1972 exhibition.

One of the most important shows Ammann curated in Lucerne was the groundbreaking group exhibition “Transformer: Aspects of Travesty” in 1974, which dealt with transvestism, drag performance, and sexual self-reflection through gender-blurring artworks. Artists included Luciano Castelli, Jürgen Klauke, Urs Lüthi, Pierre Molinier, Tony Morgan, Luigi Ontani, Walter Pfeiffer, Andrew Sherwood, Katharina Sieverding, Werner Alex Meyer (alias Alex Silber), the Cockettes, and Andy Warhol. Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Brian Eno, and the New York Dolls contributed to the catalogue; the exhibition title was inspired by Lou Reed’s 1972 LP of the same name. “Transformer” traveled to Germany and Austria, and Swiss TV documented the opening, which indicates the wide dissemination of its ideas.

Hilmar Hoffmann, the cultural commissioner for Frankfurt in the late 1980s, was the driving force in the city’s museum boom in the ’70s through the early ’90s. He convinced Ammann to move to Frankfurt to become director of the MMK in 1989. Though I’d met Ammann as a teenager in Basel, I saw him regularly in Frankfurt, when I collaborated with Kasper König in the early ’90s at the Städelschule, as he and Kasper lived in the same building. (It was a remarkable time. Hoffmann brought so many people to Frankfurt, including William Forsythe and Rainer Werner Fassbinder; he embodied an ambition for cultural politics that often feels missing today in Europe.) Two years later, the new institution designed by Austrian architect Hans Hollein was opened to the public. After two decades of leading institutions with no collections, Ammann was keen to build a repository for contemporary art to be shown to audiences on a permanent basis.

Nevertheless, for Ammann, permanent did not mean stagnant. In Frankfurt, he created the format of Szenenwechsel or “change of scene,” in which the museum’s collection display would rotate several times during the year through reordering and adding new acquisitions or loaned works. A collection display in constant flux triggers a continuous dialogue with the present and a questioning of the past, allowing the museum to negotiate histories and to make new connections between artists and art practices. The initiative highlights Ammann’s commitment to creating different ways of seeing and approaching art in an institutional context. In Lucerne, Basel, and Frankfurt, he exemplified the ways in which a museum can become a catalyst for new ideas, discussions, and inspirations for an entire region.

In 2001, at the age of sixty-two, Ammann left the MMK to continue working as a curator, critic, writer, and advisor. During this time, he published numerous books in German, including Bei näherer Betrachtung: Zeitgenössische Kunst verstehen und deuten (A Closer Look: Understanding and Interpreting Contemporary Art) in 2007, and Kunst? Ja, Kunst: Die Sehnsucht der Bilder (Art? Yes, Art: The Longing of Images) in 2014. One of his major undertakings was Boetti’s catalogue raisonné.

The last text that I know of by Ammann is on Boetti—the preface to the book Il gioco dell’arte (The Game of Art), written by the artist’s daughter Agata Boetti. It will be published this spring. Ammann recounts Boetti’s obsession with photocopying everything that could possibly be photocopied. One day, the artist proposed to Agata that they photocopy raindrops, so she helped him drag the photocopier outside in the rain. The machine was destroyed, but the raindrops created beautiful images. In telling this intimate story of the stunning piece made by Boetti and his daughter, Ammann hints at his dedication to, and passion for, working with artists. In an interview with ART Position in 1989, Ammann notes: “Personally, everything I learned in my life, I learned from artists. An artist, who paints a picture or creates a work, always creates a world.”

Hans Ulrich Obrist is a curator and director of the Serpentine Galleries in London.