Jean-Christophe Ammann and Harald Szeemann. Photo: Till Spiro, Kassel.

WITH THE PASSING of Jean-Christophe Ammann, a great, pathbreaking curator has left us. He participated in the vanguard of new departures in art, especially in the late 1970s and ’80s, and he breathed a welcome liveliness into the landscape of German museums—once fussy structures—during his leadership of the Museum für Moderne Kunst (MMK) in Frankfurt, the first museum for modern art in the country, from 1989–2001. Why has there been such silence surrounding his death?

A moody, collegial photo from 1972 captures Ammann and Harald Szeemann during the period in which they conceived the mythical Documenta 5 together. At that point, Ammann already had an impressive résumé: Since 1968 he had been at the Kunstmuseum Lucerne as one of Europe’s youngest museum directors, and before that he had been an assistant at the Kunsthalle Bern. This image conveys something of the fighting spirit of the two Swiss “generals” who worked relentlessly for the recognition of contemporary art in postwar Europe.

Together, they built on the early work of art educators and museum directors such as Arnold Rüdlinger, Arnold Bode, Willem Sandberg, and others, as well as on the work of daring gallerists and dealers on both sides of the Atlantic, in New York, Düsseldorf, Kassel, and Amsterdam, but also especially in Italy, in Turin, Rome, and Milan.

After that historic Documenta, Szeemann withdrew from contemporary art for more than ten years to prepare his famous exhibitions in the history of ideas (such as “Machines célibataires,” “Monte verità,” “Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk”) and Ammann focused on communicating new ideas about contemporary art to the public for the next twenty years, first continuing his role in Lucerne and then, after 1978, at the Kunsthalle Basel. Only later, and hesitantly, did his practice expand into museums, Kunsthalles, and, yes, biennials.

Importantly, Ammann also stimulated the exchange between the art scenes in Europe and the US, and he did this at a time when the two worlds were still very separate, solipsistically turned in upon themselves. He also knew, as no other, how to bring the zeitgeist—the most advanced and cosmopolitan developments in art—to the provinces, and by doing so, to bring local artists into top form. First Lucerne and then Basel, indeed Switzerland at large, suddenly became luminous places on the art-world map.

His influence can be seen even in the history of Artforum. When, in 1981, Ingrid Sischy opened many new eyes to young European art production, this had much to do with Ammann’s work and charisma. Indeed, encounters with him were often formative. For generations of artists, educators, and ordinary art audiences he was an unforgettable instigator and a passionate conversation partner. Franz Gertsch captured the atmosphere around Ammann in many large-format Photorealist paintings, such as Medici from 1971, which presents the players in Lucerne’s scene in front of “their” museum.

Franz Gertsch, Medici, 1971, oil on linen, 13 x 20'. Photo: Franz Gertsch, Medici.

Several of Ammann’s exhibitions were milestones, as were the accompanying catalogues, for example “Transformer” from 1974, the first and for a long time only gender-themed exhibition in a museum, with Luciano Castelli, Jürgen Klauke, Urs Lüthi, Pierre Molinier, Tony Morgan, Luigi Ontani, Walter Pfeiffer, Andrew Sherwood, Alex Silber, the Cockettes, Andy Warhol—and, as the only woman, Katharina Sieverding.

When Ammann arrived in Lucerne, he immediately created one sensation after the other. In 1969 he presented the “Düsseldorf Szene” (Düsseldorf Scene) with, among others, Joseph Beuys, Blinky Palermo, Sigmar Polke, Jörg Immendorff, Gerhard Richter, and Reiner Ruthenbeck. He followed this with the “Visualisierten Denkprozesse” (Visualized Thought Processes), in which the new practices with international ambitions were skillfully juxtaposed with inspired local works. That’s how he presented the “Young Italian Avant-Garde,” a reference to his inclusion of Arte Povera, with Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, and others, together with two local women artists, Irma Ineichen and Josephine Troller. In 1972, he carried out the magnificent exhibition “Oh, the Grand Old Duke of York,” with drawings and performances from Gilbert & George.

In 1973, he showed Paul Thek’s ruminant Gesamtkunstwerk installation and also exhibited the work of Michael Heizer, Hanne Darboven, and Urs Lüthi, as well David Weiss, some time before the latter would team up with the younger Peter Fischli. Ammann presented the two of them in tandem in their first comprehensive institutional exhibition in 1985.

He celebrated his shift to the Kunsthalle Basel with magnificent solo shows of Alighiero Boetti, in 1978, and Giovanni Anselmo and Dennis Oppenheim, both in 1979. In 1980, Ammann became one of the first champions and interpreters of painting’s great departure into the postmodern (everything Deleuzian and body related), by showing the punk painter Martin Disler, the Italian Transavantguardia, and also Julian Schnabel, the “Mühlheimer Freiheit” (Mühlheimer Freedom), with Georg Dokoupil, Walter Dahn, Werner Büttner, and Albert Oehlen. He simultaneously also showed the “in-between” generation of Americans little known in Europe at that time, in large, monographic exhibitions: Neil Jenney in 1982; Richard Artschwager and Bruce Nauman both in 1985. And he was pursuing historical reappraisal, too; thus Ammann introduced Malcolm Morley and the late Philip Guston to Basel with spectacular exhibitions that were organized in cooperation with Nicholas Serota when he was still director at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.

Ammann’s interest in photography was very keen, and in Basel he offered detailed solo presentations of Peter Hujar, Robert Mapplethorpe, Dino Pedriali, and Dennis Hopper. And he helped a young generation of women finally pushed into the art world, giving Rosemarie Trockel, Hannah Villiger, and Vivian Suter their first big presentations. In 1988, Katharina Fritsch showed her hypnotic Tischgesellschaft (Dinner Party), which later evolved into a public favorite at the MMK.

I remember how often Ammann’s fans, including myself, ate with him in the restaurant at the Kunsthalle, where he orchestrated so many exciting gatherings with artists and other open, subtle souls. Jean-Christophe’s gusto for the confrontational, his courage to resist, inspired and challenged. Jean-Christophe had a way of drawing one directly into his high-flying and deeply penetrating reflections; he gave, gave away, and went for broke—he was the embodiment of potlatch.

In 1984 in Zurich, we founded the bilingual art publication Parkett as a bridge between the continents. We focused on slowness and depth, but the most important elements—which could be traced back to Ammann’s schooling—were our proximity to artists and our resolute rejection of the appearance of objectivity. In its place we referenced a background of collective experience. This subjectively objectifying approach to art could sum up the Ammannian motto: authentic expertise instead of academic role-playing and pomposity. His favorite mantra was that rather than succumbing to indoctrination from on high, one should remain at eye level and “look over the artist’s shoulder.”

In 1986, Ammann organized a private conversation that took place over several sessions between Joseph Beuys, Enzo Cucchi, Anselm Kiefer, and Jannis Kounellis in the library at the Kunsthalle. The rules of the game were as follows: Europe, not art, was to be the subject discussed, but it would be examined from the perspective of the artist. The conversation was published in book form in a number of languages by Parkett Publishers. How topical and important a new roundtable with today’s artists on this volatile subject would be!

There is still so much more to mention—for instance the fact that the Kunsthalle Basel was a crucial venue for the first generation of performance artists emerging in the ’80s. But above all there are Ammann’s achievements in Frankfurt at the MMK. In 1991, for the institution’s opening, he installed Siah Armajani’s vast reading sculpture Sacco and Vanzetti Reading Room, making an explicit connection to his much-discussed essay, “Pladoyer für eine neue Kunst im öffentlichen Raum” (Plea for a New Art in Public Space), published five years earlier. With his cyclical “Szenewechsel” (Scene Change), he introduced the dynamic principle of the presentation of a collection.

He came to be called the “most gifted beggar in Frankfurt,” because, as soon as he arrived, he had to make do with dramatic budget cuts. In response, he actively searched for sponsors, an approach for which he was strongly attacked, although today it has become a naturalized practice in European museums. His decision to present Oliviero Toscani and the Benetton ads on a large scale in the museum in 1992 was controversial. When Gerhard Richter’s fifteen-part painting cycle “18. Oktober 1977” was withdrawn from exhibition at the museum by the lender and sold to MoMA, Ammann found himself at the center of another polemical debate, this one about keeping the politically explosive images in Germany.

Ammann is now gone, but what remains is that he was the first to introduce—with great conviction and such talent for innovation—so much that has slowly, slowly been adopted in the practice of museum professionals. In contrast to other great curators, he had no affectations, undertook no self-mythologization, preferring to devote himself with a tireless attention to the works he showed. In his last years, he published a great deal, and he taught. He, who had written so much that pointed the way ahead, did not tire of declaring that we should all “trust the art, not the discourses generating the art.” And again and again, he would enthusiastically embrace young artists. But at the same time he dedicated his time to an artist he had known for years, who connected with his precise, wild thought so very well: Alighiero Boetti, whose catalogue raisonné Ammann was overseeing until the very end of his life.

Bice Curiger is artistic director of the Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles and editor of Parkett. From 1993–2013 she was curator at the Kunsthaus Zürich.

Translated from German by Diana Reese.