Critics’ Picks

Postcards from Harald Szeemann's collection of pataphysics material in the Getty Research Institute's Harald Szeemann Archive and Library.

Los Angeles

“Museum of Obsessions” and “Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us”

The Getty Center
1200 Getty Center Drive
February 6–May 6

The Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (ICA LA)
1717 E. 7th Street
February 4–April 22

When Swiss curator Harald Szeemann died in 2005, he left behind his “Museum of Obsessions,” a vast library and archive tracking his decades-long research and exhibition history. In 2011 the Getty Research Institute acquired this trove, which remains one of the largest singular archival collections housed by the institution, with more than twenty-five hundred linear feet of material. The current exhibition at the Getty Center is a first pass at sussing out Szeemann’s formidable impact on modern curatorial practice, illuminating a highly original mind. Exhibitions from the 1970s—“Monte Verità: Le mammelle della verità” (Monte Verità: The Breasts of Truth, 1978); “Le Macchine Celibi” (The Bachelor Machines, 1975); and Documenta 5 (1972)—are revisited in terms of both their organizing structures and their key objects. Artists and intellectuals, both well-known (Alfred Jarry) and less so (Elisàr von Kupffer), are highlighted as influences on the curator’s thinking and attitudes toward visual culture.

One of his exhibitions, “Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us”—originally staged in his own apartment in 1974—is installed across town, at the newly minted Institute of Contemporary Art. There, a Bernese abode has been lovingly reconstructed, with small corridors and textured walls. Szeemann initiated this show as a paean to his paternal grandfather, Étienne Szeemann, a hairdresser and God-fearing Swiss patriot. Combs and clips are carefully lined up on shelves, and earnest titles on paper pinned to the wall create a narrative of his ancestor’s life and profession: for example, one reads, “His Contribution to the Triumph of Beauty.” But lest one be seduced by the elegiac nature of the exhibition, criticality is embedded in the form of photo-text panels hung in a narrow hallway, in which the words of Harald’s family and friends are reproduced next to images of Étienne. Here is a particularly withering assessment from Françoise Szeemann, the curator’s first wife: “You are just as egotistical as him. When he was alive you never cared about him very much. But now you are doing an exhibition.” It is this doing of a show, and all its messy affects and implications, that concerned Szeemann; and it persists as a primary lesson of his work.