PRINT Summer 1971

Hans Haacke’s Cancelled Show at the Guggenheim

Section 1. The purposes of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (referred to in these By-Laws as the “corporation”), are set forth in its charter, and are as follows:

To provide for the promotion of art and for the mental or moral improvements of men and women by furthering their education, enlightenment and aesthetic taste, and by developing the understanding and appreciation of art by the public; to establish, maintain and operate, or contribute to the establishment, maintenance and operation of, a museum or museums, or other proper place or places for the public exhibition of art . . .
— Beginning Of Article I Of The By-laws Of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

UNDERLYING HANS HAACKE'S art is the interconnectedness of all systems regardless of size or complexity. In the early ’60s his systems consisted of various weather boxes: “drippers,” “waves,” gravity tubes, and condensation cubes. Gradually his thinking expanded towards air-blown ribbons and sails, ice constructions, hydraulic systems, steam generators, plant growths, and animal ecologies. There was never any attempt to solve the usual formal problems of art, rather he wanted to reveal the way the world functions on its most essential levels.

From all appearances, Haacke’s phenomenology of Nature would seem to be an elegant foil for the Guggenheim’s nautilus-like spaces. Yet last April 1st he received a letter from the Director of the Museum, Thomas Messer, notifying him that a scheduled April 30th one-man show was off. The exhibition proposed consisted of a three-part investigation into physical, biological, and social systems. The first two categories held no problems, but by March Messer began to have reservations about the “social systems.”

Two of the three social pieces consisted of photographs of the facades of large Manhattan real estate holdings. These included pertinent business information collected from the public records of the County Clerk’s office. According to the artist: “The works contain no evaluative comment. One set of holdings are mainly slum-located properties owned by a group of people related by family and business ties. The other system is the extensive real estate interests, largely in commercial properties, held by two partners.” One example of a caption for a photograph reads:

292 E 3 St.
Block 373 Lot 56
5 story walk-up old law tenement owned by Broweir Realty Corp., . . . E 11 St., NYC
Sidney Winter, President acquired 10-22 ’65 from Apponaug Properties, . . . Riverside Drive, NYC
mtg. on 292 E 3 St. and 312 E 3 St., totaling $55,000. — at 5% interest, 10-6 ’65, held by The Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board of The American Baptist Convention, . . . Riverside Drive N.Y.C., from Apponaug Properties

After examining cards such as the one above, Messer asserted in a letter to Haacke dated March 19th that “a muckraking venture raises serious questions.” The Director went on to write that “We have held consistently that under our Charter we are pursuing esthetic and educational objectives that are self-sufficient and without ulterior motive. On those grounds, the trustees have established policies that exclude active engagement toward social and political ends. It is well understood, in this connection, that art may have social and political consequences but these, we believe, are furthered by indirection and by the generalized, exemplary force that works of art may exert upon the environment, not, as you propose, by using political means to achieve political ends, no matter how desirable these may appear to be in themselves.”2

Initially, Messer’s position was that the photographs and captions placed the Museum in a position where a libel suit could be filed against the Foundation. He asserted that Haacke’s intention was to “name, and thereby publicly expose, individuals and companies whom you consider to be at fault,” whereas, “Verification of your charge would be beyond our capacity.”3

Haacke, in a press release of April 3rd, replied that he had modified the two works in question by substituting fictitious names for all family names (maintaining their initials), and obscured their addresses, while retaining all the names of corporations and addresses of the properties themselves. In his cancellation letter Messer insisted that Haacke’s modifications would he transparent subterfuges, still leaving the Museum in a vulnerable position. It would seem that on emotional, esthetic, legal, and perhaps political grounds, Messer and his Board of Trustees wanted to have nothing to do with the projects.

The Director also had strong doubts about a third “social system” when he read questions to be asked at the exhibition. This third work consisted of ten demographic questions (age, sex, education, etc.) and ten socio-political queries, with examples such as:

Is the use of the American flag for the expression of political beliefs, e.g. on hard-hats and in dissident art exhibitions a legitimate exercise of free speech?



Should the use of marijuana be legalized, lightly or severely punished?


lightly punished

severely punished

Would you mind busing your children to integrated schools?



Do you think the interests of profit-oriented business usually are compatible with the common good of the world?



Haacke insists that such polls were an integral part of his art in past museum shows, and that he “tried to frame the questions so that they do not assert a political stance, are not inflammatory and do not prejudge the answers.” The artist continues by quoting from an announcement of his last New York gallery show:

The working premise is to think in terms of systems; the production of systems, the interference with and the exposure of existing systems.

Such an approach is concerned with the operational structure of organizations, in which transfer of information, energy and or material occurs. Systems can be physical, biological or social, they can be man-made, naturally existing or a combination of any of the above. In all cases verifiable processes are referred to.

Howard Wise, Haacke’s friend and previously his dealer, followed the cancellation with a thoughful letter to Messer. He reflects that:

It seems to me that in the two “real estate” works, Haacke’s approach is in the classic tradition of art. He looks at the landscape (Manhattan) and seeks to bring order out of chaos by emphasizing certain aspects and minimizing others to treat a clearer picture and to afford the viewer new understanding and insights. I cannot comprehend what “ulterior motive” he might have had except the desire to create a “realistic” work; in other words, he is “telling it like it is.”5

Wise ends his letter noting that the Museum has the option of either assisting the vitality of contemporary art or retarding it. “Either way,” he comments to Messer, “you now become part of the work of art.” This last sentence is important because it reconfirms something that Haacke has been striving for: that is the complete integration of his art, leaving no essential dividing line between his professional life and his existence as a social and political creature. Messer’s decision was, in effect, one esthetic alternative to his proposals.

In a Village Voice article of April 15th John Perrault attacked the basic duplicity behind the Museum’s decision by citing its policy in regard to political art: “The Guggenheim can show Russian Constructivist propaganda because it is ‘history’ (i.e., digested), but not the work of a living artist whose sophistication, both politically and artistically, has to be acknowledged.”

Usually there are two ways an artist tries to reveal political concern through his work: either by defacing a patriotic icon or by inserting ideological propaganda into his art. Perrault points out that the elegance of Haacke’s approach has nothing to do with either, since the artist discloses what is already public property through a process of selection.

However, in an artistic sense, it is no longer useful to maintain the fiction that Haacke is not a political animal and that his work has no extra-esthetic motivation. Superficially his art is perfectly reasonable and harmless. Since modernist art stems from a great tradition of political painting (David, Géricault, Delacroix, Daumier, Courbet, Manet, Pissarro, and Meunier did explicitly political art on occasion, but many other artists used daring social themes), it seems unbelievably reactionary to be confronted by such censorship in the late 20th century.

The history of European and American avant-garde art is in no small way born out of revolutionary politics and radicalism. American abstract art of the 1930s was synonymous with the political traditions of Cubism, Dadaism, Constructivism, and the Mexican muralists. Even after the Second World War there were politicians who continued to identify abstraction with communism, but on the whole — and even as Greenberg and Rosenberg realized at the time the new art of Abstract Expressionism was incapable of even the faintest political motives. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Nonobjective Art was in part responsible for the “rites of purification,” its nihil obstat which the New York upper middle classes required of the American innovations. Complete dominance of a content-free painting style left a few artists uneasy, but not many in the climate of the Fifties. With the Vietnam War, collage techniques and Pop art made message painting viable again, though not particularly effective.

The late Sixties became a time of political maturity for many artists and accompanying this was an enormous sense of frustration, organization joining, petition signing, while making “beautiful” au courant art works. The essence of this was conveyed to me by Haacke in a letter dated April 10th, 1968:

Last week’s murder of Dr. King came as a great shock. Linda and I were gloomy for days and still have not quite recovered. This even pressed something into focus that I had known for a long time but never realized so bitterly and helplessly namely, what we are doing: the production and the talk about sculpture has nothing to do with the urgent problems of our society. Whoever believes that art can make life more humane is utterly naive. Mondrian was one of those naive saints. Nothing, but absolutely nothing, is changed by whatever type of painting, or sculpture, or happening you produce. All the shows of Angry Arts will not prevent a single Napalm bomb from being dropped. We must face the fact that art is unsuited as a political tool.

Still, a truism of the museum world has it that directors survive and flourish in direct proportion to their ability to please, if not all their trustees, at least the most powerful ones. Considering the reviews that the Guggenheim International Exhibition received last winter (an instance preciously free of painting and where “sculpture” took the form of dirt, documents, and tape recorders), one can understand the Director’s sensitivity to another potential hornet’s nest. Gone are the days of Ipousteguy, Manzu, Wotruha, Moore, and Pomodoro, when sculpture on the Guggenheim’s ramps looked like jewelry in Cartier’s! Quite possibly Process, Systems, and Conceptual art have become the final divorce decree between the avant garde artist and the wealthy patron.

Nevertheless, the function of modernist art has traditionally been to make the tabooed socially acceptable. Though, according to George Devereux, the artist can fail in one of two ways:

1) Skating on ice so thin that it will break and cause the forbidden utterance to erupt from behind the stylistic alibi; and

2) Freezing his real utterance over a crust of (“artistic”) ice so thick as to cause the elemental utterance, and the effect pertaining to it, to be lost thereby turning the boiling lake into a refrigerated indoor rink, where figure skating pattern-making on ice becomes the real goal.6

Highly touted formalist art is preeminently the second type. Here the frisson is telegraphed far ahead of time for collectors with high blood pressure. If anything, Haacke might be faulted for unsuccessfully “skating on thin ice.” His alibi is the revelation of all kinds of systems. But he is doing more than holding up a mirror, as when he writes:

Consequently any work done with and in a given social situation cannot remain detached from its cultural and ideological context. It differs principally, therefore, from the functionally self-sufficient weather-box. In fact, it is precisely the exchange of necessarily biased information between the members of a social set that is the energy on which social relations evolve. As in dealing with “the real stuff” in physical and biological systems, perhaps more so, one therefore has to weigh carefully the prospective outcome of undertakings in the social field. One’s responsibilities increase; however, this also gives the satisfaction of being taken as a hit more than a court-jester, with the danger of not being forgiven everything!7

It was the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, who suggested in his The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life that the dominant goal of primitive religion and art is the recognition of oppositions and contradictions. Whereas, because we are dominated by scientific thought, it is the principle of identity that defines our lifestyle—and perhaps our art as well. As I have indicated previously in my article on Duchamp,8 sacred art is defined by the conjunction of the ambiguous and the hidden; a relatively harmless outer message is used to mask a more profound statement, usually one that poses irreconcilable opposites or contradictions about life.

Hence the ability to accept and welcome contradiction is a vital feature of primitive existence. This is brought out in a beautiful essay by the anthropologist, Stanley Diamond, where he defines the mythic transition between kinship, or primitive organization, and civilized, or political, society.9 Very little raw and spontaneous “sacred art” exists in civilized cultures. Diamond stresses the sublimated one-dimensional quality of advanced societies. Using Plato’s Republic, he focuses upon the philosopher’s affinity for the class system, highly specialized divisions of labor, and the inherent divinity of rulers all features alien to primitive cultures. Bound to the State, instead of a family group, the citizen is compelled to show his loyalty to the Republic. Here the conflict between kin and political principles is resolved by the “royal lie,” a group impulse (call it patriotism) that there is something greater than the individual’s own clan. What undermines this fiction is the poet, artist, and dramatist, and Plato knows this too well as he has Socrates give the following advice:

When any one of these pantomimic gentlemen, who are so clever that they can imitate anything, come to us, and make a proposal to exhibit himself and his poetry, we will fall down and worship him as a sweet and holy and wonderful being; but we must also inform him that in our State such as he are not permitted to exist; the law will not allow them.10

In a fashion not at all dissimilar, Thomas Messer can inform the newspapers that: “Artistic merit was never a question. We invited him [Haackel] in the first place because we admire his work. I think that while the exposure of social malfunction is a good thing, it is not the function of a museum.”11

Plato knew that all art has an “ulterior motive” and is never “self-sufficient” (in spite of Messer’s statement) rather “self-sufficient” art is without a message or with a message handed down from above for public edification. Not only did the great philosopher perceive that poets are corrupters of youth, impious portrayers of our superiors, but they “persuade our youth that the Gods are the authors of evil, and that heroes are no better than men.” In other words, they tend to level a society based on principles of social hierarchy.

Diamond relates the authentic artist to the primitive Trickster, a creature devoid of normal values, knowing neither good nor evil, yet constantly revealing both:

In his never ending search for himself, Trickster changes shape, and experiments with a thousand identities. He has enormous power, is enormously stupid, is “creator and destroyer, giver and negator.” Trickster is the personification of human ambiguity. He is the archetype of the comic spirit, the burlesque of the problem of identity, the ancestor of the clown, the fool of the ages.12

Plato would have Trickster tamed to “sing songs of the heroes,” allowing the “royal lie” to assume a multitude of forms. In civilized society Trickster is constrained to produce art that harmonizes with the existing power structure. Rewards are based on tacit recognition of who is fit to judge and rule. Social myth insists that the divine right of money is power, and our “sacred places” are a celebration of that fact. For advanced societies the greatest dangers are always within, because the greatest contradictions are found in our social mythologies.

Within primitive societies the role of Trickster is more fundamental for the reason that the most serious contradictions stem from outside the kinship unit. Accordingly, contradictions between life and death, sickness, sexuality, old age, war, and famine are the subjects of Trickster’s ritual dramas. His purpose is to see that art and life converge:

In the ritual drama roles are symbolically acted out, dangers confronted and overcome, anxieties faced and resolved. Relations among the individual, society, and nature are defined, renewed, and reinterpreted. There is no theater containing these performances, ancestral to the civilized drama; the world is a stage and, at one time or another, all the people are players. . .

The ritual drama, then, focuses on ordinary human events and makes them, in a sense, sacramental."13

One might ask how the Guggenheim Foundation is able to dispense hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants every year, induce wealthy patrons to contribute, structure spectacular social events, involve itself in intricate financial affairs, and then insist that it is “not competent” to comment on social ills? In reality any public or semi-public institution is a priori a political symbol. The avowed function of this Museum is to say, “We possess the esthetically superior objects of contemporary culture; we have chosen them.”

But what if these turn out to be floor-sweeping compound and fluorescent lights? Beauty,at any rate, is not the issue. What is at stake is the convenient fiction that beauty and the Trickster’s function are synonymous. Trickster is always on the side of the mob, although it may seem that he is playing the individual. His natural targets are the values at the apex of Plato’s Republic; similarly in primitive ceremonials, “it is the thing which is regarded with the greatest respect which is ridiculed—Trickster’s clumsy inversions are responsible for his psychic effectiveness—just as ”competency“ remains in the hands of the ruling class. When the Museum specifies that it is ”not competent“ to analyze social problems, what it is saying in effect is that the artist (as one of the ”ignorant multitude") has overstepped his bounds.

By connecting physical decay with specific financial transactions Haacke has attacked the holy institution of private property in a capitalist society. If the real estate systems were merely a matter of exposing housing malpractices, they would, indeed, be tame works. But Haacke is producing sacred art in the oldest sense of the word: the revelation of unresolvable contradictions. In essence, the hidden esthetic of the real estate pieces proclaims that the “sacred place” (i.e., the museum or receptacle of esthetic truth) is also responsible for the oppressive ugliness of New York City.

The structural principle behind the photographs and their installation is that of analogy. Consequently the Guggenheim Museum is the rich and powerful receptacle for the photographs, just as the group of related businessmen are the rich and powerful owners of the buildings in the photographs. In both instances the museological function of the Guggenheim and the financial documentation act as a collective background for the photographs and their contents.

Properties : Group of Owners
Photos of Properties : Guggenheim Museum

At this point Haacke forces each viewer to make an unconscious decision based on class sympathies and affiliations. Either a viewer mentally sides with the occupants of the slums (numerous, poverty-stricken, and oppressed) or with the owners of the slums (small number, affluent, and in control). One is given the choice of affirming solidarity and sympathy with the underprivileged, or with protecting legitimized power.

Art Viewer : Group of Owners
Art Viewer : Guggenheim Museum

The viewer must either unconsciously repudiate the Museum or desire to protect it by banishing the photographs. However a spectator decides, Haacke discloses a crucial relationship; this is the indirect and invisible way in which financial holdings define environmental esthetics. At a gut level Haacke is asking this question: is there really any difference between the power of money to control the direction of art and the power of money to keep rotten slums in existence?

Haacke, being an artist, has not consciously set out to organize the relationships I have indicated. But it is obvious that his “Systems Art” has entered a new phase. In its semiotic structure it draws closer to the ritual drama (where the artist’s premises are recapitulated in everyday life) and away from the plastic arts. Perhaps this is inevitable, since the drama is the confrontation between the archetypal artist and the “guardian” of the official myth.


1. From a press release by the artist, dated April 3, 1971.

2. From a letter by Thomas Messer to the artist, dated March 19, 1971.

3. Ibid.

4. Haacke, op. cit.

5. From a letter by Howard Wise to Thomas Messer, dated April 8, 1971.

6. George Devereux, “Art and Mythology: A General Theory” in Art and Esthetics in Primitive Societies (edited by Carol F. Jopling), New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., pp. 219-220.

7. Hans Haacke, “Provisional Remarks” (an essay to be published).

8. Jack Burnham, “Unveiling the Consort: Part II” in Artforum, April, 1971.

9. Stanley Diamond “Plato and the Definition of the Primitive” in Primitive Views of the World (edited by Stanley Diamond), New York and London: Columbia University Press, pp. 170-193.

10. Ibid., p. 180.

11. Doris Herzig, “Art show scrubbed as politically dirty” in Newsday, Friday, April 9, 1971, p. 15A.

12. Diamond, “Plato and the . . . ”, p. 182.

13. Ibid., p. 187.

14. Ibid., p. 190.