PRINT April 1997


Of PONTUS HULTEN, Niki de St. Phalle once said “[he has] the soul of an artist, not of a museum director.” Indeed Hulten always maintained a very special dialogue with artists, though he was not one himself, establishing lifelong friendships with Sam Francis, Jean Tinguely, and Niki de St. Phalle, whose careers he not only followed but shaped from the start. The interactive, improvisational spirit that infused exhibitions like de St. Phalle’s She, 1966—a giant sculpture of a woman whose interior was fashioned by Tinguely and Per Olof Ultveldt—characterized the whole of Hulten’s career. Director of Stockholm’s Moderna Museet for fifteen years (1958–73), Hulten defined the museum as an elastic and open space, hosting a plethora of activities within its walls: lectures, film series, concerts, and debates.
Thanks to Hulten, the Moderna Museet was to be one of the ’60s most dynamic contemporary-art institutions. During his tenure, the museum played a seminal role in bridging the gap between Europe and America. In 1962, Hulten organized a show of four young American painters (Jasper Johns, Alfred Leslie, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Stankiewicz), followed two years later by one of the first European surveys of American Pop art. In return, Hulten was invited to curate an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in ’68: his first historical and interdisciplinary show, it explored the machine in art, photography, and industrial design.
In 1973 Hulten was to leave Stockholm and enter one of the most significant periods of his career. As founding director of the new museum of modern art at the Centre Georges Pompidou, which opened in 1977, Hulten organized large-scale shows that examined the making of art’s history through the links between artistic capitals: “Paris-Berlin,” “Paris-Moscow,” “Paris-New York,” and “Paris-Paris” included not only art objects that ranged from Constructivist to Pop, but films, posters, documentation, and reconstructions of exhibition spaces such as Gertrude Stein’s salon. Multivalent and interdisciplinary, these shows marked a paradigm shift in exhibition making, entering the collective memory of generations of artists, curators, and critics as few others have.
Hulten’s career after Beaubourg reflected the same commitment to working closely with artists that has caused so many to remember him fondly. Invited by Robert Irwin and Sam Francis to establish a museum in Los Angeles (LA MoCA) in 1980, Hulten went, but, after four years of infrequent exhibitions and much fundraising, returned to Europe. From 1984–90, he was in charge of Venice’s Palazzo Grassi, and in 1985, he founded, along with Daniel Buren, Serge Fauchereau, and Sarkis, the Institut des Hautes Études en Arts Plastiques in Paris, which Hulten described as a cross between the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College.
Artistic director of the Kunst- and Ausstellungshalle, Bonn, from 1991–95, he now heads the Jean Tinguely museum in Basel, where he curated the inaugural exhibition. Currently writing his memoirs and a book on his years at Beaubourg, Hulten met with me in his Paris apartment to talk about his lifework at the center of the art world.
Hans-Ulrich Obrist

HANS-ULRICH OBRIST: Jean Tinguely always said you should have been an artist. How did you end up running a museum?

PONTUS HULTEN: In Paris, where I was writing my dissertation, I met Tinguely, Robert Breer, and some other artists who urged me to take up artmaking. I resisted this idea, but did make some films with Breer, who worked as an animator, and also some objects with Tinguely. To tell the truth, if I had had a chance to become a film director, I wouldn’t have hesitated. Though I managed to make some short films, I realized that the mid ’50s wasn’t a very good time to try and make features. I made a twenty-minute film with a friend, but it was a great failure because the producer released it with the wrong feature film. It got some prizes, though, in Brussels and New York. I wrote a second screenplay, which I wasn’t even able to finance. It was at that point that I was offered the job of creating a national museum of modern art in Sweden [Stockholm’s Moderna Museet].

HUO: Before you were put in charge of the Moderna Museet, you’d been organizing exhibitions for several years on your own.

PH: Yes. In fact, in the early ’50s, I started curating shows at a tiny gallery that consisted of two small spaces, about 350 square feet each. Curiously enough, it was called The Collector. The owner, Agnes Widlund, who was Hungarian, had invited me to do shows there, and she basically gave me carte blanche. I put together exhibitions with friends around themes that interested us. We did a big exhibition on Neo-Plasticism in ’51. Things were infinitely easier then. Paintings didn’t have the value they do today. You could bring a Mondrian to the gallery in a taxicab.

HUO: One of your shows, held in a bookstore in 1960, was of Marcel Duchamp’s work.

PH: I had done another one with pieces of his in ’56, but it wasn’t a solo show. I’d been fascinated with Duchamp since I was a teenager. He marked me very deeply. At the bookstore, we did a small show—we didn’t even have the Box-in-a-Valise, but managed to come up with replicas. Duchamp later signed everything. He loved the idea that an artwork could be repeated. He hated “original” artworks with prices to match. I had met Duchamp in Paris in ’54, I think it was. At that time, he gave an interview, in an art journal, in which he discussed his notion of “retinal art,” of art made only for the and eye and not for the mind. It has tremendous impact; people were very hurt. The painter Richard Mortensen, who has friend of mine, was really shattered. He had misgiving about his own work that he could not express or would not accept then Ducamp put this idea on this table, just like that, and it was as if someone had rent the veil. I still have Mortensen’s letter.

HUO: Walter Hopps told me that in the United States, in the ’50s, Duchamp was known mainly to artists, not to the general public. What about in Europe?

PH: Duchamp was much appreciated by artists because they could steal from him without risk of discovery, since he was almost unknown. At that time, Duchamp’s work had been forgotten, despite Breton’s praise of him in the heyday of Surrealism and again after the war. It was in many people’s interest for Duchamp’s work to remain unknown. For obvious reasons, this was especially the case for important gallerists. But he made a comeback—it was inevitable.

HUO: It was at Denise René’s Paris gallery that you organized an exhibition of Swedish art in ’53?

PH: Yes. I used to go to the gallery a lot. It was one of the few places in Paris that was lively. We would gather there and talk about art every day.

HUO: It sounds rather like the kind of forum created by the Surrealist magazine Littérature.

PH: Unlike the Surrealists, we didn’t expel anyone, but all the same our discussions were infected by politics. There were great debates about how to deal with Stalinism and with capitalism. Some people seemed to think Trotskyism represented a viable alternative. There were people like Jean Dewasne (considered at the time to be a young Vasarely) who tended to take the communists’ side. He was practically excluded from our circle. Eventually he left the gallery. We also engaged in numerous debates about abstraction, which were central to our discussions. Sometimes the great Modernist figures would come around, like Alexander Calder when he was in Paris, or Auguste Herbin, Jean Arp, and Sonia Delaunay. It was very exciting for me to meet them.

HUO: Were there other significant galleries?

PH: There were two galleries then. Denise René was by far the most important one. She was wise enough to show not just the abstract “avant-garde,” but also Picasso and Max Ernst. Then there was Galerie Arnaud, on the Rue du Four, which basically showed lyrical abstraction. They had a journal called Cimaise, which was where I first encountered Tinguely’s work. His art was shown in the gallery’s bookshop. Gallery bookshops were a way of exhibiting the work of young artists without making a financial commitment. You have to understand how differently galleries operated then. Prestigious spaces usually showed artists with whom they had contracts.

HUO: Didn’t Alexandre Jolas also run a gallery?

PH: Yes, a few years later. In his own way, he was much wilder. I couldn’t say whether or not he provided artists with stipends (Denise René’s artists got serious money). With Alexandre, things changed a lot. There was a kind of looseness that mirrored life in the ’60s.

HUO: During your early years as a museum director in Stockholm, you created a number of “in-between” spaces where you combined various art forms—dance, theater, film, painting, and so on. Later this approach became central to your large-scale exhibitions, first in New York and then in Paris, Los Angeles, and Venice. How did you settle on this working method?

PH: I discovered that artists like Duchamp and Max Ernst had made films, written a lot, and done theater, and it seemed completely natural to me to mirror this interdisciplinary aspect of their work in museum shows of any number of artists, as I did several times, but particularly in “Art in Motion” in 1961. One person who influenced me greatly was Peter Weiss, who was a close friend of mine and was known primarily for his plays such as Marat-Sade and his three-volume treatise Aesthetic of Resistance. Peter was a filmmaker in addition to being a writer; he also painted and made collages. All of that was perfectly natural; for him it was all the same thing. So when Robert Bordaz (the first president of the Centre Pompidou) asked me to create shows that combined theater, dance, film, painting, and so on, I had no trouble doing so.

HUO: Looking at your program in Stockholm in the ’50s and ’60s, you put on an impressive number of exhibitions despite very modest budgets. It reminds me of what Alexander Dorner [director of the Hannover museum from 1923–36] said: that museums should be Kraftwerke, dynamic powerhouses, capable of spontaneous change.

PH: That level of activity was quite natural, and corresponded to a need. People were capable of coming to the museum every evening; they were ready to absorb everything we could show them. There were times when there was something on every night. We had many friends who were working in music, dance, and theater, for whom the museum represented the only available space, since opera houses and theaters were out of the question—their work was viewed as too “experimental.” So interdisciplinarity came about all by itself. The museum became a meeting ground for an entire generation.

HUO: The museum was a place to spend time in, a place that actually encouraged the public to participate?

PH: A museum director’s first task is to create a public—not just to do great shows, but to create an audience that trusts the institution. People don’t come just because it’s Robert Rauschenberg, but because what’s in the museum is usually interesting. That’s where the French maisons de la culture went wrong. They were really run like galleries, whereas an institution must create its public.

HUO: When a museum lives through a great moment, it often becomes linked to a particular person. When people went to Stockholm, they talked of going to Hulten’s; when they went to Amsterdam, of going to Sandberg’s.

PH: That’s certainly true and it leads me to another issue. The institution shouldn’t be completely identified with its director; it’s not good for the museum. Willem Sandberg knew this quite well. He asked me, as well as others, to do things at the Stedelijk, and he would remain on the sidelines. For an institution to be identified with only one person isn’t a good thing. When it breaks down, it breaks down completely. What counts is trust. You need trust if you want to present the work of artists who are not well known, as was the case when we first showed Rauschenberg’s work (part of an exhibition of four young American artists) at the Moderna Museet. Though people didn’t yet know who he was, they came anyway. But you can’t fool around with quality. If you do things for the sake of convenience, or because you’re forced to do something you don’t agree with, you’ve got to make the public believe in you all over again. You can show something weak once in a while, but not often.

HUO: What were the points of departure for the shows you organized at the Pompidou, “Paris-New York,” “Paris-Moscow,” “Paris-Berlin,” and “Paris-Paris,” a series that began in ’77 and ended in ’81? Why do you think they were so successful?

PH: I had proposed the “Paris-New York” show to the Guggenheim in the ‘60s but had received no response. When I started at the Centre Georges Pompidou, I had to establish a program for the next several years. “Paris-New York” brought together the people from the Musée national d’art moderne and those from various other departments—it was multidisciplinary. I should have taken out a patent on the formula that allowed me to unify so many different teams at Beaubourg; this approach later became very popular. The library also participated: in the “Paris-New York” show, their section was separate; in “Paris-Berlin” everything was part of one space. With these four shows I was also attempting to make a complex, thematic exhibition easy to follow—to be straightforward yet to raise many issues. “Paris-Moscow,” for instance, reflected the beginnings of Glasnost before the West knew any such thing existed.

HUO: Why did you choose to stress the relationship between East and West, rather than North and South?

PH: Strangely enough, the East-West axis seemed less familiar at the time. I came up with the exhibition trilogy “Paris-New York,” “Paris-Berlin,” and “Paris-Moscow” to address the exchange between various cultural capitals in the West and those in the East. “Paris-New York” began with reconstructions of Gertrude Stein’s famous salon, Mondrian’s New York studio, and Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery, Art of this Century, and ended with art informel, Fluxus, and Pop Art. “Paris-Berlin, 1930–1933” was confined to the period before National Socialism, and provided a panoramic view of cultural life in the Weimar Republic—art, theater, literature, film, architecture, design, and music. For “Paris-Moscow, 1900–1930,” thanks to a period of détente in French-Soviet relations, I was able to assemble works produced by numerous French artists showing in Moscow before the October Revolution, as well as Constructivist, Suprematist, and even some social realist artworks.

The groundwork for the “Paris-New York” show and the shows that followed had been done before the Pompidou even opened. In the late ’70s, it was considered odd to buy American art. Thanks to Dominique de Menil and her donations of works by Pollock and other American artists, American paintings became part of Beaubourg’s collection. Before I mounted the first show in this series, I felt it was necessary to give the museum audience some historical background. In addition to major retrospectives of Max Ernst, André Masson, and Francis Picabia at the Grand Palais, I organized a big Vladimir Mayakovsky show at CNAC, the space on Rue Berryer near L’Étoile. We redid Mayakovsky’s show from 1930, which he had organized in hopes of providing a multifaceted portrait of himself; shortly after, he committed suicide. For that show, Roman Cieslewicz did the graphic design and he also did the covers for the catalogues for “Paris-Berlin,” “Paris-Moscow,” and “Paris-Paris.” But for “Paris-New York” Larry Rivers did the cover. Those four big catalogues, which were sold out for a long time, were recently reissued in a smaller format. With that series we succeeded in establishing a good relationship with the public, because we also made conscious attempts to prepare our audience. The Centre Pompidou was embraced by the public because they felt it was for them, and not for the conservators. Conservator—what a terrible word!

HUO: I agree. Who were the curators, for lack of a better term, with whom you spoke most frequently in the ’50s and ’60s?

PH: Sandberg at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, Knud Jensen at the Louisiana in Denmark, and Robert Giron in Brussels; once I even did a show with Jean Cassou on the paintings of August Strindberg at the Musée national d’art moderne. Sandberg and Alfred Barr [director of MoMA’s collections from the late ’40s to ’67] created the blueprint; they ran the best museums in the ’50s. I got close to Sandberg. He came to see me in Sweden, and we got on very well. He kind of adopted me, but our friendship ended on a rather sour note. He wanted me to take over from him in Amsterdam, but my wife didn’t want to move, so I decided not to.

HUO: A few years later you got an offer to do an exhibition at MoMA in New York.

PH: The Stedelijk adventure was over in ’62; the offer to work for MoMA came in ’67. MoMA and the Stedelijk were quite different. In New York, the structure was less open, more academic. It was more compartmentalized than at the Stedelijk, where Sandberg had succeeded in creating a fluid, lively structure. MoMA was relatively conservative because of the source of its financial support—wealthy donors. The Stedelijk had a different kind of freedom, because Sandberg was, essentially, a city employee; he could make policy as he saw fit. All he had to do was convince the mayor of Amsterdam. Catalogues, for instance, were absolutely his domain.

HUO: You also put a lot of energy into your catalogues. Last year the university library in Bonn organized an impressive retrospective of about fifty of your publications. Many of them seemed like extensions of your exhibitions. And some of them were really art objects in themselves: the Blandaren box from 1954–55, had lots of artists’ multiples, or that fabulous catalogue in the form of a suitcase for the Tinguely show in Stockholm in ’72. You also invented the encyclopedic catalogue (those 500-1000 page volumes that have since become so common) for the “Paris-New York,” “Paris-Berlin,” “Paris-Moscow,” and “Paris-Paris” shows. So catalogues and books would seem to play a preeminent role for you as well.

PH: Yes, but not as much as for Sandberg. It was his way of being part of the exhibition. He had his own style that he used for all his exhibitions. I am more in favor of diversification.

HUO: Sandberg put together “Dylaby” in Amsterdam in ’62, and in ’66 you organized the even more interactive exhibition “She” in Stockholm. Could you say a bit about your collective adventure with Tinguely, Niki de St. Phalle, and Per Olof Ultvedt?

PH: In ’61 and ’62, I had numerous discussions with Sandberg about doing an exhibition of site-specific installations created by several artists. He accepted and “Dylaby” opened in Amsterdam in ’62. After that, I wanted to do something even more collaborative, with several artists working together on one large piece. Over the years, the project had several names: “Total Art,” “Vive la Liberté,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In the early spring of ’66, I finally managed to bring Jean Tinguely and Niki de St. Phalle to Stockholm to work with the Swedish artist Per Olof Ultvedt and myself. Martial Raysse withdrew at the last minute—he’d been selected for the French pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The idea was that there would be no preparation, nobody would have a particular project in mind. We spent the first day discussing how to put together a series of “stations,” as in Stations of the Cross. The next day we started to build the station “Women Take Power.” It didn’t work. I was desperate. At lunch I suggested we build a woman lying on her back, inside of which would be several installations. You would enter through her sex. Everyone was very enthusiastic. We managed to finish her in five weeks, inside and outside. She was 28 meters long and about 8 meters high. Inside there was: a milk-bar, in the right breast; a planetarium showing the Milky Way, in the left breast; a mechanical man watching TV, in her heart; a movie-house showing a Greta Garbo film, in her arm; and an art gallery with fake old masters, in one leg. The day of the press preview, we were exhausted; the next day, there was nothing in the newspapers. Then Time wrote a favorable piece and everybody liked her. As Marshall McLuhan said “art is anything you can get away with.” The piece seemed to correspond to something in the air, to the much-vaunted “sexual liberation” of that time.

HUO: In 1968 you put together a big exhibition at MoMA, “The Machine as seen at the end of the Mechanical Age.” What was its premise?

PH: MoMA had asked me to put together an exhibition on kinetic art. I told Alfred Barr that the subject was too vast, and instead proposed a more critical and thematic exhibit on the machine. The machine was central to much of the art of the ’60s, and at the same time, it was obvious that the mechanical age was coming to an end, that the world was about to enter a new phase. My exhibition began with Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches of flying machines and ended with pieces by Nam June Paik and Tinguely. It included over 200 sculptures, constructions, paintings, and collages. We also put together a film program. Tinguely was really in love with machines, with mechanisms of any kind. He had had his breakthrough on 17 March 1960 with Hommage à New York—a self-destroying artwork. Richard Huelsenbeck, Duchamp, and myself had written for the catalogue at the time and Tinguely wanted to bring his friends Yves Klein and Raymond Hains with him to New York in 1960, but somehow it never happened.

HUO: Your machine show could be thought of as a requiem to L’Homme-machine, the famous book by the eighteenth-century philosopher La Mettrie about the machine age.

PH: Yes—as its culmination. It was also the height of [MoMA’s] golden age, a period when Alfred Barr was there and René d’Harnoncourt was director of the museum.

HUO: Why was it so wonderful?

PH: They were both great men. For one thing, no one ever mentioned the word “budget.” Today it’s the first word you hear. There were all kinds of possibilities. When, at the eleventh hour, we had to get one of Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion cars from Texas, they said “Boy, that costs a lot of money” but we got it. This was the last great exhibition of that period at MoMA. René d’Harnoncourt died in an accident shortly before the machine show opened, and Alfred Barr had retired the year before.

HUO: Though there were numerous exchanges between Stockholm and the United States during your tenure at the Moderna Museet, you were the first to do big one-person shows in Europe with Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol. What about the Pop art show at Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Wasn't it the first survey show of American Pop art in Europe?

PH: One of them. After my visit to New York in ’59, I curated two Pop art exhibitions. The first was in ’62 with Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and others. The second was in ’64 with the second generation: Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, George Segal, James Rosenquist, Jim Dine, and Tom Wesselmann.

HUO: One of your links to the United States was the electrical engineer Billy Klüver.

PH: Billy was a research scientist at Bell Labs. In 1959, I came to New York and I started to give Billy a crash course in contemporary art; he generously accepted to act as a liaison between the Moderna Museet and American artists. Lots of artists needed technology. Billy started EAT (Experiments in Art and Technology) with Rauschenberg, Robert Whitman, and Fred Waldhauer, a collaborative effort that came to a bad end. Pepsi-Cola had commissioned them to do the youth pavilion at the World’s Fair in Osaka, where they enclosed a dome-shaped pavilion in a cloud sculpture by Fujiko Nakaya. In a way it came from an idea of Cage’s that a work of art could be like a musical instrument. When the pavilion was finished, Billy insisted on doing some live musical programming. After a month, after three or four artists had performed, Pepsi-Cola took over the project—they wanted automated programming.

HUO: What was the art scene like in Sweden in the ’60s?

PH: It was very open and generous. The great art star was Oyvind Fahlström, who died very young, in ’77. I did three shows of Swedish art later in my career: “Pentacle,” at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, 1968, a show of five contemporary artists; “Alternatives Suédoises,” at the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, in ’71, which focused on Swedish art and life in the early ’70s; and a big show, “Sleeping Beauty,” at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in ’82. that included two retrospectives—one of Asger Jorn, the other of Fahlström—and occupied the entire museum.

HUO: Many exhibitions you organized in the ’60s didn’t privilege the artwork as such. Documentation and participation in various forms became equally important. How come?

PH: Documentation was something we found very exciting; it was in the spirit of Duchamp’s different boxes. We began seriously buying books, like Tristan Tzara’s library. There was also another dimension: the museum workshops became an important part of our artistic activities. We reconstructed the Tatlin Tower in ’68, using the museum’s own carpenters, not specialists brought in from outside. This approach to installing exhibitions began to create a phenomenal collective spirit—we could put up a new show in five days. That energy helped protect us when hard times came at the end of the ’60s. After ’68, things got rather murky—the cultural climate was a sad mixture of conservatism and fishy leftist ideologies—museums were vulnerable, but we also withstood the tempest by doing more research-oriented projects.

HUO: You also did political shows like “Poetry Must Be Made By All! Transform the World!,” 1969, which was an attempt to link revolutionary politics to avant-garde artistic practices. It included almost no originals and a wall on which local organizations could affix documents stating their principles and goals. How was that show organized?

PH: It was divided into five different sections: “Dada in Paris,” “Ritual Celebrations of the Iatmul Tribe of New Guinea,” “Russian Art, 1917-–25,” “Surrealist Utopias,” “Parisian Graffiti, May ’68.” It was about the changing world. It consisted principally of models and photographic reproductions mounted on aluminum panels. We used teams made up of people who served various functions at the museum; they acted as animators or technicians. It was like a big family, everyone helped each other out. Things were very different then. At the time there were lots of volunteers, mostly artists who helped install the work.

HUO: Another of your famous exhibitions was “Utopians and Visionaries,” which began with the Paris Commune and concluded with contemporary utopias.

PH: It was even more participatory than “Poetry Must Be Made by All!” Held two years later, “Utopians and Visionaries, 1871–1981” was the first open-air exhibition of its kind. One of the sections was a one—hundredth-anniversary celebration of the Paris Commune, in which the work was grouped into five categories—work, money, school, the press, and community life—that reflected its goals. There was a printing facility in the museum—people were invited to produce their own posters and prints. Photos and paintings were installed in trees. There was also a music school run by the great jazz musician Don Cherry, the father of Neneh Cherry. We built one of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes in our workshops and had a great time doing it. A telex enabled visitors to pose questions to people in Bombay, Tokyo, and New York. Each participant had to describe his vision of the future, of what the world would be like in 1981.

HUO: “Poetry Must Be Made By All! Transform the World!” and “Utopians and Visionaries” were forerunners of many exhibitions in the ’90s that also emphasize direct audience participation.

PH: In addition to the shows themselves, we organized a series of evenings at the Moderna Museet that took things pretty far. During “Poetry Must Be Made By All!” Vietnam draft-dodgers and soldiers who had gone AWOL, as well as the Black Panthers came to test how open we really were. There was a support committee for the Panthers that held meetings in a room set aside for public use. For these activities, we were accused by parliament of using public money to foment revolution.

HUO: Talking about these shows reminds me of your famous plans for the Kulturhuset. It has been described as a cross between a laboratory, a studio, a workshop, a theater, and a museum—and in a certain sense as the seed out of which Beaubourg grew.

PH: That’s not far from the truth. In 1967, we worked on Kulturhuset for the city of Stockholm. The participation of the public was to he more direct, more intense, and more hands-on than ever before, that is, we wanted to develop workshops where the public could participate directly, could discuss, for example, how something new was dealt with by the press—these would be places for the criticism of everyday life. It was to be a more revolutionary Centre Pompidou, in a city much smaller than Paris. Beaubourg is also a product of ’68—’68 as seen by Georges Pompidou.

HUO: In your plans for the Kulturhuset, each floor was accorded one function. How could multidisciplinarity and interactivity have been promoted in an institution structured that way?

PH: It was designed so that as you went up a floor what you encountered was more complex than what was on the previous floor. The ground floor was to be completely open, filled with raw information, news; we were planning on having news coming in from all the wire services on a telex. The other floors were to house temporary exhibitions and a restaurant; the latter is really important because people need somewhere to congregate. On the fifth floor we were going to show the collection. Unfortunately the Kulturhuset went awry of the politicians and parliament took over the building for itself. But the work I did conceiving that project proved to be a useful preparation for my work at the Pompidou.

HUO: What about the On Kawara show you brought to the Pompidou in ’77 in collaboration with Kasper König?

PH: I had met On Kawara in Stockholm; he was living in an apartment owned by the Moderna Museet, and he stayed for almost a year. We became friends. I have always thought On Kawara was one of the most important conceptual artists. The show included all the paintings he had done that year. There was absolutely no reaction on the part of the French press—not a single article!

HUO: How do you see the Pompidou today?

PH: I don’t go there very often. I once made the mistake of going back as an adviser. I now no longer go back, on principle.

HUO: How does a space like the ICA in London, where they’ve always operated a bar, cinema, and exhibition spaces, compare with the Centre Pompidou and with the multifaceted, interdisciplinary role you envisioned for the Kulturhuset in Stockholm?

PH: I think a collection is absolutely fundamental. The failure of André Malraux's maisons de la culture can be traced to the fact that he was really aiming at theater. He wasn't thinking about how to build a museum, and that's why his cultural institution foundered. The collection is the backbone of an institution; it allows it to survive a difficult moment—like when the director is fired.

When Valéry Giscard d'Estaing became president, there were some rather strong-willed people who asked why the Pompidou was exposing itself to all these problems with donors. Why not just leave the collection in the Palais de Tokyo and build a Kunsthalle without a collection? There was lots of pressure to go in that direction. I managed to convince Robert Bordaz that that would be dangerous, and we saved the collection and the project.

HUO: So you are against the idea of separating collections from exhibitions?

PH: Yes, otherwise the institution has no real foundation. Later, when I was director of the Kunst- and Ausstellungshalle in Bonn, I saw how fragile a space devoted to contemporary art could be. The day someone decides that it’s too expensive, it’s all over. Everything is lost, almost without a trace. There’ll be a few catalogues, and that’s it. The vulnerability of it all is terrifying. But that’s not the only reason I talk about collections with such passion. It’s because I think the encounter between the collection and the temporary exhibition is an enriching experience. To sec an On Kawara show and then to visit the collection produces an experience that is more than the sum of its parts. There’s a curious sort of current that starts to flow—that’s the real reason for a collection. A collection isn’t a shelter into which to retreat, it’s a source of energy for the curator as much as the visitor.

HUO: You’ve always insisted on the importance of a serious scholarly monograph to accompany an exhibition. This seemed especially important in the ’80s when you mounted an impressive series of retrospectives of artists who had meant a lot to you over the years.

PH: Yes, it was wonderful to have the opportunity to do so. I loved Tinguely’s retrospective in Venice at the Palazzo Grassi and Sam Francis’ retrospective in Bonn. Those shows were both developed in close dialogue with the artists and marked great moments in the history of my friendship with them.

HUO: What other exhibitions do you remember most fondly?

PH: I did a show called “Futurismo & Futurismi” in ’86, which was the first show in Italy dedicated to the Futurists. It was divided into three parts: Futurism’s precursors, Futurism itself, and its influence on artistic production until to 1930. The exhibition is considered a classic, thanks in part to the catalogue, which reproduced all the works shown, and included over 200 pages of documentation. 270,000 copies were sold. The Arcimboldo show we did was dedicated to the memory of Alfred Barr, which really upset the Italian press, who called him a “cocktail director.” In 1993, I installed the Duchamp show, at the Palazzo Grassi, grouping documents and works together in sections devoted to such topics as the readymade, the Large Glass, and the portable museum.

HUO: What about Claes Oldenburg's great happening, II Corso del Coltello (The knife’s course), at the Campo dell' Arsenale in Venice in ’85?

PH: Oldenburg does everything himself. The exhibition organizer becomes a kind of troubleshooter, but it was a great event. One of the main props of the performance, Knife Ship, 1985, is now at LA MoCA. I had the role of a boxer, Primo Sportycuss. He buys an ancient costume that combines St. Theodore and a crocodile with which he confronts the chimera of San Marco. Frank Gehry played a barber from Venice; Coosje van Bruggen an American artist who discovers Europe. The whole thing went on for three nights and there was a lot of improvisation. We had a good time.

HUO: In 1980 you were asked to head the project to build a new contemporary-art museum in Los Angeles, which became LA MoCA. How did that get started?

PH: A group of artists, including Sam Francis and Robert Irwin, wanted to start a contemporary-art museum. The artists asked me to come and work with them. I got along very well with them, less well with the patrons; there was very little financial support. The first exhibition, in ’83, was called “The First Show,” which consisted of paintings and sculptures from 1940–80 drawn from eight different collections. It was an effort to examine what it meant to collect art. I did a second show called “The Automobile and Culture,” a survey of the history of cars as objects and images that included thirty actual cars. I tried to raise money for four years. I finally had to leave because I was no longer practicing my profession. I had become a fund-raiser instead of a museum director.

HUO: After you were back in Paris, you founded L’Institut des Hautes Études en Arts Plastiques [Institute for advanced studies in the visual arts], in 1985, a laboratory-school, with Daniel Buren. Tell me about this project.

PH: It was a kind of café, a place where people could meet every day, and where there was no real structure or authority figure. It grew out of a discussion I had with the mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac. We nominated four professors: Buren, Sarkis, Serge Fauchereau, and myself. Including the time it took to put the “school” together, this project lasted ten years. Then the city of Paris suddenly decided to put an end to it.

While it lasted, we invited artists, curators, architects, filmmakers, all of whom came. There were only twenty students per year and we were all together for a year. The “students” were all artists who had already finished art school; they were actually referred to as artists, not students. They each got a stipend. We did great things together—including going on an excursion to Leningrad where we did a site-specific show and building a sculpture park in Taejon, South Korea. It was a great experience for me.

HUO: Who were some of your students?

PH: Absalon, Chen Zhen, Patrick Corillon, Jan Svenungsson, among others.

HUO: What were your most significant exhibitions when you were at the Bonn Kunsthalle?

PH: I opened with five shows, one of which was Niki de St. Phalle’s retrospective; the other, “Territorium Artis,” a show of key works that marked decisive stages in the history of twentieth-century art. It ranged from Auguste Rodin and Michail Wrubel to Jeff Koons, Jenny Holzer, and Hans Haacke. I also did a Sam Francis retrospective, a show called “Moderna Museet Stockholm visits Bonn” in which we showcased the Moderna Museet’s collection, and a similar one with MoMA’s collection.

HUO: From your perspective, what does the ’90s art world look like?

PH: I see little coherence, something of a crisis. But also moments of great courage and, most importantly, an enormous general interest in art compared with when I started in the ’50s.

HUO: What are you working on at the moment?

PH: The Tinguely Museum in Basel, which has just opened. I’m also at work on a book about the beginnings of the Centre Pompidou called Beaubourg de justesse (Beaubourg, just about). And I’m writing my memoirs.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist is a contributing editor to Artforum.

Parts of this interview were translated from the French by Warren Niesluchowski.