PRINT February 2007


Pontus Hultén

To remember Pontus Hultén, legendary curator and director of six art institutions in Europe and America, Artforum asked three of Hultén’s colleagues to reflect on the man and his work.


AT A DINNER I attended some years ago, an artist friend of mine asked Harald Szeemann whether “Les Machines Celibataires” (The Bachelor Machines), a legendary 1976 exhibition inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass that treated the theme of obsession in contemporary art, hadn’t been a project by Pontus Hultén. Clearly pained at this younger individual’s mistake—the show was Szeemann’s own brainchild—the Swiss curator nevertheless managed a wonderfully understated reply: “Not quite everything interesting was done by Pontus.”

But, of course, so much of it was. The Swedish-born Hultén, who died in October 2006 at the age of eighty-two, was the founding director of four art institutions—the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle in Bonn, and the Jean Tinguely Museum in Basel—as well as the director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm and the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, making him, arguably, the most influential European museum professional of the twentieth century. Indeed, Hultén was a large man in every respect, even on a personal level: He was a sailor and a boxer in addition to being (as he would often remind people, in his powerful voice) an anarchist.

Yet however unique Hultén’s profile, in many ways my friend’s conversational faux pas was quite easy to understand, and in fact a confusion well worth considering as we seek a clear sense of Hultén’s legacy today. Over the course of their lives, Hultén and Szeemann—who passed away in 2005—displayed a striking overlap of interests. For instance, regarding his research for “Les Machines Celibataires,” Szeemann once wrote of being sent into a deep depression when, in the elevator of New York’s Chelsea Hotel, Hultén presented him with the Museum of Modern Art’s catalogue for his own exhibition of Duchampian and post-Duchampian contraptions, “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age” (1968). (On the other hand, when Hultén staged a massive Duchamp retrospective at the Pompidou in 1977, his encyclopedic catalogue included many discussions already taken up by Szeemann a year earlier: alchemical and optical speculation, esoteric eroticism, and the mechanics of death and desire in philosophy and experimental literature.) More important, a comparison of these pioneering figures offers a way to think through a crucial distinction—one having to do with institutional models and the very conception of curating. In this regard it could be said that Szeemann and Hultén defined opposite ends of the spectrum, and in so doing vastly expanded the spectrum itself. Szeemann chose not to direct a museum and instead invented a new role: that of the independent Ausstellungsmacher who eschews traditional museum tasks. Hultén, on the other hand, and more than anyone else, tested the limits of the contemporary art museum from within.

For most of the art world, it is probably Hultén’s work at the Pompidou that defines him. Scandinavians like me, however, will always remember him, first and foremost, as the brilliant director of Moderna Museet. He arrived at the fledgling institution in 1958—having spent the previous seven years shuttling between his native city and Paris, curating gallery shows and forging connections with artists like Jean Tinguely and Robert Breer—and took the helm in 1960. In the ensuing decade, he made the museum world-famous. One of his greatest gifts was his sense of timing, his ability to be at the right place at the right moment and to home in on the most interesting things going on. It’s a talent apparent in the list of groundbreaking shows he organized at Moderna Museet: “Art in Motion” (1961), one of the first exhibitions of kinetic art; two of Europe’s first surveys of American Pop art (in 1962 and 1965) and its first Andy Warhol retrospective (1968); and experimental initiatives like “Poetry Must Be Made by All! Transform the World!” (1969), a show about radical politics that, in lieu of artworks, presented documentation and progressive activities, including visits from American draft dodgers and Black Panthers.

But he made perhaps the biggest impression with the startling collaborative installation She, 1966 (conceived by Niki de Saint Phalle, Tinguely, and Per Olov Ultvedt, with significant input from Hultén): a gigantic, lurid cathedral in the form of a supine woman that viewers could walk into, the entry being between her legs. Inside, visitors found an aquarium full of goldfish, a love seat for couples, a bar, a small cinema showing a Greta Garbo movie, a playground with a slide, and many other surprises. Green and red lights controlled the traffic through the vaginal entrance. It was sexual liberation for the entire family, something that, at the time, was probably conceivable only in Sweden, and it was an instant sensation. Time magazine’s review set the tone: “A cross between an amusement park and a return to the womb, She is one of the most uproarious, outrageous—and incredibly popular—exhibits to make its debut in Sweden’s capital in years.” With such efforts throughout his career it was clear that Hultén was quite willing to privilege the creative side of his institutional role and that he, as Saint Phalle once claimed, had the soul of an artist.

Another of Hultén’s talents was his ability to act as a social fulcrum, to surround himself with people who could work fruitfully with him and with each other. In 1960, for instance, he introduced Billy Klüver to Tinguely, instigating the visionary engineer’s entrance into the art world. Hultén’s circle in Stockholm included Peter Weiss, the polymath best known for authoring Marat/Sade (1964), and artist Öyvind Fahlström. On the museum’s staff, he had Ulf Linde—writer, Duchamp expert, and leading jazz musician—and Carlo Derkert, an antic genius who turned the museum’s educational program into a kind of ongoing happening.

While acting as impresario of this avant-garde carnival, Hultén was also developing his radically innovative approach to staging exhibitions, one that emphasized collaboration among artists and curators, interactivity, interdisciplinarity, spontaneity, and, often, the liberal commingling of art and other kinds of objects. When he moved on to the Centre Pompidou in 1973, he continued to refine this model, which reached its apotheosis with four shows exploring Paris’s relationship to the world’s art capitals (including itself, of course). With these hugely ambitious undertakings (“Paris-New York” [1977], “Paris-Berlin” [1978], “Paris-Moscou” [1979], and “Paris-Paris” [1981]), Hultén aimed to provide a comprehensive overview of the cultural life of each city, and he used all manner of ephemera and artifacts, in addition to artworks, to do so.

Nothing could prevent this bulldozer of a director from gathering his far-flung materials, not even Soviet bureaucrats. “He was smart and incredibly efficient,” says curator Jean-Hubert Martin, one of Hultén’s closest colleagues at the Pompidou and later the institution’s director. At the University of Stockholm, where Hultén had earned his master’s degree in 1951, he had written his thesis on Vermeer and Spinoza. His strengths, however, were not those of an art historian or a theorist, but those of a doer and a facilitator. In fact, he was quite suspicious of an academic attitude toward art and always stressed hands-on engagement rather than detached contemplation and analysis. “He presented an alternative to the super-academic style of the École de Paris; he was always more direct and pragmatic,” says artist Betrand Lavier, recalling Hultén’s directorial approach when he left Sweden for France. “But he was also always a bit like a Pope, hovering above the petty problems of the rest of us.” While the Moderna and its staff had been like a family, the Pompidou was another order of magnitude altogether, and was at the center of official European cultural politics to boot. In Hultén’s efforts to solve the myriad petty and not-so-petty problems confronting the director of any such institution, “he could be Machiavellian, and any kind of trick was allowed [in the effort] to reach the goal,” says Martin. For instance, Hultén cultivated ties with the French Communist party to facilitate his dealings with Moscow, even though he viewed Lenin as a gangster (Bakunin was more his style). But, as Lavier notes, blunt directness was as important a strategy for Hultén as subtle indirection: He did not take no for an answer and would ruthlessly exploit every personal connection to make his artistic visions reality. No doubt he occasionally intimidated people, since he was famously temperamental. Sometimes he threw chairs—“especially after lunch,” Martin recalls.

He also had a sharp sense of humor, however, and “most of all he was a lot of fun,” adds Martin. “He was a humanist and a believer in the idea that individuals can change things. The artists themselves were as important to him as their work.” Björn Springfeldt, who worked for Hultén at Moderna Museet (and who, like Martin at the Pompidou, eventually progressed from protégé to director), also emphasizes Hultén’s humanism, seasoned by his temper. He recalls that once, when Springfeldt speculated on the possibility of extraterrestrial life, his older colleague inexplicably exploded with anger. “The stars were out, and I said something about intelligent life out there. I still sometimes wonder why he got so furious about this remark. I think it had to do with his deep belief in humanity and in the importance of our here and now,” says Springfeldt. But Hultén’s views didn’t fit seamlessly with humanistic liberalism: Although a great seaman who spent whole summers on his boat, he was no supporter of the environmental movement, once famously telling Joseph Beuys that the members of Germany’s Green Party were all “Boy Scouts.”

That comment might have been prompted by a more general antipathy. In the late ’60s when German curator Kasper König was co-organizing a Claes Oldenburg show for Moderna Museet, he would drive back and forth between Stockholm and Paris with Hultén, who made no secret of his anti-German sentiments and during pit stops would pee directly from the car so that he wouldn’t have to set foot on German soil. As for his feelings toward the United States, they were not so clearly expressed but do seem to have been ambivalent. Although he was one of the first people in Europe to pay attention to the Pop artists, and a personal friend of many of the movement’s key protagonists, he was skeptical of the American art world, of the increasing influence of the art market, and of the way American museums blurred the line between curating and fund-raising. He experienced this firsthand when, in 1981, he became the founding director of Los Angeles’s first contemporary art museum, LA MoCA. He resigned in the spring of 1983, before his inaugural exhibition (“The First Show: Painting and Sculpture from Eight Collections, 1940–1980”) had even opened. In retrospect he claimed he had to quit because he found himself spending most of his time in a tuxedo, schmoozing patrons. Whatever the case, as Springfeldt succinctly puts it, “He wanted to be close to art and to the artists.”

Of course, the emphasis on fund-raising that made Hultén uneasy twenty years ago is now a commonplace at major American and, increasingly, European museums, as expanding buildings and programs demand expanded budgets. Hultén never grew comfortable with this feed-the-beast dynamic. The concept of running a museum like a multinational corporation was alien to him—as was the notion that art institutions should court multinational corporations. In a recent interview on a Swedish radio station, he commented that museums already belong to the people, and therefore sponsors should be unnecessary. He often stressed that things were simpler before the financial stakes grew so high—recalling, for instance, how he once transported a Mondrian in a taxi, or picked up Picasso’s Guernica at the Stockholm train station and took it back to Moderna Museet himself, with just a few technicians from the museum on hand.

Late in life, he invented a new institutional format that enabled him to maintain the kind of proximity to art production that he associated with the days when one could share the backseat of a cab with a Mondrian: the Institut des Hautes Études en Arts Plastiques, a small postgraduate art academy in Paris that he founded, working with his friends Daniel Buren, Sarkis, and Serge Fauchereau. In the 1990s, the school, a one-year program with just twenty students, attracted young artists, including Absalon, Ghada Amer, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Philippe Parreno, and Xavier Veilhan. “We met two or three times a week. There was this big round table with microphones,” Parreno recalls. “Every day there was a new guest—an artist, architect, scientist, or philosopher. We went to see Teeny Duchamp with the whole group. It was a kind of excursion into the past, with Pontus as a guide. I remember Teeny showing us the bed where Duchamp used to sleep—it was shaped like a hippopotamus! That was kind of funny. Now I have the feeling that Pontus took us to see people like Teeny so that we would get a chance to meet them before they died.”

Daniel Birnbaum is director of the Stadelschule Art Academy, Frankfurt.


WHILE PONTUS HULTÉN was working as the first director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles—a position he held between 1981 and 1983—I started to volunteer at the institution, where I oversaw the “library,” which was at the time nothing more than a few shelves of books. One day Pontus came up to me and said, “I have all these books at home. Can you help me put them in order? I’ll pay you.” I agreed, and so I had the privilege of working part-time for him from early 1983 to early 1984, organizing his personal art library, which had been shipped from Paris to his new home in Santa Monica. The thousands of books that covered most of the walls of his two-bedroom, ocean-view apartment, in languages ranging from English, German, French, and Swedish to Russian and Sami, reflected the remarkable breadth of Pontus’s broad-ranging intellect. I looked through every single book—with only a bachelor’s degree in studio art, I soon discovered that this was not merely a fascinating job, it was my graduate studies. But the library affected me most deeply as a portrait of Pontus—the visionary museum director, curator, and scholar whose passions and relationships and professional history were bound together in those countless volumes.

Books were not only a resource, they were inextricable from his identity. The publications he produced were as farsighted and legendary as his exhibitions. Andy Warhol, Jean Tinguely, Paris-Berlin, Paris-Paris, Paris-Moscou, etc., were heavy tomes that embodied the unwieldy union of art and culture in all its forms. In their design they were astonishing, paradigmatic objects that carried his ideas of an expansive, multidisciplinary form of exhibition making over into the publications themselves. One of my most cherished possessions is the copy Pontus gave me of The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age, the catalogue for his 1968 exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The cover, replete with MoMA’s gleaming facade embossed and printed on metal, is truly unparalleled in the history of catalogue design.

As I sorted through the books in his apartment, I encountered many other interesting items. There was Marcel Duchamp’s Green Box, 1934, which Pontus told me the artist had left for him as a gift on his doorstep, and a typewritten letter to Duchamp from a very young Hultén, with a list of questions, which the artist had answered directly on the correspondence. And there was a stack of postcards from On Kawara bound in a rubber band; the canvas-draped foam-rubber sofa in the living room (I was never clear if it was a John Chamberlain or something Pontus had fashioned after the artist’s work); and the Rauschenberg “White Paintings” that I first thought were just some unpainted primed canvases leaning against the wall in the hallway.

It was particularly special when Pontus was in town. He would make me lunch (nothing extravagant: I remember one meal that consisted of hot dogs and avocados, with cranberry juice or beer), and I would ask him questions, and he would share his stories. One object that had captured my curiosity was a large, folded piece of unprimed canvas in one of his closets. It was wrapped in plastic and stained with what appeared to be multicolored washes of paint. It seemed to be a painting; I could think only of someone like Sam Gilliam. Pontus told me it was a Rauschenberg. Pulling Calvin Tompkins’s book Off the Wall from the shelf, Pontus opened it to the section on “Art in Motion,” the group show he had organized at Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1961. For the postopening party, Rauschenberg had quietly arranged for a large canvas with balloons filled with paint to be put under the dance floor. The canvas in the closet was, of course, the resultant “painting.” Not long after I asked about it, I saw it out on the table with a fresh signature from Rauschenberg, who had just visited Pontus.

Pontus kept his apartment in Paris when he moved to the United States, but he chose to move his art library (as well as his beloved Citroën and sailboat). I always have felt that this indicated the depth of the anticipation he brought to this huge move across the Atlantic to found a new institution. Pontus’s brief tenure at MoCA was rife with complications and disappointments on both sides, ultimately leading to his transition from director to founding director in 1983. Still, in that short time, his enormous, unwieldy vision served to lay the foundations for the fledgling institution. MoCA’s international profile, permanent collection, and ambitious programming, including the large-scale thematic exhibitions that have distinguished the institution, are all part of his legacy.

I was still working part-time at MoCA after Pontus’s departure, and he set me up to work in the personal library of his closest friend here, Sam Francis, which was yet another remarkable experience for the next two years, even after I transitioned into a full-time position at the museum. I look back on this whole period of my life and career with tremendous gratitude for the time I was able to spend with Pontus—together with a feeling of sadness for the era that has passed with him, an era that could embrace and foster his brilliantly unmanageable ideas, messy contradictions and all.

Ann Goldstein is senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles


SOME TIME AROUND 1983, Pontus contacted me with the idea of creating an art academy: With my experience in different schools around the world, what did I think should be done? By that time, he had already left LA MoCA at the invitation of François Mitterand, who asked him to curate a universal exhibition for the anniversary of the French Revolution, something as impressive as the Eiffel Tower. However, Paris mayor Jacques Chirac’s opposition caused its cancellation, leaving Pontus suddenly without a job. It was then that Claude Pompidou, who was something of a cultural hub in her own right and a little bit above questions of right and left—and with whom Pontus had maintained close ties since his days as director of the museum—suggested to the mayor that he should find something for Pontus to do. The result was the chance to build a new type of Bauhaus in Paris.

Of course, what we ultimately did had nothing to do with the Bauhaus system. After many conversations we arrived at a simple but interesting concept: an institution not for students but for artists already finished with their studies. It would be a school based on long discussions. We would give these young people the chance to meet, to speak, to argue with as many practicing artists, philosophers, filmmakers, choreographers, et al., as we could bring together. Over a period of three to four months, we would meet from nine in the morning till six in the evening, nonstop, even having lunch together. Such concentration, we knew, was pivotal. In programs lasting a full year, you often think mistakenly that you have all the time in the world. If you know you have only three months, and if you know you have only one day to soak up everything you can from an artist you care about—then you cannot daydream. You cannot say, “Ah, let’s do that next month. I’m tired today.”

The Institut des Hautes Études en Arts Plastiques closed in 1993, after eight or nine years of existence. During that time we invited both artists and the likes of Raoul Ruiz and Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, and also Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Renzo Piano, and Jean Nouvel. It was always interesting, and often heated. But if you speak with anyone who attended the school—and more than half of them have gone on to do great things—I think they will tell you something special about Pontus. Though he was one of the very producers of the age of modern art, they quickly discovered that his personal relations with Warhol, Duchamp, Oldenburg, Calder, and Tinguely were extremely warm. The way he spoke about the artists he worked with, the way he understood their work, it was like someone speaking about his brother. He conveyed his experiences in a way that none of the students—and not even I!—had ever before experienced.

Young people start with so much mythology in their heads: History is too often treated as though set in stone, at a distance, untouchable—but this is not the truth. Pontus was art history, and he brought it close to lived reality. You can make the past as important as you want, he would suggest; but don’t forget, it was also completely human. Even artistic jealousy is part of the story, erased from memory only with time; what you as an artist experience among your friends is perhaps not so dissimilar from things Duchamp and Brancusi experienced. Pontus taught you to see a deep connection between history and what you were doing yourself. He understood the school to be one of the most important things he was involved in. And it was a very great, generous idea, his wanting to give to a new generation the experience of a life.

as told to Tim Griffin

Daniel Buren is an artist based in Paris.