PRINT April 2017


Hans Haacke in Frankfurt, 1976

IN ADVANCE of federal elections, the interior ministers of the West German states, in cooperation with Chancellor Willy Brandt, who was fighting to be reelected, issued a Radikalenerlass (Decree Against Radicals) in January 1972 as part of an anticommunist agenda to root out security risks. With the country in political crisis, the law made civil-service applicants the targets of domestic intelligence investigation by the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution) and was the latest official move to counter fears inflamed by increasingly violent attacks by the guerrilla Red Army Faction. Hans Haacke’s exhibition at the Frankfurter Kunstverein, curated by its director, Georg Bussmann, opened four years later, in the weeks leading up to the next cycle of elections, and was the first in which the artist directly took on the barbed complexities of postwar German politics. Two years prior, in 1974, Bussmann had set the stage in presenting the groundbreaking exhibition “Art in the Third Reich: Documents of Oppression,” which explored ties among art, politics, and economics in the Nazi period. With his overt display of the systems that powered the West German political sphere, Haacke launched what would become a sustained inquiry into the sometimes latent but ever-present threats to democratic freedoms, always with an implicit warning about the past.

The 1976 exhibition emphasized text, exposing the bureaucracy of West German administrative authority. With the federal republic now three decades into grappling with its history, these works challenged contradictions between the nation’s founding myth, based on a clean break with the Nazi past, and its contemporary reality: increasingly repressive government policies that put security ahead of democratic freedom. Two works from 1976 dug into the decree, in particular its effects on a pair of entry-level teachers, who were among thousands of candidates dismissed for their political associations. Each of the nine-print suites reproduced reports and correspondence from the cases. Haacke’s only additions were his own photographs of the subjects and, embossed at the lower edges of the mats, the constitutional citations with which the policy was in clear violation. One pointedly quoted the first paragraph of article 4 (in German): “Freedom of faith and of conscience, and freedom to profess a religious or philosophical creed, shall be inviolable.” A third work juxtaposed letters between the Bonn Citizens Committee Against the Berufsverbot (the ban on practicing one’s profession, and the Left’s preferred term for the Decree Against Radicals) and the city’s student government. The committee’s urging of students to join its protest was insistently dismissed out of fear of association with the group. Below the correspondence, Haacke referenced the nearly five hundred thousand applicants for civil-service positions who had been investigated in the four years prior. Adopting visual strategies of persuasion in use on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and a sound track that evoked the Nazi past, the installation Aus Liebe zu Deutschland (Out of Love for Germany), 1976, was inspired by a scandalous campaign strategy speech by conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) party chair Franz Josef Strauss that had been leaked to the press. Accompanied by a recording of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen and hung against a red curtain below profile portraits of Strauss and two fellow CSU/Christian Democratic Union leaders, a quote in block white letters read (in German): “But all those dull questions of the internal policies of the state, that is, planning of an infrastructure, regional planning, etc., for which one needs a lot of experience, all that is not going to decide tomorrow’s election results. Instead it will be playing on people’s emotions, specifically their fear, their anxiety, and the dark view of the future, both internally as well as in foreign affairs.”

The urgency of these projects was balanced in the rest of the show with earlier works that cradled the new in a constellation of the physical, biological, and social systems around which Haacke’s practice both deconstructed and structured itself. These had been laid out by Jack Burnham in Haacke’s first English-language book, Framing and Being Framed: 7 Works 1970–75, published a year earlier. (Burnham first wrote about the artist’s work in systemic terms in the September 1968 issue of Artforum.) Among his earlier pieces on display were documentation of MOMA-Poll, 1970 (in which visitors to the Museum of Modern Art in New York registered opinions on Vietnam policy), and Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 (the investigative project into New York City real estate operations that was partly the cause for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s cancellation of his 1971 exhibition), as well as more poetic works that broke from bureaucratic serialization and citation, such as Circulation, 1969 (in which water pulsed through a maze of transparent tubing extended across the floor).

In exhibiting these works, Haacke proposed a means—acutely relevant again in our present moment—for placing serious threats to civil rights, transparency, and government accountability in a wider frame, in which there is still space for resistance no matter how menacing the adversary.

Margaret Ewing is a curatorial assistant in the department of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and is currently working on a monograph on Hans Haacke.

Read Jack Burnham’s article “Systems Esthetics” (September 1968).