New York

Hans Haacke

John Weber Gallery

Although based on a much tougher view of the responsibilities inherent in making art, Hans Haacke’s latest work unfortunately betrays a similar pomposity, a desire to be taken seriously, but a refusal to dig beneath the surface of an appropriate look. The trouble seems to be that he has established himself as a political artist of some importance, but is now content to relax in the glow of an all-encompassing irony.

Haacke’s work this time is about the Mobil Corporation, a wryly humorous exposé of the double talk the oil company uses in its famous advertising campaigns, which are designed to persuade middle-income newspaper readers that the company’s business policies are in their best interests. The major piece in this show comprises an enlarged reproduction of a Mobil share divided into sections, each one containing short statements that justify a number of the company’s less honorable practices. Written in the sugary style that Herbert Schmertz has perfected, the statements take the point of view of a rather innocent small shareholder. One cannot quarrel with the general drift of Haacke’s approach, but its lack of effectiveness is appalling. The thinking remains superficial, the presentation facile. Haacke relies heavily on the ironic mode, and that mode seems strangely compromised right now. It permits, all too easily, the amused dismissal of serious thought. If we accept that the purpose of avant-garde art is to point out contradictions in current beliefs, be they social or esthetic, the problem here is that the contradictions are already quite well-known and accepted, are themselves today part of the currency of received ideas. Public disbelief in any kind of institution is now considered normal, and cynicism is prevalent enough to be understood as a modernist form of sentimentality, an easy way of avoiding any unpleasant, though necessary, confrontation.

It is this defusion which makes Haacke’s new work seem tame, even decorative. Any educated person can understand the intention behind it, so there is a certain thrill to be enjoyed. But with no harm done, the thrill remains a mere amusement.

Thomas Lawson