New York

Hans Haacke

John Weber Gallery

Hans Haacke’s recent exhibition included three disparate but internally related works. One was the two-part Hommage à Marcel Broodthaers shown last summer at Documenta 7 but here altered to play the original gilt-framed, roped-off oil painting of Ronald Reagan against a different enlarged photograph, one taken at an antinuclear rally in New York. Another was a mock monument, a replica of the Mark 12A Nuclear Warhead which apposed the slogan of the missile’s maker, General Electric, to a “capital” pediment bust of the United States President. And in the third work Haacke appended to a large photographic transparency portrait of the President his own text evoking Reaganomics (“Yes, my son collects unemployment, too!”). These works could be seen to ply now-familiar Haacke tactics, linking politics to art through the artist’s deadpan criticism of corporate and national power. Yet what gives them their specific historical embeddedness and their peculiar critical force is Haacke’s commentary on the impossibility of disengaging rhetorical or esthetic strategies from the ideological interests they serve.

In these works Haacke seems to be playing a double-edged game with the notion of historical specificity. The aggrandizing, inherently falsifying rhetoric of painting and monumental sculpture is opposed to photography’s objective historicity, as a factual medium moored in the technology of the moment, and resistant, in its documentary use, to the promotion of political or cultural ends. In this, Haacke plies an old axiom on the embeddedness of art in its social and historical context. But what is evident from his specific employment of painting, with all the reverent trappings and the inscribed bronze plaque (“Oil Painting”), is a critique of that contemporary version of the medium which glorifies brush strokes, expression, and the “heroic” gestures of the artist. The parallel to this historically outmoded practice can be found in the resurgence of large-scale sculpture, generally cast in bronze or directly carved by hand. That these techniques have recently been turned to the service of the German national interest, acting to distort and mythify the reality of regional culture, is broadly known; however, Haacke would argue that these regressive, intrinsically subservient effects also inhere to the “neutral” field of cultural expression, working to reinforce a similar consolidation of interests. In the relations he poses between power and media, Haacke indicates the complicity of culture in the structuring of political systems in one of the most significant critiques of the season.

Kate Linker