Hans Haacke

This retrospective, mounted by Berlin’s Neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst and the Bern Kunsthalle, demonstrated Hans Haacke’s development of an increasingly pictorial, increasingly material expression. In his earlier works a dogmatic rhetoric often seemed to take over the picture, but in the recent pieces here it recedes into the background, integrating itself discreetly in the pictorial discourse. The message ends up stronger, the image more ambiguous and rich in meaning. This seems appropriate to the complexity of the political and corporate relations that Haacke explores, and it also encourages viewers toward a more-than-superficial interpretation. Their deciphering of the work duplicates Haacke’s analysis of the tricky mystifications in the relationships among art, politics, and industry and trade.

Haacke considers art part of an all-enveloping “consciousness industry,” and makes it his task to create visual analogues of that industry’s obscure intrigues. Making the idealistic and moral values that society attributes to art the subject of his work, he obtains formulations that reveal the political dimension of art’s public role, a dimension set crassly but quietly in opposition to the noble, humanistic aspects of art. Taking Stock (unfinished), 1983–84, is a painting of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a Victorian interior. This portrait of a ruler, with its opulent neoclassical frame, its academic pomp, and the emphatically arrogant pose of the subject (who appears to have pretensions to royalty), at first seems a revealing caricature both of a certain kind of painting and of the politician it represents. Yet using the work’s title as a clue to certain of the pictures details, one discovers a new reading. Cracked plates displayed on the bookshelf behind Thatcher show the faces of two men, the brothers Maurice and Charles Saatchi, who run Britain’s largest advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi. The names of some of the agency’s accounts appear as titles on the spines of the books on the shelves—a varied mixture of corporations and cultural institutions. The agency provides a financial support for the art-collecting practice of Charles Saatchi and his wife, Doris. With his numerous involvements with the government and with such public art institutions as the Tate Gallery, Charles Saatchi can be seen not only as an unselfish modern Maecenas, but also as a man well grounded in the politics of power. And his political connections can only flourish after Saatchi & Saatchi’s brilliant handling of Thatcher’s successful reelection campaign, which bestowed England with a notoriously philistine, anticultural government. Haacke modulates this multilayered history of entangled collecting, investing, and political interests with an art-historical set piece—the Tate Gallery’s Victorian sculpture of Pandora, with box, which sits on a coffee table near Thatcher—and with allusions to the collections of the Saatchi’s themselves. And the work reflects in a certain way on the nature of the medium of painting.

In Weite and Vielfalt der Brigade Ludwig (Broadness and diversity of the Ludwig brigade), a work created for the Berlin installation of this exhibition, Haacke uses a similar method. Two images that would never meet in the world outside art hang in a room, facing each other but separated by a wooden wall. One is a billboard advertisement for candies made by the Leonard Monheim company, the corporation that makes Lindt and other chocolates and is headed by Peter Ludwig, another well-known collector. Facing it is a painting done in the social realist style of such artists as the East German Willi Sitte: Pralinenmeister Ludwig is seen with his wife Irene and the East German workers heroine Erika Steinführer, both as working women. This simple but reverberant juxtaposition raises the question of how Ludwig, who collects the art of socialist countries as well as of the West, manages to reconcile capitalism and communism, avoiding any actual program of liberation and keeping the cash register happy.

A third recent work, Buhrlesque, was devised for the exhibition in Bern. A black cloth with white embroidery lies on a marble table, transforming it into an altar. On the table two shoe boxes support a woman’s red and a man’s black shoe; in each heel a burning candle, mounted at an oblique angle suggestive of an antiaircraft gun, drips wax in hot, persistent tears. The starting point for this series of associations is a cover from the, magazine of the South African armed forces, which hangs above the table. It shows a squad of uniformed South African army men during an official visit to Switzerland, in the course of which they carried out a two-day march near Bern. The soldier who carries the company’s banner is black. The black cloth’s white embroidery includes the names of the Oerlikon-Bührle company and its subsidiaries—machine-tool, armament, and shoe manufacturers. Haacke’s goal is an exploration of the business of Oerlikon-Bührle, whose close relations with South Africa are legal but morally questionable. The Bührle family are among the most important art patrons in Switzerland.

As Haacke criticizes the art-administration system which ultimately supports him, he keeps getting into hot water. Someone always takes offense, whether they are his target or not. Yet he always reveals the bitter pills sugar-coated by art. His is a difficult but vital enterprise.

Max Wechsler

Translated from the German by Kaatje Cusse.