New York

Hans Haacke, Blue Sail, 1964–65, chiffon, oscillating fan, thread, fishing weights. Installation view, New Museum, New York, 2019. Photo: Dario Lasagni. © Hans Haacke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Hans Haacke, Blue Sail, 1964–65, chiffon, oscillating fan, thread, fishing weights. Installation view, New Museum, New York, 2019. Photo: Dario Lasagni. © Hans Haacke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Hans Haacke

New Museum

Hans Haacke, Blue Sail, 1964–65, chiffon, oscillating fan, thread, fishing weights. Installation view, New Museum, New York, 2019. Photo: Dario Lasagni. © Hans Haacke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

THIS EXHIBITION, titled “Hans Haacke: All Connected,” was painfully overdue. The last US retrospective of Hans Haacke’s work occurred at the New Museum in 1986 during the Reagan-Thatcher era—a period that both foretells the inequality and cruelty that are hallmarks of our current moment and feels increasingly distant. Installed at the museum’s former space on Broadway, that show, “Unfinished Business,” restored the career of an artist who had been severely impacted by the infamous shuttering of his one-person show at the Guggenheim Museum by then director Thomas Messer in 1971. Denouncing Haacke’s documentation of a slumlord company in Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, as “an alien substance that had entered the art museum organism,” Messer ignited a firestorm. His censoring of Haacke’s piece was the cause célèbre of its time, exposing the fissures that had emerged during the late 1960s, as the Art Workers’ Coalition, Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, Women Artists in Revolution, and other groups turned their sights on the art world itself—its ties to capital and those who possess it, its structural racism and sexism, and the rights and economic circumstances of cultural producers.

View of “Hans Haacke: All Connected,” 2019–20. From left: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Board of Trustees, 1974; Öelgemälde, Hommage à Marcel Broodthaers (Oil Painting: Homage to Marcel Broodthaers), 1982. Photo: Dario Lasagni. © Hans Haacke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

In 1988, Benjamin Buchloh observed that Haacke had been the victim of “clandestine repression” by the institutions examined in the artist’s work, the museum and market, which veil their vested interest in the status quo behind the screen of a “supposedly all-embracing liberalism.” That repression has proven powerful, persisting to this day. More than thirty years after “Unfinished Business,” no American museum had seen fit to tell the story of Haacke’s long and prolific career until the New Museum again stepped up to the plate with “All Connected.” (A 2011 display of Haacke’s early works at MIT curated by Caroline A. Jones was a happy exception.) Belated as it was, this retrospective could not have been better timed: During a period when the art world has expanded to global proportions, when the museum concept is undergoing dramatic structural changes, and when museums themselves have come under intense scrutiny at the hands of journalists, artists, activists, and employees, Haacke’s foundational investigations of these themes offer a set of procedures and a model. (The many artists invited to contribute to the catalogue insist on this point. Haacke’s work “gains new relevance quickly,” Sam Durant notes.) Even more, the opportunity to revisit Haacke’s classic works of the ’70s and ’80s, developed during the rise of the neoliberal economy we now inhabit, allowed a viewer to consider how much or how little has changed since he made them. Recounting specific histories with an ultradeadpan approach—a uniquely Haackean blend of rigor and disgust—his works are case studies in corporate, political, and museological power and malfeasance. They interlace the art world and the real world in a single network: a “system,” as the critic Jack Burnham described it in this magazine in 1968. Links between sectors we tend to think of as discrete, as disconnected, are exposed. To take in a work by Haacke is to experience “an inward desegregation of mental categories,” Leo Steinberg wrote.

Hans Haacke, Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 (detail), 142 gelatin silver prints, 142 typewritten cards, two city-map excerpts, six charts, dimensions variable. © Hans Haacke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

“All Connected” advanced a systemic understanding of Haacke’s art on the museum’s Bowery premises, whose stacked, midsize galleries militate against an experience of connectivity and flow. The curators, Gary Carrion-Murayari and Massimiliano Gioni, faced the daunting task of mapping Haacke’s six-decade-long career in this recalcitrant setting. Their solution was to eschew the chronological narrativity of the usual survey and devote each floor to a different typology of Haacke’s work. The second floor featured the artist’s early reflective reliefs and kinetic and environmental projects; the third his most celebrated works exploring the intersections of political, corporate, and museological power. The fourth focused on the theme of circulation, and the study-center gallery on the fifth floor was a display of visitor polls, including one conducted on touch-screen tablets. The extensive object labels authored by the artist enumerated the logic and circumstances of each project in detail, a critical gesture in itself: Appropriating the mediating role of the curator who tells viewers what they “need to know,” Haacke seized total control of his works’ interpretation.

Guggenheim Trustees is no simple act of revenge against the museum that banished the artist’s work.

Carrion-Murayari and Gioni occasionally disrupted this typological framework, installing a work that “belonged” on a floor with related works in another gallery. Gallery-Goers’ Birthplace and Residence Profile, Part 1, 1969, for instance, was installed adjacent to the kinetic works, prefiguring the poll theme resumed on the fifth floor. Circulation, 1969, a sculpture of water pumped endlessly through a sprawling arrangement of plastic tubes, was installed with Shapolsky’s maps and diagrams of real-estate transactions and Haacke’s Trafalgar Square sculpture commission, Gift Horse, 2014, a George Stubbs–inspired equine skeleton bearing a “ribbon” of LED scrolling the day’s stock trades, linking the early kinetic works bearing no references to finance or politics to the artist’s most chilling depictions of capitalism as a dehumanized system of unceasing flows and exchanges.

Hans Haacke, Sphere in Oblique Air Jet, 1964–67/2011, weather balloon, helium, fan, laminate, wood, air jet. Installation view, 2019. Photo: Dario Lasagni. © Hans Haacke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Certainly, the transition from the second floor to the third—from the wondrous display of Perspex containers of water, fabric and weather balloons lifted into the air by fans, and photos of ephemeral environmental projects, to the artist’s overtly political works, including his sardonic portraits of Reagan and Thatcher; his brilliant examination of the provenance of a Seurat, 1975’s Seurat’s “Les Poseuses” (small version), 1888–1975; and Metro-Mobiltan, 1985, an exposure of the connections between an exhibition of Nigerian art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the investments of Mobil, the show’s lead sponsor, in apartheid South Africa—was a glaring one. To pass from one floor to the other was to grasp the dramatic change that Haacke’s art underwent in the wake of the Guggenheim scandal. The traumatic experience of a highly publicized institutional rejection instigated a shift in tactic: The “systemic” approach remained, yet now he appropriated the cold presentation techniques and banal rhetorical formulas of the culture industry as he turned his attention to an increasingly corporatized art world. He made his artworks into simulacra of their targets, a tactic that John A. Tyson, in his catalogue essay, characterizes as “parasitic” (a work by Haacke is a “parasite which surrounds and strangles the citation which is its host,” to quote the literary critic J. Hillis Miller, the source of this conceit) and that Yve-Alain Bois has described as an “antidote” (Haacke’s work “is like a cleanser washing away the mask of culture,” Bois has written). Appropriating the look and language of the corporation or museum, Haacke’s works deplete the aura of authority they project.

Hans Haacke, MetroMobiltan, 1985, fiberglass, three banners, photomural, 11'8“ × 20' × 5'9”. Installation view, 2019. Photo: Dario Lasagni. © Hans Haacke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Already, his MoMA Poll, 1970, drew connections between the Rockefellers’ so-called family museum and Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s tacit support for the Vietnam War. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Board of Trustees, 1974, took things much further, applying the intensive research techniques trailblazed in Shapolsky to a dissection of the financial entanglements of Guggenheim board members, many of whom held investments in mining companies in third-world countries with right-wing dictatorships. (In 1973, a US-backed coup in Chile led by General Augusto Pinochet resulted in the murder of the democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende, who had nationalized the properties of the Kennecott Copper Corporation, on whose board sat three of the museum’s trustees. Pinochet’s government “committed itself to compensate Kennecott for nationalized property,” Haacke coolly observes.)

Guggenheim Trustees is no simple act of revenge against the museum that banished the artist’s work. Reproducing the rhetorical and typographical style of the annual report in a dazzling act of mimicry, this work stands as an emblematic example of classic institutional critique, an elucidation of the “frame”—the network of art’s display, distribution, and patronage. The status of this tradition, its relevance and pastness, was the show’s takeaway question. Brought to an apogee by Haacke and his contemporaries Michael Asher, Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, and Louise Lawler, the critique of institutions appeared to have become institutionalized by the early ’90s, when another cohort, inspired by the writings of Foucault and psychoanalytic, postcolonial, feminist, and queer theorists, explored a range of institutions and sites—the art museum, historical society, natural-history and anthropological collections, and public parks. In the work of Gregg Bordowitz, Tom Burr, Mark Dion, Andrea Fraser, Renée Green, Zoe Leonard, Christian Philipp Müller, and Fred Wilson, the “critique of the institution” dilated into a critique of institutions. The “art world” concerns of classic critique seemed less urgent in an era defined by the AIDS epidemic and the institutionalized multiculturalism epitomized by the 1993 Whitney Biennial. By 2005, in an essay published in these pages and reprinted in the catalogue accompanying “All Connected,” Fraser could announce that “institutional critique is dead,” a “victim of its success” and its “failure” to address the “all-encompassing apparatus of cultural reification” that the art world had increasingly become.

Much like the postmodernist theme of the “end of painting,” the death of institutional critique is now a well-rehearsed topos. In fact, critique was always a minority position: For every Haacke or Broodthaers, we can point to countless painters and sculptors who also emerged during the ’60s, the images of whose works fill the advertising pages and covers of old Artforums. Critique is hard; the success of Shapolsky and Guggenheim Trustees depended on the intensive research that Haacke brought to these projects, a lesson not lost on such practitioners as Maria Eichhorn and Cameron Rowland, whose genealogies of structural racism, oppression, and private property are trenchant extensions of that approach. Walking through Haacke’s exhibition, I came to understand that institutional critique continues, adapting to new circumstances and sites in a constant bid for relevance. The art world demands critique more than ever; the “system” that Burnham believed could be mapped now appears bewilderingly “labyrinthine,” as Pamela M. Lee notes in her catalogue text. The ever-expanding scale of the global art system—a miniature mirror of the sublime scale of global capital—demands new forms of mapping. (A book like Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics, a prodigious study of the political contributions of trustees and administrators of museums in all fifty states during the last US presidential election, documents the imbricated and deeply compromised nature of cultural philanthropy in the wealthiest nation on the planet, where modest public funding for the arts and arts education is under constant assault by an administration underwritten by the “red”-identified individuals tallied in Fraser’s pie charts.) Perhaps the real story of institutional critique at present is its migration from the aesthetic to the non-aesthetic sphere—the protests and boycotts by artists and museum employees in response to the perceived inequities and hypocrisies of institutions that present themselves as serving the public interest. The last tumultuous period of art-world activism inspired Haacke to leave behind his kinetic experiments for the critical practice for which he will be remembered. Whether the current activism will instigate a “new” institutional critique—an art that transforms information into aesthetic form and experience—remains to be seen. 

James Meyer is a Contributing Editor of Artforum and the author of The Art of Return: The Sixties and Contemporary Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2019).