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Hans Haacke

(b. 1936)


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(1936– )

German artist, active mainly in the USA, who has been especially associated with the idea of ‘institutional critique’, a kind of political art that examines the very institutions in which it operates. He was born in Cologne, studied in Kassel, and first went to the USA on a Fulbright travelling scholarship in 1961, since when he has taught and exhibited widely there, living mainly in New York. His early work, a form of Kinetic art, was much concerned with movement, light, and the reaction of objects with their environment. His interest in ecological systems led him to social systems through his reading of Ludwig von Bertallanfy's (1901–72) General Systems Theory (1968). From this he concluded that ‘there is no break between the social world, the physical and biological world’. This, combined with the radicalization of his generation as a result of protests against the Vietnam War, drew him towards the political work for which he is best known. This has led to frequent controversy, not just because of the political dimension as such, but also because of the way in which the politics of the institutions with which he works are exposed and open to criticism. As the art historian Rosalyn Deutsche put it, his work is not just ‘*site-specific but politically site-specific’. An early indication of things to come was the cancellation of his 1971 exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, ‘Real Time Social System’. Here he exposed the activities of slum landlords in New York. The director of the museum, Thomas Messer, accused Haacke of making the work from ‘ulterior motives’ which were in conflict with aesthetic aims. In an interview many years after the event, he claimed that he might have taken a different approach had not Haacke named specific individuals. Nonetheless, in the immediate aftermath it appeared that the battle lines had been drawn between a younger generation of radicals and a museum establishment committed to a depoliticized conception of formalism. In 1974 Haacke exhibited a work which presented information about the members of the Guggenheim Museum's board, showing their family and business interests. The effect was to question the extent to which the museum might be guided by financial and social interests which could be very much at odds with those of artists or indeed of much of the museum's public. His examination of the way in which aesthetic and political concerns interact was demonstrated both elegantly and provocatively in Manet-PROJEKT 74, made for the exhibition ‘Kunst Bleibt Kunst’ (‘Art is still art’) held at at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, in 1974. He showed the ownership history of an apparently politically neutral work, Manet's Bunch of Asparagus (1880). This picture had been presented to the museum as a permanent loan by Herman J. Abs, the chairman of the Friends of the Museum. The panels charted how the work had passed from early supporters of the artist, who were frequently Jewish. Abs had in his early life been active as a businessman during the Third Reich. Like the Guggenheim piece, the work was removed by the museum, although as a gesture of support another participant, Daniel Buren, pasted photocopies of Haacke's work over his own contribution.

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Subjects: Art.


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