In the 1960s, especially in the West, art that was revelatory and art that was revealing operated at opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum. On the side of the revelatory we can think of encounters synonymous with modernism, in which an expressionist painting was revelatory of the Freudian unconscious, or a Barnett Newman the revelatory intensity of the sublime. By contrast, the impulse to reveal in 1960s art was rooted in post-Duchampian practice, implicating artists as different as Lynda Benglis and Richard Hamilton, who mined the potential of an art that was without essence. If revelatory art underscored modernism’s transcendental conviction, critically revealing work tested its discursive rules and institutional conventions. Of course, nothing in history happens as neatly as this suggests, but what is clear is how polarized the language of artistic revelation was throughout the 1960s. With the international spread of minimalism, pop art, and fluxus, provisional reveals eventually dominated art-historical discourse. Aesthetic conviction, with its spiritual undertones, was haunted by its demystification. In the words of Donald Judd: “a work needs only to be interesting” (184).
That art galleries could be sites of timely socio-political issues, rather than timeless intuitions undersigned by medium specificity, is one of the more familiar origin stories of postmodernism. Few artists symbolize this shift more than Hans Haacke, whose 2019 exhibition All Connected, at the New Museum, New York, examined the legacy of his outward-looking work. Born in Germany in 1936, and a New Yorker since 1965, Haacke has been linked to the term “institutional critique” since the mid 1980s, after Mel Ramsden’s coining in 1975, and the increased recognition of kindred spirits such as Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Michael Asher, Martha Rosler, Robert Smithson, Daniel Buren, and Marcel Broodthaers. These artists have featured in books and essays by the likes of Benjamin Buchloh, Hal Foster, and Yve-Alain Bois, but they are also known for their own contributions to art discourse, producing hybrid conceptions of the intellectual postmodern artist as historian, critic and curator.
Haacke was initially fascinated by kinetic sculpture in the early 1960s, taking inspiration from op art, systems art, and machine-oriented research collectives such as Zero (Germany), Gruppo N (Italy) and GRAV (France, an acronym of Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel). Towards the end of the decade he started to produce more overtly socio-political work, creating what would become a classic piece from this period, Gallery-Goers’ Birthplace and Residence Profile, Part 1 (1969). Here, in a solo exhibition at New York’s Howard Wise Gallery, the artist invited viewers to mark their birthplaces and places of residence on a map. Questioning the statistical demography of the Gallery’s avant-garde attendees, the exhibition anticipated the meticulous sociological character of much of his practice to come, grounding New York art – the centre of the art world – in local, social, and economic fabrics.
In the forward to the catalogue of All Connected, New Museum Director Lisa Philips claims that Haacke’s survey exhibition provided a chance to reflect on the artist’s prescience, especially given the flourishing of art activism over the last five or so years. Philips pressed the issue of why no other American art institution had mounted a retrospective of his work in three decades, since his previous survey, Unfinished Business, at the New Museum in 1986, at its former, and much smaller, Soho digs (8). It suggests that other institutions have deemed Haacke’s work too risky, generating too much political heat for them to handle. It’s a reputation the artist has cultivated since the Guggenheim Museum famously cancelled his 1971 exhibition after learning his intended work, Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System as of May 1, 1971 (1971) involved research into dubious New York real estate dealings. Guggenheim director Thomas Messer defended the censorship at the time, going so far as to describe it as an “alien substance that had entered the art museum organism” (Haacke, Framing 138). Exposé was this substance Messer dare not name: art that was too revealing, too journalistic, too partisan, and too politically viscid. (Three years later, Haacke got his own back with Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Board of Trustees, 1974, exposing then Guggenheim board members’ connections to the copper industry in Chile, where socialist president Salvador Allende had just been overthrown with US backing.)
All Connected foregrounded these institutional reveals from time past, at a moment in 2019 when the moral accountability of the art institution was on the art world’s collective mind. The exhibition followed high-profile protests at New York’s Whitney Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the Louvre, and the British Museum. These and other arts organisations have increasingly faced pressures, fostered by social media, to end ties with unethical donors, sponsors, and board members, with activist groups protesting institutional affiliations ranging from immigration detention centre management to opioid and teargas manufacturing. An awareness of the limits of individual agency and autonomy undoubtedly defines this era, with social media platforms intensifying the encumbrances of individual, group, and organisational identities.
Hans Haacke, Gallery-Goers’ Birthplace and Residence Profile, Part 1, 1969
Hans Haacke, Gallery-Goers’ Birthplace and Residence Profile, Part 2, 1969-71
Underscoring Haacke’s activist credentials, Philips describes him as “a model of how to live ethically and empathetically in the world today”, and as a beacon of light amidst the “extreme political and economic uncertainty” of the present, Trump-presidency-calamity moment (7). This was markedly different to how Haacke’s previous New York retrospective, Unfinished Business, was received, which bore the weight of being the artist’s first museum exhibition in New York following the Guggenheim controversy. In the catalogue to Haacke’s 1986 exhibition, then New Museum director Marcia Tucker introduced his work as a challenge, cautiously claiming that he poses “trenchant questions” and that the institution accepts “the difficulties and contradictions” inherent to any museum staging of his work (6).
Philips’s and Tucker’s distinct perspectives on Haacke’s practice – one as heroically ethical, the other as a sobering critical challenge – exemplify broader shifts in the perception of institutional critique (the art of the socio-political reveal) over this thirty-year period. In the words of Pamela M. Lee, between 1986 and 2019 the art world has undergone a “seismic transformation”, becoming “a sphere of influence at once more rapacious, acquisitive, and overweening but arguably more democratizing and ecumenical with respect to new audiences and artists involved” (87). Haacke’s reputation over this period has taken a similar shift, from him being a controversial opponent of art’s autonomy (an erudite postmodern conceptualist) to a figurehead for moral integrity and cohesive artistic experimentation.
As Rosalyn Deutsche pointed out in the catalogue to Haacke’s 1986 exhibition, a potential trap of such a retrospective is that, through biographical positioning, Haacke might be seen as an “exemplary political artist” (210). With this, the specific political issues motivating his work would be overshadowed by the perception of the “great artist” – someone who brings single-issue politics into the narrative of postmodern art, but at the expense of the issues themselves. This is exactly what Douglas Crimp discovered in Unfinished Business. In a 1987 reflection on the show, Crimp argued that, when compared with an AIDS-themed display, Homo Video, staged at the New Museum at the same time, reviewers of Haacke’s exhibition tended to analyse his politics “within the context of the individual artist’s body of work … . Political issues became secondary to the aesthetic strategies of the producer” (34). Crimp, whose activism would be at the forefront of his career in subsequent years, was surprised at how Homo Video and Unfinished Business spawned different readings. Whereas works in the former exhibition tended to be addressed in terms of the artists personal and partisan politics, Haacke’s prompted reflection on the aesthetics-politics juxtaposition itself. For Crimp, the fact that “there was no mediation between these two shows”, spoke volumes about the divisions between political and activist art at the time.
New York Times critic Michael Brenson, reiterating a comment made by Fredric Jameson in the catalogue for Unfinished Business, describes the timeless appearance of Haacke’s work in 1986, which is “surprising for an artist whose work is in some way about ideology and history” (Brenson). The implication is that the artist gives a surprisingly long aesthetic afterlife to the politically specific – to ordinarily short shelf-life issues. In this mode of critical postmodernism in which we are unable to distinguish clearly between intervening in and merely reproducing the logic of the system, Haacke is seen as an astute director of an albeit ambiguous push and pull between political specificity and aesthetic irreducibility, political externality and the internalist mode of art about art. Jameson, while granting that Haacke’s work highlights the need to reinvent the role of the “ruling class” in the complex, globalised socio-economic situation of postmodernism, claims that it does so as representative of the “new intellectual problematic” of postmodernism. Haacke, according Jameson, stages postmodernism’s “crisis of ‘mapping’” whereby capitalism’s totalizing, systemic forms are “handled” (note that he avoids “critiqued” or “challenged”) by focusing on their manifestation through particular (“micro-public”) institutional means (49, 50).
We can think of the above examples as constituting the postmodern version of Haacke, who frames very specific political issues on the one hand, and the limitless incorporative power of appropriative practice on the other. To say this another way, Haacke, circa 1986, points to specific sites of power struggle at the same time as revealing their generic absorption by an art-world system grown accustomed to its “duplicate anything” parameters. For all of his political intent, the artistic realm, totalised in accordance with the postmodern image, is ultimately where many thought his gestures remained. The philosopher turned art critic Arthur Danto, in a negative review of Haacke’s exhibition, portrayed institutional critique as part of an age-old business of purifying art, maintaining that Haacke’s “crude” and “heavy-handed” practice is blind to how art institutions have always relied on some form of critique in order for them to continue being respected “brokers of spirit”. This perception – of Haacke’s “external” critiques merely serving to “internally” strengthen existing art structures – was reiterated by Leo Steinberg. Supportively misconstruing the artist in the exhibition catalogue, Steinberg writes that Haacke’s “political message, by dint of dissonance, becomes grating and shrill – but shrill within the art context. And while its political effectiveness is probably minimal, its effect on Minimal art may well be profound” (15).
Hans Haacke, MOMA Poll, 1970
So, what do we make of the transformed reception of Haacke’s work since the late 1980s: from a postmodern ouroboros of “politicizing aesthetics and aestheticizing politics” to a revelatory exemplar of art’s moral power? At a period in the late 1980s when the culture wars were in full swing and yet activist groups remained on the margins of what would become a “mainstream” art world, Unfinished Business was, perhaps, blindingly relevant to its times. Unusually for a retrospective, it provided little historical distance for its subject, with Haacke becoming a victim of the era’s propensity to “compartmentalize the interpretive registers of inside and outside and the terms corresponding to such spatializing coordinates” (Lee 83).
If commentary surrounding this 2019 retrospective is anything to go by, politics no longer performs such a parasitic, oppositional or even dialectical relation to art; no longer is the political regarded as a real-world intrusion into the formal, discerning, longue-durée field of aesthetics. The fact that protests inside the museum have become more visible and vociferous in recent years testifies to this shift. For Jason Farrago, in his review of All Connected for the New York Times, “the fact that no person and no artwork stands alone, that all of us are enmeshed in systems of economic and social power, is for anyone under 40 a statement of the obvious”. For Alyssa Battistoni, in Frieze magazine, “if institutional critique is a practice, it is hard to see where it is better embodied than in organizing a union, strike or boycott”.
Some responders to All Connected, such as Ben Lewis, acknowledge how difficult it is to extract a single critical or political strategy from Haacke’s body of work; however, we can say that, in general, earlier postmodern questions concerning the aestheticisation of the socio-political reveal no longer dominates the reception of his practice. Today, rather than treating art and politics are two separate but related entities, like form is to content, better ideas circulate, such as those espoused by Bruno Latour and Jacques Rancière, for whom what counts as political is not determined by a specific program, medium or forum, but by the capacity of any actor-network to disrupt and change a normative social fabric. Compare Jameson’s claim that Haacke’s corporate and museological tropes are “dead forms” – through which “no subject-position speaks, not even in protest” (38) – with Battistoni’s, who, seeing Haacke’s activism as implicit, asks the reader: “how can we take the relationship between art and politics as seriously as Haacke has insisted we must?”
Crimp’s concern that Unfinished Business perpetuated an image of the artist as distant from the “political stakes” of his work did not carry through to All Connected, whose respondents were less vexed about the relation between art and politics, with many noting its timeliness. The New Museum was, ironically, undergoing its own equity crisis in the months leading up to the exhibition, with newly unionised staff fighting with the Museum over workers’ salaries and healthcare even as it organised to build a new $89-million Rem Koolhaas-designed extension. Battistoni addressed these disputes at-length, claiming the protests “crystallize perfectly the changes that have shaped the world over the half-century of Haacke’s career, and especially over the 33 years since his last New Museum exhibition”. Of note is how little attention Battistoni pays to Haacke’s artistic methods when recounting his assumed solidarity with these disputes, suggesting that works such as Creating Consent (1981), Helmosboro Country (1990), and Standortkultur (Corporate Culture) (1997) – which pivot on art’s public image versus its corporate umbilical cord – do not convey some special aesthetico-political insight into a totalizing capitalist system. Instead, “he has simply been an astute and honest observer long enough to remind us that our current state of affairs has been in formation for decades”.
Hans Haacke, News, 1969/2008
Hans Haacke, Wide White Flow, 1967/2008
Early on in the 1960s, Haacke was influenced by the American critic, artist, and curator Jack Burnham, who in a 1968 essay, “Systems Esthetics” for Artforum, inaugurated the loose conceptualist paradigm that would become known as “systems art”. Here, against Greenbergian formalism and what he saw as the “craft fetishism” of modernism, Burnham argues that “change emanates, not from things, but from the way things are done” (30). Burnham thought that emergent contemporary artists were intuitively aware of the importance of the systems approach: the significant artist in 1968 “strives to reduce the technical and psychical distance between his artistic output and the productive means of society”, and pays particular attention to relationships between organic and non-organic systems (31).
As Michael Fried observed of minimalism in his now legendary 1967 essay Art and Objecthood, this shift in sixties art – signalled by the widespread interest in the systematic – entailed a turn towards the spatial, institutional, and societal contexts of receivership. For Burnham, art is not about “material entities” that beautify or modify the environment; rather, art exists “in relations between people and between people and the components of their environment” (31). At the forefront of his mind was land art, computer art, and research-driven conceptualist practice, which, against Fried, has “no contrived confines such as the theatre proscenium or picture frame” (32). In a 1969 lecture at the Guggenheim, Burnham confessed that his research concerned not just art as a distinct entity, but aesthetics in its broadest possible sense, declaring “as far as art is concerned, I’m not particularly interested in it. I believe that aesthetics exists in revelation” (Ragain).
Working under the aegis of Burnham’s systems art, Haacke was shaken by the tumultuous and televised politics of late-1960s America – a time when, according to Joan Didion, a “demented and seductive vortical tension was building in the community” (41). Haacke cites Martin Luther King’s assassination as an “incident that made me understand that, in addition to what I had called physical and biological systems, there are also social systems and that art is an integral part of the universe of social systems” (Haacke, Conversation 222). Haacke created News (1969) in response to this awareness, comprising a (pre-Twitter) telex machine that endlessly spits out live news updates from wire services, piling up rolls and rolls of paper on the floor of the exhibition space over the course of its display. Echoing Burnham’s idea of the artist as a programmer whose job is to “prepare new codes and analyze data”, News nonetheless presents the museum as anything but immune from politics, and technological systems as anything but impersonal (32).
This intensification of social responsibility in Haacke’s work sets him apart from other, arguably more reductive techno-scientific systems artists such as Sonia Sheridan and Les Levine. The gradual transformation of his ecological and quasi-scientific sculptural experiments from 1968 onwards could almost be seen as making a mockery of the anthropocentrism described in Fried’s 1967 critique. Here, Fried claims not only that the literalness of minimalist work amounts to an emphasis on shape and spatial presence over pictorial composition, but also, in this “theatricality of objecthood” literalness paradoxically mirrors (153). At times in Fried’s essay the minimalist art object reads as a mute form of sociality, the spatial presence filled by the conscious experience of looking – the theatrical relationship itself put on view. Fried thought that viewers of minimalism were presented with themselves in relation to the entire world as object, to which they were asked not to respond in an engaged formalist sense but (generically) to react. Pre-empting the rise of conceptual art and the sociological experiments of post-conceptualist practice, Fried, unapprovingly, argues that minimalist artists unleash an anthropomorphism that “must somehow confront the beholder” (154).
Haacke, who admits he has “always been sympathetic to so-called Minimal art” (Haacke, A Conversation 26) embraced the human subject around the same time that Fried’s essay was published. While Fried would have viewed this move as further illustrating the minimalist tendency towards anthropomorphic confrontation, it would be more accurate to describe Haacke’s subsequent works as social-environmental barometers. Haacke began staging interactions which, however dry or administrative, framed the interplays of culture and nature, inside and outside, private and public spheres, expanding art’s definition by looking to the social circulation and economy that supported it.
Haacke’s approach – which seems largely driven to show, to reveal – anticipates the viewer in a way that Fried would disapprove, for whom absorbed viewers, and the irreduction of gestalt to shape, are the by-products of assessments of aesthetic quality. For Donald Judd, the promotion of interest over conviction signalled scepticism about Clement Greenberg’s quality standards; it was a way of acknowledging the limitations of qualitative judgement, and, perhaps, of knowledge more generally. In this way, minimalism’s aesthetic relations are not framed so much as allowed to “go on and on” – the artists’ doubt about aesthetic value producing this ongoing temporal quality, which conviction supposedly lacks.
In contrast to Unfinished Business, the placing of Haacke’s early sixties works adjacent to his later, more political works in All Connected revealed something other than the tensions between postmodern socio-political reveal and modernist-formalist revelation. The question of whether to intervene in an operating system – whether to let such a system go on and on – was raised throughout the exhibition, literally and metaphorically. To be faced with the interactions of physical, biological, and social systems (in Condensation Cube, 1963-67, and Wide White Flow, 1967/2008, but also in later works like MetroMobiltan, 1985) is to be faced with the question of change and one’s place in it. Framing systems in full swing, at their best, Haacke’s kinetic and environmental works suggest two things: 1. That the systems on display will be ongoing if their component parts aren’t altered; and 2. Any alteration will alter the system as a whole, in minor or significant ways. Applied to his practice more generally, what Haacke’s work hinges on is whether or not one perceives oneself as part of its systemic relations. To see oneself implicated is to see beyond the work’s literal forms and representations. Here, systemic imbrication equates to moral realisation: one’s capacity to alter the system as the question of what to do. Unlike the phenomenology-oriented minimalists, the viewer’s participation is not always assumed in Haacke’s work, who follows a more hermeneutic model. In fact, Haacke’s systems are often circular, highlighting participation as a conscious disruption of flow rather than an obligation that emanates from a particular work (148).
This is a theatrical scenario as Fried describes it, but it is far from an abandonment of the issue of profound value. In fact, if we accept that Haacke’s work foregrounds intervention as a moral choice, it is closer to Fried’s own rallying cry for conviction in aesthetic judgement. As Rex Butler has argued, Fried’s advocacy of conviction over sceptical interest can be understood as dialectical in the Hegelian sense: conviction is the overcoming of scepticism, in a similar way that Geist, or spirit, for Hegel, is “the very split between subject and object, in which each makes the other possible” (Butler). What is advanced for Fried is the idea of “a scepticism that can be remarked only from the position of conviction and a conviction that can speak of itself only as this scepticism” (for instance, in his attempt to overcome his scepticism of literalist art on the basis of its scepticism). Strong and unequivocal feelings in Fried’s writing are informed by weak and indeterminate feeling, just as moral conviction in Haacke – the feeling that I, the viewer, should do something – emerges from an awareness that the system will continue to function fine without me. In other words, before being read as “a barometer of the changing and charged atmosphere of the public sphere” (Sutton 16), the impact of Haacke’s work depends upon an initial revelation. It is the realisation not just that one is embroiled in a series of “invisible but fundamental” relations greater than oneself, but that, in responding to seemingly sovereign social systems, the question of our involvement is a moral one, a claim for determination founded through an overcoming of the systemic (Fry 31).
Haacke’s at once open and closed works suit the logic of our algorithmic age, where viewers have to shift constantly from a position of being targeted to one of finding for oneself. Peculiarly, when Haacke’s online digital polls in All Connected were hacked by activists (who randomized statistical responses in order to compel the Museum “to redress their continuing complacency in capitalism”) the culprits claimed they did it in sympathy with his work, not in spite of it: “we see our work as extending and conversing with Haacke’s, an artist and thinker who has been a source of inspiration to us both” (Hakim). This response – undermining done with veneration – is indicative of the complicated legacy of his work today. Haacke’s influence on artists such as Tania Bruguera, Sam Durant, Forensic Architecture, Laura Poitras, Carsten Höller, and Andrea Fraser has less to do with a particular political ideal than with his unique promotion of journalistic suspicion and moral revelation in forms of systems mapping. It suggests a coda be added to the sentiment of All Connected: all might not be revealed, but how we respond matters.
Hans Haacke, Large Condensation Cube, 1963–67
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