Hans Haacke, MetroMobiltan, 1985

Hans Haacke’s All Connected retrospective at the New Museum marks a return from the long banishment of the controversial New York-based  German artist. The exhibit –which takes over the museum’s entire building on the Bowery, a block away from Haacke’s old studio – spans  six decades of his works.

The artist’s banishment from New York museums, as it were, did not prevent him from building a formidable international career. Haacke’s work has been debated in the German parliament and firebombed by neo-Nazis in Austria. It has also ended careers of curators and museum directors in New York and elsewhere, earning him a dubious distinction as a father of institutional critique as a form of art expression.

A pioneering “artivist”

Haacke is recognized as a pioneer of kinetic sculpture and Conceptual and environmental art. But it is his uncanny ability to touch on taboos at the nerve center of the establishment that is responsible for the timing of this retrospective. The context is today’s New York art world, rocked by scandals brought on by activists and artists questioning the ethico-political aspect of the relationship between the museums and the art that they display.

Lately the “artivists” have been “winning” the battles with the institutions— most prominent examples are the near-universal opprobrium against the Sackler and the removal of Sackler name from museums around the world due to their ties with the opioid crisis; the resignation of tear-gas manufacturer Warren Kanders from the Whitney in the context of the U.S. border immigration crisis; and, most recently, resignation of London’s Serpentine Gallery director due to her husband’s ownership of cyber-security firm implicated in spying on human rights activists.

Hans Haacke showing slums and naming slumlords in “Shapolsky et al Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System as of May 1, 1971” (1971) (segment)  

Early on, it was Haacke’s curators and the artistic directors that got the axe

In 1970, the Guggenheim Museum was the first to offer Haacke a solo exhibition, only to cancel it a month before the opening and unceremoniously dismissing its curator, Edward Fry. The museum director Thomas Messer condemned Haacke’s work for pursuit of “aims that lie beyond art” and went so far as to describe it as “an alien substance that had entered the art museum organism,” a phrase, which today is revived and proudly repeated by the New Museum’s curators in the show’s materials.

As a part of Haacke’s legend – and to the artist’s annoyance – it was often repeated that the show’s cancelation was prompted by a piece exposing the trustees as New York’s “slumlords.” 

However, this retrospective sets the story straight by exhibiting both the original culprit– “Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971” (see above) –alongside the later, “Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Board of Trustees”, a work from 1974 now held by MoMA. 

While the contested “Shapolsky…” does connect the  Shapolsky family with vast inner-city real estate holdings, it makes no connection whatsoever with Guggenheim trustees. The job is accomplished later in the “Solomon Guggenheim…” piece, a work that is, by Haacke’s own admission, a revenge act of digging up “dirt” on them and, inevitably, succeeding. It shows profits that the trustee-owned corporation made directly from Pinochet’s bloody 1973 coup in Chile.

Haacke, however, sees his work not as political activism by means of art, but as an artistic examination of systems. These systems, be it social, biological, or environmental, he attempts to connect to a precise temporal point or to unspool in their historical development, or, even, to allow to develop themselves spontaneously whether in an art-world setting or a public space. The New Museum retrospective provides ample examples of his methods.

The art of the art market: tracking the ownership of a masterpiece from 1888 to 1975

One of his deceptively simple procedures is to simply display, in a series of frames, a provenance of a piece of art—a standard requirement for a buyer, which is meant to insure the painting’s authenticity by accounting for it’s past. Haacke’s work, “Seurat’s ‘Les Poseuses’ (Small Version) 1888–1975”, is a sequence of framed prints displayed alongside a photocopy of the original painting. The piece documents the changes in the ownership of the neo-impressionist Georges Seurat’s “Les Poseuses”, tracing its owners, heirs, and buyers through a winding journey, which takes the artist from Seurat’s fin-de-siècle Paris across the ocean to moneyed families, New York anarchist-and-literary circles, and onward to 1975.

This can be viewed as a case study of the art market, where, through the fluctuations in the monetary value of an artwork, the work is transformed into an object of consumption; its original meaning is neutralized or changed.

While the panels describe the owners’ biographical details and political and ideological affiliations, the work traces the painting’s provenance through eco-social systems and doesn’t carry an overtly politicized message. But when, in 1974, Haacke traced the provenance of Manet’s ‘Bunch of Asparagus’ (1880), displaying it in series of ten large panels in the artist’s hometown Wallraf-Richartz Museum, it revealed the painting’s transition from its first owner, a Jewish art collector and historian, Charles Ephrussi, to the donor of the painting, Hermann Josef Abs—chief of Deutsche Bank and a former chairman of the museum and  a prominent financial adviser to Hitler’s Reich. Symptomatically, it led to dismissal of curator who has allowed for the Haacke’s display.

Hans Haacke, MoMA Poll (1970)

The art of polling patrons of art

Another of Haacke’s signature methods is a simple survey—a poll of museumgoers, questioning them on a combination of demographic and political issues of the day —a practice he started in the sixties surveying the New York gallery audiences. One of his queries, at the time, was probing a connection of donor’s influence to artistic production, which resulted in statistical charts displayed on gallery walls. One such poll, at the MoMA in 1970, typically for Haacke contained a less than innocuous inquiry into governor Nelson Rockefeller’s tacit support of Cambodia bombing during the Vietnam War, which was done with full knowledge of the governor’s family ties to the museum’s erstwhile chairman, David Rockefeller.

It is said that David Rockefeller furiously demanded the removal of Haacke’s polling station, which was a part of his Information show in 1970. As admitted by David Rockefeller himself in his autobiography, the museum director’s refusal was one of the principal reasons for his subsequent removal. New Museum retrospective also contains a Haacke poll, questions now being answered by museumgoers on Ipads with results appearing in real-time on wall-mounted screens. One of the things that can be gleaned from these screens is that, as of this past weekend, 70% of the audience thought that the rich are not taxed enough in this country.

Is Haacke’s art, art?

Two questions may emerge for a visitor of Haacke’s retrospective— are his works really art and what, if anything, Haacke can tell us today. For this writer the answer to the first question is emphatic yes, regardless of the hit-or-miss character of his pieces. Haacke’s art succeeds where most other artists fail—a vigorous questioning of the social system, thereby rendering the issue of motivation superfluous.

I may be biased. Haacke’s 1980 show in Zagreb’s Gallery of Contemporary Art (today’s MSU) was the very first modern exhibit that I was taken to as a teenager by my cousin. Her idea was to show me, well, what contemporary art is. The simple public access documents, advertisements, and what looked to me like vaguely political statements framed on gallery walls, yes, indeed, that seems to be art.

The art of public art commissions

In the meantime, Haacke has also been given an official stamp of approval in Europe, with extensive public art commissions, such as invitation for permanent installation by Bundestag following its move, in 1998, from Bonn back to Reichstag building in Berlin. Haacke’s proposal involved replacing the motto on the Reichstag facade, “For the German People,” with the phrase “To the Population,” in the same distinctive font, on the lawn in the courtyard.

His proposal also called for the members of parliament to bring a pound of soil from their province, and let whatever the seeds the wind brings spontaneously grow—a brilliant attempt at reframing the German blood-and-soil ideology. This is precisely what happened—after parliamentary debate and vote, Haacke’s proponents won by two votes (both by women from conservative CDU/CSU voting against their own party). The photographs of Bundestag greenery, as it looks today, are displayed on the New Museum’s gallery wall.

Hans Haacke (To the Population), 1998, a participatory art project located in the northern open air courtyard of the Reichstag building (seat of Bundestag, German parliament).

The second question is harder to answer. The works created or adapted for this retrospective are somewhat less convincing.

The installation “Make Mar-a-Lago Great Again” (2019), which displays President Trump’s tweets in real-time on a monitor turned sideways and surrounded by bobble-heads, feels like an obligatory swing for the low-hanging fruit.

Even the majestic “Gift Horse” (2014), originally commissioned and displayed for a year on the famous fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square, loses its subversive urgency. The sculpture of a horse skeleton with a real-time stock exchange ticker tape as a gift ribbon tied around its leg is shrunk in size so it could fit into the gallery and the ticker feed is switched to New York Stock Exchange.

Still, for the true effect – as the sculpture achieved when set against the looming skyscrapers of London’s City – Haacke’s horse would probably have to stand against the Wall Street Bull.

As Haacke himself said, “Information presented at the right time and in the right place can potentially be very powerful.” And it is probably too much to ask for this belated retrospective to recreate the right context for Haacke’s work, possibly, even too much to ask of an 83-old artist to still serve as an avatar of art movement that lately has taken off on its own.

Hans Haacke: All Connected.  Through Jan. 26 at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, Manhattan; 212-219-1222, newmuseum.org.