Art for Much More Than Art’s Sake

Hans Haacke’s timely retrospective echoes urgent ethical issues around the role of museum boards in shaping policies towards labor and finance.

Hans Haacke, All Connected, 2019. Exhibition view, New Museum, New York. © Hans Haacke / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Dario Lasagni

The fact that we even get to experience a Hans Haacke retrospective is an amazing thing in our current political climate. I am in awe of the New Museum curators and staff who were able to make this seminal exhibition happen. Everything that Haacke’s work represents screams in protest against the present-day working conditions and system of museum expansion of which the New Museum has by default become a part.  

The New Museum was founded by independent curator Marcia Tucker in a space inside the Graduate Center of the then-named New School for Social Research at 65 Fifth Avenue in 1977, where it remained until 1983, when it moved to 583 Broadway in SoHo. In 1999, Lisa Phillips, the former director of the Whitney Museum replaced Tucker as director of the museum. In 2002, the New Museum sold its previous home in SoHo for USD 18 million. It subsequently bought the new Bowery site for USD 5 million. 

Now the museum is planning to add around 10,000 square feet of gallery space, with a connection to a new neighboring building and spaces on the current museum’s second, third, and fourth floors. The cost of the expansion, USD 89 million, has been a point of contention for the New Museum Union that was formed in January 2019 and has claimed that its workers are not being adequately paid by the institution. After months of bargaining and protest, the union and the museum have agreed on a contract through June 2024.

While the conflict between the union and the museum is not overtly addressed in All Connected, the survey exhibition of Haacke’s oeuvre, one cannot help but sense its presence as a specter throughout. One such apparition is MoMA Poll (1970), which Haacke initially proposed for the MoMA Information show in 1970. For this piece, the artist asked museum visitors to vote on a current socio-political issue. The proposal was accepted, and he prepared his installation, but did not hand in the specific question until the day before the opening. His polling question was: “Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina Policy be a reason for your not voting for him in November?” 

This caused the museum trustee, David Rockefeller to intervene. Rockefeller insisted that the work be removed from the exhibition, but the director, John Highwater, held his ground, and the work remained in the show. In doing this, Haacke commented directly on the involvements of a major donor and board member at MoMA, then-governor of New York Nelson Rockefeller (David’s older brother).

Hans Haacke, All Connected, 2019. Exhibition view, New Museum, New York. © Hans Haacke / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Dario Lasagni

Since then, Haacke has been known as a central figure in the development of institutional critique. As a result, it may not be surprising that only a few museum boards of trustees have been bold enough to purchase Haacke’s work. Often, the works which have been purchased resemble an institutional blame game between museums pointing out one another’s foibles in terms of dubious investment and policy. Both curator John Hightower of MoMA and curator Edward Fry of the Guggenheim paid the price with their jobs for exhibiting works by Haacke which challenged the political and economic practices of museum board members.

It is impossible to fully understand Haacke’s work without taking into account both his background being born in Cologne, Germany in 1936 to a father who refused to join the Nazi party and was fired from his job as a result – and the fact that, after having moved permanently to New York in 1965, he was a founding member of the Art Worker’s Coalition (AWC) and deeply involved in its activities.

Founded in New York in 1969, AWC was a driving force in pressuring museums to change their board structures and allow free admission; the coalition also advocated for increased representation of women and minorities in collections, as well as artist’s rights and equity when it came to the resale of artworks. 

In line with Haacke’s advocacy for representation, the visitor poll is one of the only forms that Haacke has continuously engaged with through his career. This exhibition presents seven. His newest, New Museum Visitors Poll (2019) is presented alongside one of his earliest works, Photographic Notes, documenta 2 (1959). In the juxtaposition of these two works, we are presented with the heart of Haacke’s practice: participation. 

Hans Haacke, Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, 1971 (detail). 142 b&w photographs, 142 typewritten cards, two excerpts from city map, and six charts, photograph and map: 25.4 x 20.3 cm each (diptych), excerpts from map and charts © Hans Haacke / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

New Museum Visitors Poll begins with a vertical flat screen showing live statistics from the polls and instructing viewers to sit down at the adjacent table and fill out the poll on the available iPads. Visitors are polled about how old they are, how much they make, and whether they think the rich are sufficiently taxed. Most visitors answered “no” to that last question. 

Photographic Notes, documenta 2 (1959) is a visual survey consisting of twenty-six black-and-white photographs of gallery visitors experiencing the art at Documenta 2 in Kassel, 1959. Apparently, Haacke served as a guard for the exhibition, and in the accompanying wall text he explains how this experience made him understand that Documenta was not just an exhibition, but had national and even international political implications. 

Politicians and ambassadors from many countries attended, and he later learned that the CIA had sponsored the first exhibition of Abstract Expressionist painting as a Cold War weapon of containment against so-called Socialist Realism. As he witnessed the strategic interests of dealers, curators, and collectors, Haacke realized at the ripe age of twenty-three that Documenta and, in fact, all exhibitions promote the ranking of artists and art movements as much as the prices for which they are traded.

Ignoring these facts, he came to believe, yields a flawed comprehension of the dynamics of the art world, yet to focus on it exclusively leads to an equally twisted understanding. After this early experience – we learn this from the accompanying wall text – Haacke states: “I promised myself never to be dependent on the sale of my works to pay the rent.” 

All of the exhibition’s wall texts are written by Haacke himself. He also wrote all the wall texts for Unfinished Business, a survey of his work that took place thirty years ago at the New Museum when it was housed at 583 Broadway in SoHo. Somehow, his wall texts carry even greater significance in the face of the New Museum’s forthcoming expansion and as it becomes more and more dependent on big money and infrastructure to survive. They may feel like a foreign element lacking the curatorial distance we are accustomed to in a museum, but amid the New Museum’s move and expansion, we might risk forgetting that Marcia Tucker’s founding mission back in 1977 was to challenge the stiff institutionalization of art museums. Through the wall texts, we get direct access to Haacke’s concerns and the trajectory that he has committed his career to developing.

The past merges with concerns from our present moment as works from the 1960s are exhibited alongside newer works. There is a powerful juxtaposition of three works which span 1969–2014 on the fourth floor. For the wall text accompanying Circulation (1969), Haacke writes: “From the beginning the concept of change has been the ideological basis of my work.”

This is poignantly expressed in the amorphous sculpture, which comprises a circulating pump and plastic tubing filled with water that is casually spread on the floor. This is also echoed in the monumental Gift Horse (2014), a bronze skeleton of a horse on a pedestal; a ticker-tape LED ribbon wraps around the horse’s lifted foreleg, showing in real-time the current city’s stock market – in this case, the New York City Stock Exchange. 

The third circulation system is Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 (1971), consisting of a frieze of 142 black-and-white photographs, 142 typewritten cards, two excerpts from a city map, and six charts detailing business dealings conducted over the course of twenty years by Harry Shapolsky – one of New York’s largest slumlords. Images of tenements in Harlem and the Lower East Side appear alongside various forms of data Haacke gleaned while combing through public records in the New York Public Library and the Manhattan County Clerk’s office

Hans Haacke, Condensation Cube, 1963–65. Clear acrylic, distilled water, and climate in area of display, 30.5 x 30.5 x 30.5 cm. © Hans Haacke / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Hans Haacke

In 1971, Haacke’s solo exhibition at the Guggenheim was cancelled by the museum’s director Thomas Messer because of the inclusion of this very work, and the exhibition’s curator Edward Fry was summarily fired as well. While Shapolsky had no dealings with the Guggenheim, the subject matter was somehow too close for comfort for the museum’s board of trustees. Haacke’s exhibition is especially poignant and timely at a moment when New York museum boards are under close scrutiny by art workers. 

In the main gallery on the second floor, twenty-seven works are spread throughout the room in a panorama of light, color, temperature, and movement. Here we encounter works that are dependent on the physical atmosphere that we as museum guests are affecting with our bodily presence.

The famous Large Condensation Cube (1963–67) made of clear acrylic is illuminated, and the distilled water inside is affected by the climate in the area of its display. Ice Stick (1966) is white column of melting ice maintained by a refrigeration unit continuously accumulating the moisture that we as viewers contribute. Elsewhere, photographs of Haacke’s Ephemeral Works (1967–72) document his concern with environmental issues in early works such as Monument to Beach Pollution (1970) and Rhine Water Purification Plant (1972).

As most of Haacke’s work since the 60s has focused not only on the art world and the system of exchange between museums, corporations, and boards of trustees, but also on politicians’ misuse of power, it is impossible not to be reminded of the New Museum’s grassroots origins; indeed, it is not the only such a museum in New York that is undergoing significant expansion.

Haacke’s exhibition is a testimony to the enduring fact that, in the words of American writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” While we struggle with the expansionist logic of ‘grow or disappear’ which is so central to our current conundrum, it is a welcome relief to be exposed to the aesthetic intelligence and ethical brilliance of Hans Haacke’s work. 

Hans Haacke, MoMA Poll, 1970. Two transparent ballot boxes with automatic counters and color-coded ballots, boxes: 101.6 x 50.8 x 25.4 cm each, ballots: 3 x 7.6 x 6.4 cm each. Installation view, Information, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1970. © Hans Haacke / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York