Hans Haacke

German Conceptual and Multimedia Artist

Born: August 12, 1936
Cologne, Germany
all artworks have a political component - whether it's intended or not.
Hans Haacke

Summary of Hans Haacke

Hans Haacke largely invented modern 'artivism' as a political strategy for conceptual artists. His work intervenes through the space of the museum or gallery to decry the influence of corporations on society and reveal the hypocrisy of liberal institutions accepting sponsorship from aggressive and conservative capitalists. This work has been immensely significant in prefiguring the modern challenge to 'artwashing', the attempted diversion from harmful business practices through philanthropic engagement with the arts.

Haacke's politics extend to his artistic career, providing a principled example to artists and audiences. He still maintains partial ownership over his artworks after sale, for example, allowing him a measure of control over the extent to which his protest can be coopted by the art market. As a teacher and writer Haacke's influence is not only in the work he directly produced himself, but in the dissemination of his political strategies through later generations of artists. Haacke's fearlessness and refusal to bend in relation to institutional pressure has had an enduring legacy that persists to this day.


Progression of Art


Condensation Cube

Condensation Cube is a transparent acrylic box containing a few inches of water. The work was first created in 1963, but has been recreated many times. Although it is tempting to compare Haacke's cube with the works by Minimalist artists like Donald Judd or Robert Morris, and with the lightheartedness of group ZERO, Condensation Cube goes beyond this as it incorporates the water cycle, animating the ready-made object. The work changes depending on the temperature in a constant cycle of evaporation, precipitation and condensation. The artist notes that "the conditions are comparable to a living organism which reacts in a flexible manner to its surroundings. The image of condensation cannot be precisely predicted. It is changing freely, bound only by statistical limits. I like this freedom."

The work represents the rise of interest in biology, ecology, and cybernetics in the 1960s. Such a seemingly simple work is actually rather complex, revealing one of the most fundamental aspects of nature. As noted by architectural historian Mark Jarzombek, "by confining a natural phenomenon inside the culturally proscribed space of the art gallery or museum, Haacke invites the viewer in as an observer and participant in both natural and cultural phenomena." Another groundbreaking aspect of the work is that it was created at the same time that museums started incorporating moisture engineering. This new technology, which includes humidifiers, anti-humidifiers and thermohygrometer, affects and is affected by the Condensation Cube, questioning the relationship between humans, nature and the institution by highlighting the lack of attention usually afforded to these natural processes, and the artificiality of the space of the institution, which operates by constraining ideas into preservable and regulated spaces.

Plexiglass and water - Collection of MACBA


Grass Grows

Grass Grows consists of a pile of soil in a cone shape formation sprinkled with grass seeds that sprout throughout the length of the exhibition thanks to the light that invaded the space from its large windows. Audience members arrive and observe the piece at different moments of its development, challenging the notion of a piece being 'finished' or able to be seen in its entirety. Grass Grows is a work that highlights biological systems, which Haacke describes as "a grouping of elements subject to a common plan and purpose that interact so as to arrive at a joint goal."

As it is constantly changing Grass Grows is a work that occurs independently of its audience. A trivial occurrence, grass sprouting, becomes almost magical simply as a result of being displaced from the outdoors and moved to an institutional context. System theory, the study of the organization of phenomena, also influenced the artist, who saw it as a way to explain life. The system which constitutes the artwork here only ceases to exist when life does. Grass Grows is significant as an incorporation of living organisms into a highly conceptual framework, and an early challenge to the idea of the gallery as a place where static objects are on display in a neutral space.

The work was part of the exhibition "Earth Art" at Cornell University's Johnson Museum of Art, curated by Willoughby Sharp, which was decisive in shaping the public perception of Land Art as it included the works of Robert Smithson and Richard Long. Important names of a newer generation of artists such as Gordon Matta-Clark and Louise Lawler were amongst the students that helped installing the show. Haacke was not only working with plants at this time but animals too, a period that he refers to as his 'Franciscan phase' - referring to Saint Francis, known as the protector of the animals. With time though, Haacke's works moved in a different direction soon after, away from the grand landscapes of the other artists included and towards the more self-contained political gallery pieces that he is best known for.

Soil, seeds, and grass


Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971

Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings is a political work comprising of photographs and photocopied documents displaying slumlord Harry Shapolsky's real estate holdings. The work includes over 140 photographs of buildings in Harlem and the Lower East Side, alongside text detailing how Shapolsky obscured his ownership through dummy corporations and companies 'owned' by family members. The piece culminated in two maps showing the extent of his property empire across New York. Remarkably, the work was entirely based on content open to the public, with the data collected by the artist from the public record.

Formally, Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings is innovative and engaging in its presentation of this data. The immensity of its collection of texts, diagrams, and photographs, all equally framed and displayed side by side resemble works from Joseph Kosuth and Hanne Darboven. At first glance the work is monumental in scale and arrangement but begs close reading of the information displayed. Like Minimalist works that succeed through the relation of the object to the beholder, Haacke invites and provokes a changing relationship between the reader and what is being read. The viewers move close, step back to take it all in, and crane to read individual lines of text. Haacke used this engagement politically, aiming at an increase in political awareness and attempting to provoke social change. As stated by scholar Rosalyn Deutsche, Haacke challenged "the prevailing dogma that works of art are self-contained entities." In this way, Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings blends art with life and social justice. Some critics have argued that Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings is more investigative journalism than art, but this ambiguity is what makes the work unique and noteworthy.

The work led to the cancelation of Haacke's show at the Guggenheim, as well as the dismissal of its curator. Art world rumors suggested that Shapolsky was related to one of the Guggenheim's board members, although this was never proved. Regarding the episode, museum director Thomas Messer wrote in a letter to the artist that the institution's policies ''exclude active engagement towards social and political ends.'' In a newspaper interview Messer similarly defended himself by saying: "I'm all for exposing slumlords, but I don't believe the museum is the proper place to do it." Haacke spent the next 12 years without selling or showing his work in American museums.

Nine photostats, one hundred and forty-two gelatin silver prints, and one hundred and forty-two photocopies - Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art



MetroMobiltan explicitly criticizes museums' investment and sponsorship by ethically dubious corporations. It consists of a theatrical copy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's cornice and banners, meant to resemble the institution's façade. The text on the cornice argues for the benefits of sponsoring a museum, while the middle front banner promotes an exhibition featuring ancient African art. The side banners however disclose Mobil's (a company which sponsored exhibitions at the museum) culpability in the support of the apartheid-era government in South Africa. Behind those, a photomural features a funeral for black South African victims. A faux stone slab rests on the floor in front of the banners as an altar or a grave marker. The artist sees his composition as a three-dimensional collage "put together as a Surrealist's exquisite corpse."

Haacke criticizes an institution within another institution - the work was exhibited at the New Museum also in New York. As noted by art critic Hall Foster, this is the "(de)limitation" of such works, revealing how good the art world is in shamelessly absorbing its critics. It is true that Haacke reveals a relationship that is often overlooked by most museum goers, yet also perhaps that his work is not a solution for the problems that it presents. MetroMobiltan is remarkable for explicitly referencing museum's dependence on capitalism, and exposing how corporative interests correspond to the institution's stated ethical stance, in an intelligible manner. "Thereby undermining the public's view that cultural institutions are exempt from political and economical concerns," as noted by art historian Fred S. Kleiner.

Mixed media installation (printed banners, fiberglass...)



Haacke's Germania won the top prize at the 1993 Venice Biennale, where Haacke represented Germany. Before entering the German pavilion, the viewer faced a photograph of Adolph Hitler. On top of this image, where a swastika was once placed, the artist displayed a replica West German coin, suggesting Germany's then-recent reunification as a capitalist victory. The insertion of the coin also hints at the complex intermingling of art, commerce, and politics. Inside, the word Germania, Hitler's proposed new name for Berlin, occupied the back wall. On the floor, thousands of flat pieces of broken marble were piled. "I decided to represent Germany in both senses of the term: being the official representative of Germany - the flag bearer, so to speak - and producing a representation of the country. Preparing for this task, I researched the pavilion's history, and, for hours, sat alone in its nave which had been assigned to me," recollected Haacke when discussing the development of Germania. The installation also references Hitler's visit to Venice and the biennale in 1934, where he became extremely dissatisfied by the appearance of his country's pavilion and by the content of the art, which was modernist and avant-garde. After that, he refurbished the building, replacing the wood parquet floor with marble.

In his work, Haacke revisits, revisions, and subverts the relation between Hitler and the German pavilion as exemplified by the broken floor. Haacke's destructive act mimics Hitler's cultural destruction. The act of breaking the marble is violent and cathartic, representing a closure with German's shameful past. The artist also questions the nationalism linked to biennials, which are intended to represent a nation's artistic production in competition with other nations. By referencing Germany's history Haacke shows that nationalism can be extremely dangerous.

Mixed media installation (broken marble, fiberglass mock coin, photography)


Viewing Matters: Upstairs

Viewing Matters: Upstairs is both a curated exhibition and an installation. Haacke juxtaposes works from the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum collection in order to create new relations between them. In a seemingly iconoclastic act, he mixed works of different time period, styles and 'relevance.' The artist also exposed the institution's backstage by leaving dollies, storage racks and tools on view. Viewing Matters was polemic in nature, and several curators and arts professionals believed that showing the works in such a mundane manner disrespected them and removed their 'aura'.

Haacke's intention was to question the arbitrariness of collections and curatorial decision making. He notes: "It is often assumed that what we get to see on the walls of museums is a disinterested display of the best works, and represents a reliable account of history. This, of course, is never the case. The canon is an agreement by people with cultural power at a certain time." By bringing the basement to the gallery Haacke humanized a space that is often sterile, transforming the museum in a more democratic space in which art is less intimidating. Viewing Matters: Upstairs asks the spectator to think and to question the collection and institution. As noted by curator Brian Wallis, Haacke succeeds in transforming the passive viewer into 'active reader', an inherently political act.

Installation and storage props (lather, drill, toll box, crates, etc) - Collection of the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum


Life Goes On

Life Goes On is a deceptively simple yet remarkably powerful work, consisting of a small potted orange tree with a broken branch and a branch which still bears fruit. The work suggests hope in the potential of its fruit, whilst also symbolizing the fragility of life. Life Goes On was exhibited in Haacke's State of the Union, a show that focused on recent and distressing political events, such as the war in Iraq and the then-recent Hurricane Katrina, suggesting the continuation of beauty even in light of the then-horrors of prisoner abuse in Abu Gharib and the inaction of the US government in New Orleans. The tree is broken, yet still bears fruit even when divided by violence. When placed against the other elements of the exhibition, which included a torn American flag and a printer spitting out news stories, the small tree is a simple reassertion of resilience and regrowth.

The work also serves as a reminder of Haacke's interest in living systems and ecology and an echo of previous work like Grass Grows. While outside the gallery space Life Goes On might be seen as only a plant, within the exhibition context it becomes an ode to life and a meditation on death. This ambiguity gives Life Goes On its main legacy. Haacke comments: "Whether it is an artwork, was an artwork at some point, or what status it now has, I can't tell you."

Life Goes On's success in conjuring strong emotions is exemplified by the request of a gallery assistant who asked Haacke whether she could borrow the plant to commemorate a good friend who had recently passed away. The artist generously complied with her wish.

Potted orange three


The Business Behind Art Knows the Art of the Koch Brothers

Like his earlier work MetroMobiltan, The Business Behind Art Knows the Art of the Koch Brothers reveals the ethically questionable link between The Metropolitan Museum of Art and its patrons. The Business Behind Art Knows the Art of the Koch Brothers consists of three photographs, two of the newly built plaza in front of the museum and one of a detail of the museum façade with a photoshopped banner which reads: "The Business Behind Art Knows the Art of Good Business." The sentence comes from MET's fundraising department and was once used to convince potential corporate donors to sponsor the institution. Oversized hundred dollar bills cascade from underneath the two outer images as though a continuation of the fountain's water.

The work refers to the scandal which links billionaire David H. Koch and the museum's refurbishment. Koch is a known anti-climate change businessman, a Republican and a fierce defender of neoliberal capitalism. With his brother he owns the conglomerate Koch Industries, Inc which includes companies that produce asphalt, fertilizer, chemicals, pulp and paper. Because of the nature of his business, Koch invests a huge amount of resources in lobbying against laws that protect the environment. The Business Behind Art Knows the Art of the Koch Brothers expressed Haacke's dissatisfaction with the institution's acceptance of a gift of $65 million dollars, money which probably comes directly from the environmental destruction of the donors. Sadly, the work shows that Haacke's activism is still urgent and necessary today. Moreover, The Business Behind Art Knows the Art of the Koch Brothers exemplifies what was noted by German art historian Walter Grasskamp: "Haacke did not simply switch to political art, he had to invent it in his own terms."

Mixed media (three framed photographs and printed bills)

Biography of Hans Haacke


Hans Christoph Carl Haacke was born in Cologne in 1936, during the period of extreme social change that saw the rise of the Nazi Government in Germany. By the time he was three years old WWII had begun, and by the age of six bombs regularly fell on the street he lived on. In his own words, "I remember walking by a still smoking ruin on my way to school." His father was affiliated with the Social Democratic party and refused to join the Nazis, costing him his job with the city of Cologne. Such traumatic episodes led the Haacke family to move from Cologne to a small rural town in the southern district of Bad Godesberg.

Haacke's interest in art was already evident at a young age. His first exposure to art history in high school was a pivotal moment in his life. As he recalls in that class he "learned that art was not just a skill to render something" but that it "had deeper meanings".

Early Training and Work

In 1956 Haacke enrolled at the State Art Academy in Kassel, where many of the professors taught at the Bauhaus prior to the war. He was also taught during his time in Kassel by the English painter Stanley William Hayter. Through its faculty and location, the school was very much connected with Documenta - a large contemporary art exhibition which still occurs every five years in Kassel, and was first planned as a way to bring Germany up to speed with art and culture after the cultural censorship of the Nazis. Haacke fulfilled several minor functions at 'documenta 2' while a student.

Around the same time, Haacke hitchhiked to Paris, where he became familiar with Art Informel and Tachisme. It was his encounter with the ZERO group, during one of their shows in the city of Bonn, that most influenced his early works however. The group was devoted to the metaphysical aspect of artistic production and were particularly interested in the relationship between humans and nature, using elemental and industrial materials in their artworks. Haacke soon became friends with Otto Piene, one of the founding members of ZERO, and began to exhibit alongside them. During this time Haacke also produced work that echoed elements of minimalism and land art. Another important influence in his work was the writings of playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, who he came across during his student years. Like Brecht, Haacke became committed to using art to reveal overlooked truths.

After graduating with a degree in art education in 1960, he worked at Hayter's print studio for a year, becoming acquainted with Yves Klein and other avant-garde artists. Soon after, he received a Fulbright grant which allowed him to study at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. While studying at Tyler School he often took the bus to New York to see exhibitions and make connections with other artists. After briefly returning to Germany at the end of his scholarship, in 1965 he moved permanently to New York City. The American artist George Rickey helped Haacke get his feet on the ground when he first arrived. Rickey got Haacke into shows and introduced him to major figures in the art industry, earning his gratitude, but despite some initial success Haacke was required to teach German in order to support himself.

Mature Period

Building on his early work with ZERO, Haacke's practice continued to develop strategies for revealing the economic interactions of art markets and corporations. He was never a fan of the greediness he identified within it, for example, arguing that "the works in the [art] fair had been reduced to their monetary value." His dissatisfaction with the art industry (he underscores the use of the word industry instead of field), together with the student revolts around the world, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War, affected the new direction his work would take in the 1970s, when his art became increasingly political and critical of art institutions and bureaucratic systems.

In the mid 1960s Haacke married Linda, his life-long partner and had two sons. The birth certificate of one of them, Carl Samuel Selavy, became in 1969 an art work titled Birth Certificate of My Son (collaboration Linda & Hans Haacke). Carl's last name, Selavy, is an homage to Marcel Duchamp's alter ego Rrose Selavy, one of his primary artistic influences (alongside Marcel Broodthaers) in his use of the 'ready-made'sculpture. In naming his son after Duchamp, albeit through a subtle allusion, Haacke pays tribute and might also subtly be suggesting a baby as the ultimate 'ready-made' sculpture.

Throughout his career Haacke has never relied on sales to support his family. The teaching position that he held from 1967 until 2002 at Cooper Union, contributing to the foundation program on 3D design and the undergraduate sculpture program, was his main source of income for most of his career. As noted by curator Donna De Salvo, "there's a belief system that he adheres to and that he lives, and he has paid the price for that." Haacke is also against the idolatry of the artists' persona and for this reason often rejects being photographed. "I have something against the fetishism of the artist that is associated with the face and celebrity."

Since the early 1970s he has been using a contract that gives him a percentage of any resale profit and power to determine where his work will be exhibited, regardless of the collector's wish. Regarding the contract, he says, "it occasionally kills the deal. But I'm coming round to believe that the contract I insist on is a very useful litmus test as to who should, and who definitely should not, own my work."

In 1971, Haacke was offered a retrospective at the Solomon Guggenheim museum in New York, something quite rare for an artist so young. But because of a work in which he exposed landowner Harry Shapolsky's suspicious business activities, the exhibition was shelved. Guggenheim curator Edward Fry was later fired due to the episode. At the time, Haacke stated that it was a clear case of censorship. The incident shows that censorship as a means of diverting attention from an artwork is rarely successful, as it instead publicized an exhibition that could have easily been forgotten. The show's cancellation promoted Haacke, who became known to a far wider audience than he had previously. Artists includig Carl Andre boycotted the museum in solidarity. Marcel Broodthaers, one of Haacke's influences, also publicly criticized Joseph Beuys for exhibiting at the museum in the following year.

Haacke maintained his rigid personal code throughout his career, refusing to participate in the 1969 São Paulo Biennial due to rise of a military dictatorship in Brazil. The Guggenheim controversy was not the only case of censorship throughout Haacke's career. A few years later, his work Manet-PROJEKT '74 (1974) was censored from a German museum for connecting Édouard Manet's Bunch of Asparagus (1880) to the Nazi Party through the former advisor to Hitler Hermann Josef Abs (chairman of the museum that donated it to the exhibition). Proposing a series of 10 information panels tracing the painting's provenance, Haacke was disinvited from the exhibition.

Late Period

Haacke's combative political stance became more pronounced with age. In 1985 he created MetroMobiltan, now considered the centerpiece of his focus on institutional critique. The work reveals the connections between The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the oil company Mobil, and the apartheid system in South Africa. After MetroMobiltan, he developed works that attacked English prime minister Margaret Thatcher, US president Ronald Reagan, and the Saatchi family - some of the most powerful collectors in the art world at the time.

Throughout his career Haacke has been simultaneously glorified and vilified for his criticism. In Sanitation (2000), presented at the Whitney Biennial, he printed quotes from New York's former major Rudolph Guiliani assailing artist Chris Ofili's painting The Holy Mary Virgin (1996). Haacke's use of Hitler's official typeface fraktur, associating Guiliani and his Ofili criticism was seen by some as associating the episode with the holocaust. Many considered that this connection belittled the horrors of the genocide. Haacke even received threats via telephone and email, some accusing him of anti-Semitism. This charge is complicated by the fact that his wife and children are Jewish, and that he had previously exhibited at the Jewish Museum in New York.

Despite his political convictions, Haacke does not vote in the country he has chosen to live in. Even though he has now lived most of his life in America and has the right to become a citizen, he has preferred not to do so. He justifies his choice by saying, "a great number of terrible things have happened in Germany, but that doesn't mean I can say, 'Go to hell, Germany.' Maybe it's just a sentimental connection to the place of my birth."

In the past years, his works have been voraciously collected by museums. He was also awarded the prestigious honor of having his Gift Horse (2015) displayed on the fourth plinth in London's Traflagar Square, bringing his work further into the mainstream.

The Legacy of Hans Haacke

Haacke is immensely significant as an artist that pioneered institutional critique within his work. A lineage from his work can easily be traced to the work of artists such as Andrea Fraser, Fred Wilson, and Carissa Rodriguez. Although the form of their work differs greatly, they all critique the absurdities of the art world and make it the central theme of their practice.

Haacke's visually seductive and unemotional earlier works explore nature's elements, which resonates with Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson's practice. The also Danish Tue Greenfort goes even further, adapting Haacke's works and biological systems as a direct homage. Haacke's interest in highlighting problematic social and political dynamics through the use of systems is also present in work like Mark Lombardi's drawings, which document political frauds by power brokers.

As noted by writer and editor Andrew Russeth, "for many young artists, Haacke remains a kind of gold standard - a heroic example of remaining independent in the face of market pressures, and for 35 years, from 1967 to 2002, he was a guiding force for free-thinking students as a professor at Cooper Union." As an artist that taught many generations, while also writing extensively, it is not surprising how deep and how far he was able to influence, inspire, and affect.

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