Important Art by Hans Haacke
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.
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.
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.