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Hans Haacke Photo

Hans Haacke

German Conceptual and Multimedia Artist

Born: August 12, 1936 - Cologne, Germany
Movements and Styles:
Conceptual Art
Institutional Critique
"all artworks have a political component - whether it's intended or not."
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Hans Haacke
"I take the attitude of a sociologist or anthropologist. I note that certain tribes call something art that other tribes dismiss as bullshit or even denounce as blasphemy."
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Hans Haacke
"...make something which experiences, reacts to it environment, changes, is nonstable..."
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Hans Haacke
"Whatever art may be, it is not science"
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Hans Haacke
"The world of art is not a world apart"
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Hans Haacke
"A system is not imagined; it is objectively present; it is real"
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Hans Haacke
"Interference in an existing situation which thereby affects it - this is something that intrigues me."
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Hans Haacke
"Artists, as much as their supporters and their enemies, no matter of what ideological coloration, are unwitting partners in the art syndrome and relate to each other dialectically. They participate jointly in the maintenance and/or development of the ideological make-up of their society. They work within that frame, set the frame and are being framed."
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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.


  • Haacke's work often shows a lack of respect or reverence towards institutions and convention. His curation pieces, for example, lay bare the inner workings of a gallery or museum for the public to see, questioning conventions of behavior towards art objects. He highlights simple or everyday materials (water, grass, a potted plant) as worthy of serious observation, whilst placing historical artifacts on the floor or in rough piles. His work also invites participation, asking that audiences read, absorb and act on the things it reveals. This has contributed to contemporary conversations about access and political responsibility still going on in museums and galleries today.
  • Despite his resistance to the financial and corporate structures of the art market, Haacke's work has grown in profile to the point where it is now recognized and pursued by museums as work that is highly significant in the development of political visual art practices. After the censure, denial and scandal, his work is now invited into institutions rather than kept out.
  • Haacke 'lives' his politics even through his interactions with the art world - a market-driven international network of capital. By not relying on the sale of artworks to support himself or his family he is able to decide when and how to exhibit and create, and he maintains an unprecedented level of control over the pieces that he does sell to collectors. This provides a model for artists who wish to critique the art world without being wholly subsumed within its inherently capitalist framework.
  • Formally, Haacke's work shares characteristics of Land Art and Minimalism but maintains a far sharper political edge than the archetypal examples of those practices. Drawing on highly symbolic processes and materials, his sculptures and installations highlight the same relationships in the gallery space as more conventional minimalist sculpture, but also make more direct allusions to history, politics and the world in which the sculptures are made. His work offers a challenge to the supposed detachment of minimalism or the monumentalism of Land Art, demonstrating to audiences and artists that the same techniques have potential as tools of direct political critique.

Biography of Hans Haacke

Hans Haacke Photo

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.

Important Art by Hans Haacke

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)

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Hans Haacke
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
  • George Rickey
    George Rickey
  • No image available
    Otto Piene
Movements & Ideas
Friends & Personal Connections
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Vitoria Hadba Groom

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Lewis Church

"Hans Haacke Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Vitoria Hadba Groom
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Lewis Church
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First published on 06 Aug 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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