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Hans Haacke, Firebrand, Gets His First U.S. Survey in 33 Years

Anyone who knows much about the defiantly political art of Hans Haacke, filling the New Museum in New York later this month, is bound to feel anxious before meeting the famous firebrand. But when Mr. Haacke showed up for an interview at his dealer’s gallery in Manhattan, what was shocking was his quietude: In sensible sandals, roomy jeans and a staid plaid shirt, the 83-year-old New Yorker answered questions with an amiable, unflappable calm.

Asked about what seems to have been almost an embargo against him among American curators, despite his huge reputation in Europe, he replied, “before they make a move — one that is not quite the norm — they need to consider (and I don’t blame them for that) whether this is good for their personal career.”

Queried on the power of museum donors, a group he has unflinchingly confronted in his art, he replied merely that he “suspects” — and in person, Mr. Haacke never does more than “suspect”— that the power of art to affect viewers’ thinking leaves museum benefactors with “an interest in what is being shown there, and what is not going to be shown there.” And the art some donors would prefer not to see exhibited includes Mr. Haacke’s own.

“He’s just a really nice guy,” said Andrea Fraser, a peer of Mr. Haacke’s known for equally hard-nosed work. “I’ve never seen him be aggressive” — at least not in the flesh, she clarified, acknowledging the aggression in his art.

In 1971, when Mr. Haacke was about to be honored with a survey at the Guggenheim Museum, the show was canceled. Once the director learned that the art on view would include research into questionable real estate dealings, he said there was no way his museum would display such “muckraking.” He fired the survey’s curator, too. Mr. Haacke’s conceptual artwork, “Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971,” made up of photographs, charts and financial histories of buildings on the Lower East Side and Harlem, remains one of his best-known pieces.

“To introduce something that deals with the social and political world that we live in — that was alien,” Mr. Haacke recalled, expressing something like understanding for the predicament he’d created for the Guggenheim. “Maybe I was naïve,” he added, “but I did not expect that this would cause problems.”

Mr. Haacke admits that the furor around the cancellation helped establish him as an art-world force, but in a rare moment of personal revelation, he also mentioned what it cost him: “It was not easy. We had a two-year-old child. I had an adjunct position at Cooper Union. I could not sell my stuff — it was hard.”

It looks like American museums have never quite forgiven Mr. Haacke for his early transgressions. It has been 33 years since his last U.S. survey — and that was also at the New Museum, when it was a much more modest place than today. But Mr. Haacke doesn’t blame curators for not risking art from a wild-card. “Who knows what I’ll do?” he asked, allowing himself a sly smile.

“More than risk, we felt it was important to do this show,” said Massimiliano Gioni, co-curator of the New Museum retrospective, who hopes the survey will establish Mr. Haacke as “the artist who has opened the doors to a world outside,” making art for much more than art’s sake. Gary Carrion-Murayari, the show’s other curator, said that when they first offered it to Mr. Haacke, “it was the most surprised and happy we’ve ever seen an artist be.”

A centerpiece of the retrospective will be the work that lost Mr. Haacke his Guggenheim solo. Mr. Gioni reads the 300 documents in it as a kind of detective story, with Mr. Haacke as a gumshoe “going out into the city and revealing forces that are hidden.” It went on to teach several generations of artists that pure information could count as art. Also, that the most pointed social critique had as much claim on museum space as any pretty object. The barbed work that’s so common today descends from Mr. Haacke’s.

Mr. Gioni said that it was one of Mr. Haacke’s most polemical assaults on the establishment that first set the New Museum on the road to his survey. In 2015, the artist’s “Gift Horse,” a huge bronze skeleton of a thoroughbred, began its 18-month stay on a long-empty plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square. The square’s three other plinths bear classic monuments to a king and two generals, making Mr. Haacke’s riderless, fleshless mount a counterweight to such celebrations of Great Men. One of the horse’s front legs came wrapped in an LED display that carried the latest U.K. stock-market report. When “Gift Horse” goes up at the New Museum, the numbers will come from Wall Street.

The New Museum will be hosting still more Haackian critique in a recent piece called “We (All) Are the People," enlarged and tweaked for the retrospective. The words of its title will parade across banners on the museum’s entrance wall in the languages of recently arrived New Yorkers from such places as Latin America, Vietnam and Haiti, a nation Mr. Haacke feels has been singled out for opprobrium by the president.

But the imperturbable Mr. Haacke is reluctant to attack collectors’ preference for the attractive and uncontroversial over tough work like his. “They have to consider, ” he said, “when they have friends in — coming for dinner and cocktails and so forth — that unless they are of their particular political clan, they don’t want to get into a big argument.” Speaking with Mr. Haacke, it can sometimes feel as though his art has absorbed all his ire, leaving the man himself free to adopt a more distanced, impartial view.

“There was a kind of clinical accountability to his way of talking about art,” remembered James Leary, thinking back on the classes he took with Mr. Haacke in 2002, at the very end of his 35-year career at Cooper Union college in New York. Mr. Leary and another student of Mr. Haacke’s named Seth Cameron went on to help found an influential collective called The Bruce High Quality Foundation, which, with Mr. Haacke as father figure, has addressed art-world hypocrisy. Mr. Cameron remembered being especially impressed by his teacher’s determination to keep the spotlight on his art, to the point of refusing to ever have his face appear in print (not even for this article). The pair remember being surprised to find Mr. Haacke’s politics mostly absent from his actual talk and teaching.

“I feel uncomfortable to be seen running around with a clenched fist,” Mr. Haacke explained.

At the New Museum, not every piece will be overtly political. One floor will be devoted to 1960s works that explore physical and natural systems and human impacts on them — easy-to-like works that, among Mr. Haacke’s fans, are the equivalent of the early, “funny” films of Woody Allen. A 1966 piece lets us watch a rod of ice grow and shrink depending on the humidity released into the gallery by visitors. In 1972, when a German sewage plant and factory were pouring effluent into a river, Mr. Haacke set up pumps and filters to clean a tiny sample of its water. Mr. Gioni pointed out that today, as we confront systemic threats to our planet, such early pieces seem prescient.

Mr. Haacke first revealed a commitment to exploring social systems in a talk he gave in the 1968, as he found himself reeling from the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. Faced with that, he said, artists could only realize “how unsuited their endeavors are for making society more humane.” And ever since, he’s taken society on.

Mr. Haacke’s political awareness has deep roots. He was born in Cologne in 1936, to a father who lost his job for refusing to join the Nazi party He spent his childhood amid the terrors of World War II. For art school, he took care to choose one of the few West German institutions that still held to the Bauhaus ideals that left artists “very much involved in the society in which they worked,” as he put it. The school was in Kassel, a bomb-flattened town by the East German border. In 1961, Mr. Haacke came to the U.S. on a Fulbright fellowship and settled in New York four years later.

SINCE THE CANCELED Guggenheim survey, Mr. Haacke’s gimlet eye has often strayed from the ills outside museums to the politics inside them. “Whether artists like it or not, artworks are always ideological tokens, even if they don’t serve identifiable clients by name,” Mr. Haacke once said.

A 1975 piece in the New Museum exhibition quotes David Rockefeller, a longtime trustee of the Museum of Modern Art, on how a company’s involvement in culture can deliver “extensive publicity and advertising, a brighter public reputation, and an improved corporate image.”

A 1985 work looks at the relationship between sales of fuel to apartheid forces by Mobil oil and the company’s support for African art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; it couples a statement from Mobil defending those sales with a pitch from the museum on how sponsorship can provide “a creative and cost effective answer to a specific marketing objective.” Such works made Mr. Haacke the godfather of the art movement now called Institutional Critique.

“He’s been a major influence on me, and an inspiration,” said Ms. Fraser, chair of the art department at University of California, Los Angeles, and the most eloquent of institutional critics.

This summer at the Whitney Museum of American Art, it was hard not to feel echoes of Mr. Haacke when artists protested a board member’s ties to a company that produces tear gas.

But his own work is still and always art, not activism. “Of course, I don’t believe that artists really wield any significant power,” he once said. “At best, one can focus attention.”

That brings Mr. Haacke close to many great artists in the Western tradition. The medieval painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti “focused attention” on the evils of bad government; Caravaggio showed us cardsharps and torturers; Goya made heart-rending prints of the evils of war — and none of them ever thought that such ills would end once they’d revealed them.

It’s hard not to notice that nothing in Mr. Haacke’s show probes the New Museum itself, despite its history of anti-union measures, a board drawn from members of the 1 percent and a coming expansion that may demand appeasing donors.

Mr. Haacke admitted that his fires may have cooled. “I’m too old by now — I’m 83,” he said, adding, “What I read every day is very upsetting, but I don’t have that much energy anymore.”

But he also hinted (that sly smile again) that the checklist to a Haacke exhibition is never final. So do confirm the show’s detail before heading out to Mr. Haacke’s latest retrospective. It’s never too late for a cancellation.

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