Hans Haacke has centered change in his thinking and artwork for more than 60 years. He is an artist whose work I deeply love and respect, and as with most survey exhibitions, his current retrospective, “All Connected,” at the New Museum affords great opportunities to understand the longer conceptual arcs embedded in Haacke’s decades-long career.
I first encountered Haacke’s work in the early 1990s via artworks confronting the interconnectedness of the cultural sphere, corporate greed, neo-liberal fiscal policy, militarization, and violence. It was, and remains, direct and clear work, often instrumentalizing the languages of commercial advertising or bureaucracy to speak truth to power. Take for example, “A Breed Apart” (1978) which features a series of advertisements for Leyland Vehicles (which would eventually become Land Rover) with the tag line, “Nothing can stop us now.” The didacticism of these works describe a circuit between luxury and military vehicle manufacturing in the UK, the purchasers of such machines, and the violence and oppression of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Haacke draws the connections, and we follow along, wondering what our role is in this circuit. All of this was right on target for my politics, and in my teenaged mind the fact that he had the audacity to place this work within a museum gallery made him even more heroic. (Haacke’s planned 1971 exhibition at the Guggenheim was infamously cancelled by the museum’s director, Thomas Messer, for attempting to include artworks unveiling societal critiques that implicated the museum itself in systems of injustice.)
The New Museum’s current effort is Haacke’s first major US survey in over 30 years. In the span of such time, the task of distilling many decades of diverse work into a cohesive project is decidedly challenging. While Haacke makes it easier by being doggedly persistent in his dedication to making systems visible — from physical phenomenon to flows of capital — some floors feel more integrated than others, particularly in the ways they negotiate the idiosyncrasies of the New Museums interior architecture. For example, the odd placement of “West Bank, 1994–27th Year of Occupation” (2007-09) in the niche between third and fourth floors on the north side of the building, or the sequestered feeling of “Gallery-Goers’ Residence Profile, Part 2” (1969-71), which seems too significant a work to wrap into the gallery at the back of the elevators on the second floor.
This said, the greatest pleasure of a retrospective view of an artist’s career is the inevitable mix of the familiar and the novel. While I found myself wanting for a good old Jesse Helms skewer in the New Museum’s presentation, I dove into works that required another type of engagement. Seeing and interacting with Haacke’s meteorological and scientific works, most from the 1960s, was a particular pleasure. Balloons or shiny fabric stretched nearly the width of a gallery, undulating aloft in the breeze created by fans; water freezing around a refrigerated ring or obelisk, or sloshing within a Lucite container fill the second floor. These works mark cause and effect, and they draw particular attention to states of change. And they are metaphors that begin with physical states of being and form, and throughout Haacke’s practice, they evolve into states of political and economic reality, systems of power and wealth. How does water move, what propels movement, and what blocks it? What are sources of stagnation? Who has power and how do they wield it? What connects systems of power to one another? Can these be interrupted and if so, what tools can be used? What does it take to challenge systems of injustice?
Exposing systems of injustice and how they operate is Haacke’s great skill. Sometimes these are revealed through tight stories he tells with found imagery, as in the gut punch of “Photo Opportunity (After the Storm/Walker Evans)” (1992). Two black-and-white photos are shown side-by-side; the first is an image from Walker Evans’s famed Depression-era series taken for the US Farm Security Administration documenting poverty in the US South. The second is more than ten times the size of the former, featuring US President George H.W. Bush (next to his wife Barbara Bush) following the destruction of his vacation home on the coast of Maine after a significant storm. The central male figures in both photos adopt parallel poses, but the power positions of each could not be more radically different. Also consider Haacke’s most renowned work, “Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings as of May 1971” (1971). Herein he shines a bright light on the sketchy and exploitative real estate holdings of a New York City slum lord by mapping the networks of exploitation and greed in multiple forms.
While slum lords, culture wars, and big tobacco have been replaced in today’s parlance by gentrification, decolonization, and kleptocracy, Haacke’s lessons still apply. Insert these stories into the center of culture. Make people pay attention. Demand it. Make the invisible visible and you just might instigate change.
Hans Haacke: All Connected continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side) through January 26, 2020. The exhibition was organized by Gary Carrion-Murayari and Massimiliano Gioni.