Hans Haacke

Year and place of birth: 1936, Cologne, Germany Location: New York, United States

Hans Haacke makes outspokenly critical art and is a role model for engaged contemporary artists. Along with like-minded peers such as Daniel Buren, Marcel Broodthaers and Art & Language, he is one of the most important representatives of ‘institutional criticism’, a branch of the conceptual art that was in the ascendant in the late 1960s. Unlike other members of this movement, Haacke did not primarily focus his criticism of the artistic system on the art world and its institutions, but on the social, economic and political power structures that are often inextricably interwoven with the territory.

Haacke studied painting in Kassel from 1956 to 1960. As a student, he was a member of the Zero group, founded during this period by Heinz Mack and Otto Piene. The group practised a cool geometric abstraction, strove to achieve a new harmony between people and nature, and tried to restore the metaphysical dimension of art. In the early 1970s, Haacke began to focus on various power systems and their relationship with the art world. His painstaking and research-orientated mindset was akin to investigative journalism. He explicitly based every project on the specific arts institution for which it was being developed.

Thanks to his consistent, almost anarchic stance, Haacke soon gained the reputation of being a thorn in the side of the artistic and social establishment of the time. Because his work was frequently censored, his breakthrough as an artist – certainly in America – was a long time coming. For example, Haacke’s first big solo exhibition at the Guggenheim in 1971 was cancelled just a few weeks before the opening because of the work ‘Shapolski & All’. In this piece, the artist exposed the murky financial transactions of Harry Shapolski, then one of New York’s most powerful real estate magnates. Moreover, he implied that there were connections between the magnate and some of the Guggenheim’s most prominent trustees. The fact that the then director cancelled Haacke’s exhibition and sacked its curator on the spot makes this work a powerful example of ‘institutional criticism’.

In Europe, and above all in his home country of Germany, Haacke’s critical work enjoyed wider acceptance. In the 1990s – after the fall of the Berlin Wall – the focus of his content shifted to the question of whether national identity can be presented visually in a contemporary and critical way, and he explored the concepts of ‘monument’ and ‘place of remembrance’ with projects in the public space. In contrast to many of his like-minded contemporaries, Haacke is one of the few true moralists, who deploys artistic reflection to critique not only art institutions, but also broader social reality.


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