Anyone in need of a potent antidote to the feeding frenzy at Art Basel Miami Beach last week should head right now to Paula Cooper Gallery’s second-floor space at 521 West 21st Street in West Chelsea. On view there is a solo show by the German–born, New York–based artist Hans Haacke, whose six-decade career is a singular case study in how to resist and attack, determinedly and elegantly, the machinations and overproduction that have defined the art market in recent decades.
Another reason to visit: Haacke shows are very rare occurrences. His last one-person exhibition in New York, where he has lived since 1965, was a survey that dealer Elizabeth Dee’s X-Initiative presented in 2009, and his last presentation of new work here was the year before, at Cooper, a full six years ago. This one is occurring just as his career reaches a new—and, one might say, unlikely—high point.
“I don’t produce that much,” Haacke, 78, told me with a hint of a smile, when I met up with him at the gallery a few weeks ago, just after he had finished installing the show. He was wearing glasses that are almost invariably described as Freudian (an adjective that fits his whole mien), a collared shirt, and jeans. (He generally declines to be photographed.) He spoke quietly and carefully, his mouth barely moving.
“I often work in a site-specific manner,” he said. “I have to familiarize myself with the location, its physical and its social environment. That takes a while. It also takes me a while to get an idea I would like to pursue.”
The idea for one of the major new pieces in the show came about only shortly before its opening, when Haacke was walking in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the fountains were undergoing a $65 million renovation work funded by the notorious conservative David H. Koch, who has also bankrolled a plethora of right-wing causes.
“At the time the site was fenced off by drapes with images from the Met’s collection, I noticed for the first time, somewhere, the Koch name, and I thought, ‘Oh…,’” Haacke said, still sounding amazed by the sight. “After the plaza’s inauguration I saw the name—big—like an advertisement on both fountain basins.” He decided to return with a camera.
The images he snapped over a number of visits now adorn oversized hundred-dollar bills that spill down the wall from three framed photographs—two of the fountains and one of a banner, Photoshopped to look like it’s hanging on the façade of the Met, which reads, “The Business Behind Art Knows the Art of Good Business—Your Company and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” It’s the title of a pamphlet that the museum once published to solicit corporate sponsorships.
In a 1985 work called MetroMobiltan, which attacked Mobil for doing business with the South African government during apartheid, on the occasion of the company’s funding of a show of Nigerian art at the Met, Haacke quoted a bit of the text on a plaque pertaining to such sponsorships: “These can often provide a creative and cost effective answer to a specific marketing objective, particularly where international, governmental or consumer relations may be a fundamental concern.” (“It’s quite a remarkable publication,” Haacke told me.)
Is he surprised that there has not been more of an outcry about the Met’s happy acceptance of Koch’s money? “Maybe there’s a lot of deference to the Met,” Haacke said. “It is also not a commonly shared urge to get on the wrong side of big-money people. Nevertheless, I read that there was a demonstration by Occupy Museums”—a group that protests inequality in art-world institutions—“at the Met. It was broken up by the police.”
Haacke has made his name tussling with big-money people and big-money institutions, poking and prodding and testing them, perhaps most infamously with his 1971 proposal to exhibit documentation of the real-estate holdings of Harry Shapolsky, whom many considered a slum lord, at the Guggenheim Museum, which led to the cancellation of his show and the firing of its curator, Edward Fry.
There have been others fights. A piece for the 2000 Whitney Biennial that went after Rudy Giuliani and other cultural conservatives, quoting their words in a font used by the Third Reich and speakers playing the sound of marching, led to the resignation from the museum’s national fundraising council of a Whitney family member, who deemed the work “trash.” And his 1998 proposal to install an inscription at the Reichstag in Berlin: “Der Bevölkerung” (“to the population”)—a reworking of the 1916 dedication on the building “Dem deutschen Volke” (“to the German people”)—caused a national debate, and won approval by only two votes, 260 to 258.
However, one institution recently welcomed him with open arms. In February, a London commission selected a sculpture by Haacke as the winner of the commission for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, which features the skeleton of a horse, 13 feet tall, with an electronic stock ticker in the shape of a bow on its leg. (A cast of the leg is now on view at Cooper.) “I couldn’t believe it,” Haacke said, of finding out about his win. “Obviously, in New York, it is unthinkable that such a proposal could be chosen for a commission paid by the city.” I asked him if he ever felt any disappoint when a proposal is accepted—if he thinks he should have made the work tougher, more political—and he looked at me kindly but incredulously: No.
Haacke, like all artists who win the job, is required to raise funds to supplement money from London to pay for his commission, which will go on view next spring and be on display for 18 months. After that, “I own it,” said Haacke. “I may face a lot of storage fees and transportation costs, unless—lo and behold—somebody wants to buy it.”
Not that he exactly makes purchasing his work easy. He is one of the very few artists who uses a contract developed by the late curator, writer, and dealer Seth Siegelaub in the 1970s that requires collectors to pay him a 15 percent royalty if they sell the work at a price above the initial figure. (U.S. law does not provide artists with resale royalties.) “It’s a bit cumbersome, and it certainly doesn’t help sales,” Haacke said.
But it does mean that he has never been disappointed by the way in which his works have been treated or shown by those who own them. “Aside from its original intent,” he said, “the contract serves as a litmus test for a collector’s attitude.”
Through January 11, 2015, Haacke is also included in a group show called “The Contract” at the young Lower East Side gallery Essex Street, which takes Siegelaub’s document as a touchstone. Haacke appears alongside emerging artists like Park McArthur and Carissa Rodriguez, whose involvement in various forms of institutional critique can be traced through forebears like Louise Lawler and Andrea Fraser directly to Haacke.
For many young artists, Haacke remains a kind of gold standard—a heroic example of remaining independent in the face of market pressures, and for 35 years, from 1967 to 2002, he was a guiding force for free-thinking students as a professor at Cooper Union, which recently decided to begin charging tuition for the first time in order to cover costs.
“Introducing tuition, after more than 100 years of Peter Cooper’s insistence that education is to be ‘free as air and water,’ destroys what the school stands for and what we know and love about it,” he said. “Within a short time, the school’s administration succeeded in thoroughly alienating its faculty and alumni, not to speak of the students. It’s a shame.”
The times have changed in other ways, as well, he acknowledges. “My guess is that it is much more difficult for young artists today to survive and enter the market,” he said. “They risk losing their independence—or aren’t free from the start to produce work the market doesn’t immediately support. According to my memory—perhaps mixed with some generational bias—in the late ‘60s, and early ‘70s, most artists of what was then called the avant-garde, were selling little or nothing. And so it didn’t cost much if one insisted on certain procedures and attitudes. With part-time jobs one could get by.”
Siegelaub’s contract has worked for him, but he said that he’s not surprised that other artists choose not to use it, given the difficulties it creates. “It’s amazing how tenacious some art buyers can be insisting on having the whole thing,” said. “There were some who wanted to buy a work of mine and started to negotiate. I said, ‘I’m not negotiating.’ And that was the end of the sale. I am pretty stubborn.”
Hans Haacke’s solo show at Paula Cooper Gallery runs through Saturday, December 13, 2014.
Update, December 10: This post has been updated to correct that the Whitney family member critical of Haacke’s 2000 biennial piece, Marylou Whitney, resigned from a museum fundraising council, not the board. In addition, an earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Harry Shapolsky sat on the Guggenheim’s board.