Édouard Manet’s Bunch of Asparagus (1880) is a winsome little painting of a pile of the vegetables on a bed of greens. It is one of the very greatest still lifes in art history (the brushwork on those greens!), and certainly one of Manet’s most alluring pictures. It is also a painting connected to the Nazis.
In 1974, artist Hans Haacke undertook the task of tracing the painting’s history, charting each time it changed hands since it was made in 1880 for the French art collector Charles Ephrussi for just 800 francs. Haacke’s research culminated in a revelation: the painting had passed through the hands of Deutsche Bank chairman Hermann Josef Abs, who had acted as a financial adviser to Nazi officials. The painting was on long-term loan to the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, Germany. Haacke proposed showing a work about the history of the Manet canvas at the institution, which had invited him to participate in an exhibition held in celebration of its 150th anniversary. The museum rejected his project.
That is far from the only Haacke work that has not made it on view as he planned. Some museum officials seem to be afraid of Haacke, and their fear is not misplaced. Over the past five decades, Haacke has highlighted how institutions cannot be separated from unfettered capitalism, toxic ideologies, and power imbalances around the world. At one point, this was taboo material. Now, it is commonplace, the stuff of conversations in boardrooms and activist meetings. But the one-time edginess of Haacke’s art may be why Americans have not had the opportunity to witness a proper Haacke survey in more than 30 years.
Thankfully, the New Museum in New York is rectifying this situation, mounting the first proper Haacke museum retrospective in the U.S. since it last had the good sense to do one, in 1986. Curated by Gary Carrion-Murayari and Massimiliano Gioni, this incisive show comes at a crucial moment. A growing mass of workers and activists are now demanding that institutions take accountability for their connections to racism, sexism, ableism, colonialism, fascism, and a host of other issues, and calling on certain board members to be removed because of their business dealings. Museums are also being accused of having misplaced priorities, undertaking renovations worth millions instead of paying workers fairly, and pushing out historically oppressed communities through expansion projects. Protestors have called on directors to be more transparent about their activities. Haacke has been awaiting this moment.
The New Museum show makes a powerful case that Haacke’s work is not just the stuff of Art History 101 courses—its subject matter is deeply relevant, and the art on view has a lot to teach us. Take On Social Grease (1975), a series of magnesium plates, each of them bearing the words of a philanthropist-magnate engraved into it. “EXXON’s support of the arts serves the arts as a social lubricant,” one plate reads, quoting Robert Kingsley, a cultural manager at the oil company. Seen from afar, Kingsley’s words recede into their aluminum backgrounds—the plates become Minimalist objects that seem politics-free, even inoffensive. This is ideal for the museums’ goals, Haacke hints. The slicker the surface, the better.
In fact, Haacke, a pioneer of what became known as institutional critique, had his roots in Minimalist art. A superb gallery in the new survey is given over to Haacke’s early ever-changing sculptures from the ’60s. In one, Haacke lets condensation form inside a Plexiglas cube. In another, an electrical current travels down a 22-foot-long glass pipe, occasionally hissing as it slowly glides across the gallery’s floor. At a glance, these works can seem banal. But Haacke is up to something fascinating. He’s creating closed-circuit loops—literal ecosystems in which matter is transmitted between poles, almost in the same way people exchange data and ideas. They’re more than just science experiments, in other words—they’re conceptual works about how disparate elements influence one another.
These works aren’t that different from On Social Grease, really—as his career as progressed, Haacke has simply shifted his interest from scientific systems to the System, the larger web of power relations that makes moving money (and power) around the world possible. A number of installations at the New Museum even reflect this visually, through networks of images and words. Their texts are rife with arrows, data points, and numbers—a lot of reading is required.
Don’t come expecting beauty. Haacke’s work has a hauteur to it because of its reliance on ideas over aesthetics, and he is a conceptualist at heart. His weakest works actually tend to come when he tries to create something visually engaging. More recently, Haacke has had a tendency to create overcooked statements about the state of America, dealing in well-worn tropes like torn-up stars and stripes and distressed images of white-bread suburbia. One work in this vein—a new installation called Make Mar-a-Lago Great Again (2019), in which Donald Trump’s tweets are displayed on an upturned monitor alongside Statue of Liberty bobblehads and a golf club—is unfortunately placed front and center, in the museum’s lobby. It is thuddingly obvious.
Peculiarly, some of his older works feel more contemporary than his new ones. MetroMobilitan (1985) is an installation that calls out the Metropolitan Museum of Art for accepting money from Mobil, which provided funding to South African police during Apartheid. “Total denial of supplies to the police and military forces of a host country is hardly consistent with an image of responsible citizen in that country,” one banner included in the installation reads, quoting corporate literature. This is eerily similar to signs brought by protestors to the Whitney Museum earlier this year, when activists demanded the resignation of Warren B. Kanders, then the vice chair of museum’s board, following reports that he owns a defense manufacturing company that produces tear-gas canisters used against migrants and protestors around the world. (Kanders capitulated to activists in July.)
Like any activist aiming to have sway, Haacke has had to walk a fine line in terms of his own power and complicity. His practice, in one sense, exemplifies that old American Express slogan: “Membership has its benefits.” He is a card-carrying art-world member, with a Chelsea gallery and a long tenure as an admired professor. At the same time, he has been persistent in taking audacious risks, both political and aesthetic. If some of his work has lost its change, it may simply be because its targets have vanished into history books. His enduring presence on the scene, his zest for the next cause, is inspiring. Just a month before the show opened, the museum’s newly formed union voted to authorize a strike amid demands for a new wage structure. Many observers wondered if the artist would address the issue; in the end, the New Museum came to an agreement with its workers, potentially avoiding becoming Haacke’s latest victim.
When he is at his best, Haacke avoids any straightforward political polemics. He probes power, and aims to ascertain public opinion, which alone is often enough rile up gatekeepers. Since the 1970s, he’s polled visitors about their political views in his art. At the Museum of Modern Art in 1970, he asked visitors about their thoughts regarding MoMA trustee and New York governor David Rockefeller’s support for Richard Nixon and his interventions in Vietnam. (The majority of the 37,000 who cast ballots decried it.) After MoMA Poll, Haacke didn’t show another work at the museum for 29 years. In the New Museum show’s catalogue, the curators ask for his feeling about this. Haacke responds: “I am not sorry.”