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Harald Szeemann at
the Getty Research Institute

Harald Szeemann lecturing in front of Werk Nr. 003 (undated) by Emma Kunz. Image courtesy of The Getty Research Institute and Emma Kunz Zentrum. ©Anton C. Meier.

Days after the news of Helen Molesworth’s contentious firing from MOCA went public, Artforum published an essay by the curator on the work of artist Simone Leigh. While restating the troubled history of museums as a Western colonialist enterprise, Molesworth made a more personal admission: “An overconfidence in the power of critique might be a vestige of privilege,” she wrote. “I confess that more days than not I find myself wondering whether the whole damn project of collecting, displaying, and interpreting culture might just be unredeemable.”1 Whether her remarks were intended as a kind of apology or a sign of professional ambivalence, the flurry of speculation surrounding her departure—which ranged from accusations of staff abuse to her radical support of black artists to her brusque treatment of members on the museum’s Board of Trustees—pressingly reflects, as Julia Halperin wrote for Artnet News, “broader tensions in the museum world over what, exactly, the job of a modern-day chief curator entails.”2

In 1971, famed Swiss curator Harald Szeemann also wrote a confession of sorts. Prominently featured in the introductory panel for Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions, amidst a reverent portrait tableau of the curator, Collision + Harmony (Prayer) begins with the line, “I am privileged.” Indeed, at age 28, Szeemann was the Kunsthalle Bern’s youngest director, taking charge of the institution in 1961. Credited with inducting generations of conceptual and post-minimal artists onto the hallowed walls of the museum during the ’60s and ’70s, Szeemann cut a wide swath, introducing the public to a diverse and often eccentric set of artistic movements, from kinetic art to American photorealism to more obscure utopian folk art from his native Switzerland.

His notorious 1969 exhibition Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form was restaged at the Prada Foundation in 2013 during the Venice Biennale to much critical acclaim. The original presentation—sponsored by Phillip Morris and featuring an unruly group of artworks including a Michael Heizer piece that attempted to destroy the exterior plaza of the museum with a wrecking ball—was far more controversial, catalyzing Szeemann’s eventual resignation after an eight-and-a-half-year tenure. Soon after, he initiated The Agency for Intellectual Guest Labor, a single person entity whose sole proprietor was Szeemann himself. He even produced packing tape and stamps emblazoned with the logo and motto for his administrative front. On view at the Getty Research Institute in Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions, these tools function as objects of parody and pragmatism, lending legitimacy to the curator’s newly independent endeavors by emulating the presentational and distributional systems of an “official” museum.

Taking cues from Conceptual Art practices and Fluxus aesthetics, such gestures aligned Szeemann as an artist rather than a stiff connoisseur. He has also been historicized as the first “independent curator”—a professional designation that has now become endemic to our neoliberal landscape and remains a symbol of privilege, manifesting in figures like Hans Ulrich Obrist, or any number of (usually white, male) directors wielding curatorial celebrity and power today.

Presenting the life and career of Szeemann through a dense selection of materials taken from his personal estate—a massive trove of 22,000 artist files, 50,000 photographs, 25,000 books, and countless other ephemera acquired by the Getty Research Institute in 2011—the exhibition’s hagiographic approach also implicitly traced the historical development of curator as brand. Three thematic groupings: “Avant-Gardes”; “Utopias and Visionaries”; and “Geographies” offered some structure for a rather compressed presentation that was comprised, not so much of artworks, but the fecund forms of art history: letters, sketches, photographs, and artifacts.

Only a handful of the art objects on view were recognizable as such: Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-Valise (Box in a Suitcase) (1967) or Richard Artschwager’s blps (1967–2015). Address books, passports, and objects like Travel Sculpture (ca. late 1960s–2004), a slouchy Christmas tree made from Szeeman’s luggage tags that is both art object and archival record, all reveal the accelerated effects of globalization on curatorial practices. Other records reflect the broader global political climate: a touching April 1968 letter from Szeemann’s mother, for instance, pleads he use his Swiss passport rather than his English one and reprimands her son for visiting Cuba, and other “Eastern states” known for more radical politics.

Providing a compelling history of postwar exhibition making vis-à-vis the curator, what the multitude of materials also reveals is that even in Szeemann’s ostensible independence his curatorial endeavors were heavily reliant on an expansive network of professional and personal constituencies. When approaching the question of what a modern curator’s job entails today, this seems to be a critical insight. In a moment when media’s hegemony continues to capitalize on exacerbating political polarities and reducing complex events to more affecting hot-button issues, the act of critique is not a privilege, as Molesworth states, but a necessity. Rather than accept curators as mythic personas or radical individuals singlehandedly “undermining the museum,”3 we might instead position them as nodes in an intricate constellation of institutional powers, economic interests, and political agendas. Szeemann’s “prayer” concludes in the same way it begins, “I am privileged because I can call this moral/ethical conscience my own, and because everything is not so very simple.”

 

Harald Szeemann on the last night of documenta 5: Questioning Reality–Image Worlds Today at Museum Fridericianium (1972). Image courtesy of The Getty Research Institute. Photo: Balthasar Burkhard.

Originally published in Carla issue 12.

  1. Helen Molesworth, “ART IS MEDICINE,” Artforum, March 2018, https://www.artforum.com/print/201803/helen-molesworth-on-the-work-of-simone-leigh-74304.
  2.  Julia Halperin, “Clashing Visions, Simmering Tensions: How a Confluence of Froces Led to MOCA’s Firing of Helen Molesworth,” artnet News, March 16, 2018, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/moca-helen-molesworth-tension-1246358.art-world/moca-fires-chief-curator-helen-molesworth-according-to-report-1243853.
  3. Christopher Knight, “MOCA Fires Its Chief Curator,” Latimes.com, March 13, 2018, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-moca-fires-molesworth-vergne-20180313-story.html.