Updated: Nov 24, 2019
I still remember, back when I was an art history student, the class in which I had to stare at a painting for an hour, just looking and describing what I saw within the frame. No interpretation, no contextualization to sully the true experience of art, the professor told us. All that analysis comes later, after the pure encounter between you and the painting.
It is never just you and the painting. So proved Hans Haacke, one of the most consistent and uncompromising figures of American art, who has spent half a century mining the terrain around and behind works of art, and revealing the hidden operations of powerful associations, art museums very much among them. When critics were still sticking up for “art for art’s sake,” when artists were still indulging romantic fantasies of self-expression, Mr. Haacke was one of the first to insist that “art” is actually a complex system of institutions, governed by managers and administrators with their own aims and ideologies.
His preoccupation with art’s complicity in economic or political injustice has made him a frequent target for politicians, vandals and censors — most notoriously in 1971, when the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum canceled his show rather than exhibit his forensic documentation of the run-down real estate holdings of a Manhattan landlord. His critical stance has also left museums, somewhat understandably, reluctant to invite him in to trash the place.
For that, at least, we ought to praise the New Museum, which staged the German-born artist’s last major American exhibition in 1986, and which has now opened “Hans Haacke: All Connected,” an important but dispiriting reintroduction to this resolute antagonist. The retrospective will surely provide a valuable history lesson to young artists; it sprawls across four whole floors of the New Museum’s Bowery home, and includes most of Mr. Haacke’s important works, from early environmental pieces to his recent monument, for London’s Trafalgar Square, of a skeletal horse with a stock ticker tied to one leg. (A surprising, regrettable absence is “Der Pralinenmeister,” Mr. Haacke’s pitiless documentation of alleged tax dodges of the German art collector Peter Ludwig, who founded the Museum Ludwig in Cologne.)