Art and Journalism (continued): Part 2: The art world’s cover-ups

by Chris Nash

Chris Nash was Professor of Journalism at Monash University, and previously Director of the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism at UTS.

The radical upheavals of the late 1960s generated by the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement soon created a searching critique of the entire social framework, and all social institutions found themselves under scrutiny. Art institutions were no exception, with radical formal innovation such as land art (like Wrapped Coast), video art (like the work of  Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman) and performance art (like Gilbert and George) implicitly undermining art museums’ exhibition models. Sometimes the museums were also under explicit political attack for their connections to conservative politicians, and it all came to a head when they moved to protect rich and powerful trustees from criticism. In part 2 of his series on Hans Haacke and the convergence of art and journalism, Chris Nash describes the build-up to Haacke’s infamous 1971 Guggenheim Museum exhibition. This is the story of a period of particularly fertile transformation in the New York art world which became a precursor to the institutional critique of much contemporary art, including the EXTRA!EXTRA! newspaper that you’re reading right now.


Hans Haacke produced and exhibited a wide range of natural systems artworks up until the late 1960s.  The best known to later audiences are the various versions of the Condensation Cube (sometimes called a Weather Cube), comprising a sealed plexiglass cube into which a small amount of water had been inserted. Because of the differential temperature inside the cube caused by light energy from the surrounding environment, the water vaporises then condenses on the inside walls of the cube, forming rivulets as it runs down to collect and vaporise again in an endless cycle whose visual patterns never repeat themselves.  

Haacke’s project is not to produce an artwork that exhibits the artist’s sensibility and creativity, but to explore the relationship of art to reality, and the activity of the artist in distilling and mediating that relationship.  As Fry put it:

The weather boxes, as Haacke so aptly called them, thus extend the Duchampian concept of the ready-made to include, at least potentially, any real phenomenon in the world: anything as a result of which the artist might choose to “articulate something natural”.  The difference between Haacke’s appropriation of phenomena and the ready-mades of Duchamp lies in the fact that Haacke’s phenomena retain a double identity: once isolated and “signed” by the artist, they nevertheless continue in their original functions, whereas Duchamp’s objects lose their original function after having been placed into an aesthetic context …. Haacke’s systems, in fact, only enter into the realm of art because they operate as representations of aspects of the world – being those aspects themselves – and because Haacke chooses to present them within an artistic context.”

In the late 1960s Haacke extended his focus to social systems, and immediately addressed the political dimension.  The broader US social context of the late 1960s included large angry street protests, race riots in multiple cities since the summer of 1965, rampant police violence at the 1968 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago, the worst labour unrest since the 1930s, revelations in November 1969 of the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam, the killing of students by National Guard and police on Kent State University and Jackson State College campuses in May 1970, and news of the secret US bombing of Cambodia. 

In a series of four exhibitions across 1969-1970 in German and US cities, a teletype machine printed real-time continuous transmissions from selected international newsagencies, the content of which included reports from the war in Vietnam.  This was Haacke’s first explicit engagement with journalism in his art. He also initiated audience participation in survey polls, soliciting information from exhibition visitors such as place of birth and residence, demographic characteristics, and political views on a range of contemporary issues.  At the Information exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in July 1970, museum visitors were asked to place a ballot in one of two transparent boxes labelled ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ in response to the question ‘Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina policy be a reason for you not to vote for him in November?’  Nelson Rockefeller contacted MoMA Director John Hightower asking him to “kill that element of the exhibition” which Hightower declined to do. After twelve weeks on exhibition the result was 25,566 (68.7%) yes and 11,563 (31.3%) no. In his memoirs published three decades later, MoMA Chairman David Rockefeller (brother of Governor Nelson Rockefeller) still expressed outrage at this specific artwork by Haacke.

The collection and exhibition policies of MoMA were naturally a vital concern for contemporary artists, at the same time that they were challenging the very definitions of art, artists and museums.  As a result of a confrontation with MoMA in early 1969, some prominent artists had formed the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC), in which Haacke took a prominent role. The AWC was not the only politically radical organisation formed by New York artists in the 1960s, and around it blossomed a range of groups of varying size, membership and concerns.  The AWC had its own agenda, in particular to develop policies for artists’ working conditions and contractual rights, but also was something of an unorganised umbrella group that mounted actions and protests around these industrial issues and in support of other workers’ strikes, in opposition to the war, and on issues around gender, class, race and ethnicity. 

MoMA occupied a special place in these conflicts.  Apart from its significance as the self-proclaimed ‘citadel’ for modern art in the United States, MoMA was a particular focus for the anti-war actions because of its close association with the Rockefeller family.  Nelson Rockefeller, brother of David, was Governor of New York (1959-1973) and subsequently US Vice-President (1974-1977) in the Republican administration of Gerald Ford. He had been President of MoMA from 1939 to 1941 and again 1946-1953, and was a trustee of the Museum from 1939 to 1978, which period included the late 1960s unrest. Although on the more liberal end of the Republican Party, he supported President Nixon’s prosecution of the Vietnam War.  A confrontation with MoMA over funding for the anti-war poster And babies? (from the 1968 My Lai massacre) led to an AWC demonstration on 2 May, 1970 in front of Guernica and an unsuccessful request to Picasso to withdraw the work from the museum.  Prominent artists began withdrawing their work from exhibitions and collections as part of an art strike, and three weeks later the New York Art Strike against Racism, War and Repression was staged on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

The AWC campaigns were reported in depth in the New York Times (NYT) and other media, and prompted heated exchanges among critics, museum staff and artists.  For example, the Art Mailbag section of the NYT on 8 February, 1970 included a long letter from the AWC ‘Why MoMA is Their Target’, with Hans Haacke as one of three signatories; a letter ‘Hard to Forget’ from artist Alex Gross roundly attacking MoMA for “30 uniformed policemen [who had been] smuggled into the basement” before the large artists’ demonstration in the Guernica gallery the previous year; and a letter ‘Erroneous’ from a MoMA staff member attacking on behalf of a “silent majority” the report by NYT journalist Grace Glueck on the controversy over the And babies poster, accompanied by a response from Glueck.

As well as the politics and policies, some of the exhibitions themselves at MoMA were deeply controversial.  Hilton Kramer, the neo-conservative art critic for the New York Times, was scathing and openly mocking in several reviews of the July 1970 Information exhibition.  One article commenced with a description of Haacke’s Rockefeller poll exhibit and included the jibe

“Here all the detritus of modern printing and electronic communications media has been transformed by an intellectual gaggle of demi-intellectuals into a low grade form of show business.”

Hilton Kramer, 1970

Ten days later Kramer returned to the fray with a further review that ended with “What unmitigated nonsense this exhibition is! What tripe we are offered here! What an intellectual scandal!”  It was about this time in mid-1970 that Haacke received a prestigious commission for a one-person show the following May from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, two miles up Fifth Avenue from MoMA and close to the Metropolitan Museum on Central Park.  

The contemporary art scene in New York was in sustained uproar, with consequences for all concerned – elite institutions, their managers and staff, artists and their publics. The confrontations continued into 1971 and at MoMA eventually led to the sacking of the Museum Director.  John Hightower, appointed to the role amid the turmoil in 1970, went some distance to accommodate the AWC activists in both their artistic and political/industrial demands. In doing this he angered the MoMA Board of Trustees and its Chair David Rockefeller:

John was entitled to voice his opinions, but he had no right to turn the museum into a forum for antiwar activism and sexual liberation. …. When MoMA’s professional and curatorial staff went on strike in 1971, John immediately yielded to their demands to form a union.  With the staff in disarray, contributions drying up, and the trustees in open revolt, Bill Paley [MoMA President and founding CEO of the CBS television network], with my full support, fired Hightower in early 1972.

Meanwhile over at the Guggenheim, there was a showdown among the artists scheduled to exhibit at the Sixth (and as it turned out, last) Guggenheim International in February-April, 1971.  A minority of five artists objected to the alleged impact on their own art of work by Daniel Buren that included a large striped canvas hanging down into the central void of the ascending broad spiral of galleries.  

Buren made unequivocal the critique developed by his installation by providing a political language outside his work.  Speaking to New York Times reporter Grace Glueck, who had come to preview the International, Buren insisted that he not be referred to as an artist and proclaimed that “both artists and museums in the traditional sense are obsolete”. 

The majority of the exhibiting artists supported Buren, who refused a compromise offer of a subsequent solo show and withdrew his work when the curator refused to hang the controversial canvas.  There were artists’ demonstrations at the Guggenheim during opening hours. 

Separate to this conflict, when he reviewed the Guggenheim International for the NYT, Hilton Kramer mocked the “inane rubbish that the so-called “artists” have been invited to fill the museum with” and directly attacked the Director Thomas Messer for accommodating “a trend toward dismantling the artistic enterprise and casting contempt on the integrity of the museum”.  The following day Messer wrote to Kramer:

Dear Hilton, Your Guggenheim International review and the points you make in it invite some discussion.  Would you care to join me for lunch some day next week? I would be glad if you would.

Thomas M. Messer

It was while Messer and the Guggenheim were under attack for the International Exhibition that Messer was negotiating with Haacke over his upcoming show that was to follow immediately after the International.  Haacke and the curator Edward Fry had met with Messer on 19 January, where Messer for the first time expressed reservations about the two real estate pieces that Haacke had been researching and preparing for about six months since receiving the museum’s invitation.  The works were Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a real time social system as of 1 May 1971 and Sol Goldman and Alex diLorenzo Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a real time social system as of 1 May 1971 (see edition 1 of EXTRA! EXTRA! for more on this work – Ed.). There was no connection between Shapolsky, Goldman or diLorenzo with the Guggenheim Museum, and none was asserted in the artworks.  Various law enforcement agencies including the New York Police Department (NYPD) had been scrutinising Shapolsky, Goldman and diLorenzo in the preceding decade, and Shapolsky had been indicted for bribery and convicted of rent gouging.  The activities of all three had been reported in the New York media over a period of years. 

Messer said the museum didn’t have the resources to check the accuracy of the information in the artworks.  There was a period of negotiation that involved advice from lawyers to both Haacke and the Guggenheim as to whether the artworks might be libellous and defamatory, and an offer by Haacke to disguise slightly the principals’ identities, but that was unacceptable to Messer. On March 19, in the days following his lunch with Kramer, Messer wrote to Haacke describing the works as “a muckraking venture” that as an “active engagement towards social and political ends” were excluded under the Guggenheim’s Charter to pursue “esthetic and educational objectives that are self-sufficient and without ulterior motive.”  On April 1 Messer cancelled the exhibition, and when the curator Edward Fry publicly supported Haacke, Messer dismissed him. Over one hundred artists signed a statement “refusing to allow [their] works to be exhibited in the Guggenheim until the policy of art censorship and its advocates are changed” and there were rowdy demonstrations by placard-holding artists inside and outside the Guggenheim building. The controversy received extensive coverage in the New York Times and other news media as well as the arts press, including publication of the relevant letters and personal explanations by the protagonists.  The NYPD after reading the news invited Haacke to visit them and share his research about Goldman and diLorenzo because they suspected a money-laundering operation for organised crime interests.

This is an edited extract from What is Journalism? The Art and Politics of a Rupture published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.  For further information contact chris@chrisnash.com.au

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