Harald Szeemann

Curator who made the exhibition into an art form

Wednesday 02 March 2005 01:00 GMT

Harald Szeemann was a key figure of the European and international artistic avant-garde from the 1960s onwards. No one operating in the world of culture is without precursors, heroes and role models, but Szeemann more than most was an original, a man who invented, or at the very least re-invented, the idea of the exhibition as an art form in itself.

Harald Szeemann, curator: born Berne, Switzerland 11 June 1933; Director of Visual Arts, Venice Biennale 1998-2001; twice married (one son, two daughters); died Tegna, Switzerland 18 February 2005.

Harald Szeemann was a key figure of the European and international artistic avant-garde from the 1960s onwards. No one operating in the world of culture is without precursors, heroes and role models, but Szeemann more than most was an original, a man who invented, or at the very least re-invented, the idea of the exhibition as an art form in itself.

For him, the museum or the place of an exhibition was a Platonic site for the realisation of a subjective dream of art, whether in the presentation of a single artist he admired and loved - Delacroix, Joseph Beuys, Georg Baselitz or the 1960s hippie artist Paul Thek - or, even more typically, realising his own dreams and ideas, making often quite esoteric connections through time and place, invoking and using the art of many different kinds of practitioners.

It was art that exists in the head, the way artists expressed its differing drives, that was his intense concern. Alongside the case of Beuys, it can surely be argued that no one did more to extend the notion of art away from solely painting and sculpture to that as the expression of original dreams and Utopian thoughts, regardless of the form they take.

Born in Berne in 1933, Szeemann studied art history, archaeology and journalism at the University of Berne. He organised his first exhibition while still a student in 1957, in St Gallen. Entitled "Poetic Painter, Painterly Poet", it was devoted to Hugo Ball, the First World War Dadaist and founder of the Cabaret Voltaire, in Zurich. Throughout his life Szeemann was constantly exploring strange and abstruse boundaries and connections and spaces to be perceived between art, poetry, music and philosophy.

In 1961, at the age of 28, he became Director of the small Kunsthalle in Berne, which at once became an important European platform for what was at the time a very exclusive and élite avant-garde; this was where, in 1968, the young Christo wrapped a building, the Kunsthalle itself, for the first time. The Berne museum held this prominent position throughout the 1970s and beyond, well after Szeemann had left.

His work in Berne culminated in the exhibition "When Attitudes Become Form" (1969), shown in a reduced version, organised by the art historian Charles Harrison, at the ICA in London. It was a vital moment for art, founding a platform for conceptual art, i.e. art taking place primarily in the mind. To quote Szeemann in the catalogue,

Works, concepts, processes, situations, information (we consciously avoided the expressions "object" and "experiment") are the "forms" through which these artistic expressions are expressed.

The exhibition included artists from the Minimalist American Carl André and Beuys, Bruce Nauman and Richard Serra to the Italian Arte Povera artist Gilberto Zorio. Only four British artists were included: Victor Burgin, Barry Flanagan, Bruce McLean and David Medalla.

Almost immediately afterwards Szeemann left the Kunsthalle and became a freelance, roving curator, the profession he is credited as having "invented". He set up home and his office in the village of Tegna in the Ticino province of Switzerland, which he called with typical self-deprecating humour the "Agency for Intellectual Guest Work". In a "hippie" age, the idea of the artist and exhibition maker as deliberate outsider, immigrant, traveller and enforced guest worker was central to his thought and way of being.

During the 1970s and 1980s he arranged any number of exhibitions, many of great originality. "When Attitudes Become Form" found its apotheosis in "Documenta V" in Kassel in 1972, the exhibition that definitively established the new avant-garde as a phenomenon that was not going away and that, in the intervening decades, has become a world "industry". Almost 200 artists were represented, largely with objects, videos, actions and performances. Once again, there were relatively few British artists. Apart from those mentioned above, only the group Art and Language, Gilbert and George, Hamish Fulton, Richard Long and Gustav Metzger were featured.

The same was true of the Venice Biennales that he organised in 1999 and 2001, where, seen from any perspective, new (young) British artists were woefully under-represented. None the less, at Venice, Szeemann was responsible for extending the exhibition site beyond the Giardini to the Arsenale, a huge succession of largely unused Renaissance warehouses, which became a seemingly endless street, a kaleidoscope of contemporary art positions from all over the globe, where inclusion or exclusion or even quality seemed less the point than the phenomenon and intrinsic anarchy of the art itself, presided over by its ceaselessly chuckling, bearded curator.

Szeemann's immense charm, a very special ability to manipulate the establishment and high society - from Swiss gnomes to Italian bureaucrats - enabled him to realise his own dreams of art. One of his greatest heroes was the French Symbolist poet Alfred Jarry, the anarchic author of Ubu Roi, who prophetically foretold the most monstrous and inhuman aspects of the history of the 20th century. For Szeemann, art was the best antidote to such horrors. Jarry was also the "inventor" of the science of "pataphysics", to which Szeemann never tired of referring. He always spoke to me about an international pataphysical society. Whether it existed or not I never quite found out.

For Jarry, pataphysics was "the science of imaginary solutions" and Szeemann's finest and most creative exhibitions, mostly shown at the Kunsthaus in Zürich, addressed precisely these solutions. One was " Monte Verità" ("Mountain of Truth"), about a place in Ascona on Lake Maggiore which attracted anarchists (including Lenin), artists, homeopaths, theosophists, naturists and other outsider-world improvers, hoping by example to épater les bourgeois through new forms and styles of living. Szeemann's exhibition gave expression to this forgotten corner of pre-First World War history.

Another exhibition was entitled " Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk", best translated as "The Inclination to the Total Work of Art", an anthological exhibition about European Utopian ideas since 1800. This of course included Richard Wagner, but many others too, including, Fourier, Thoreau, Gaudi, Kandinsky, Mondrian, D'Annunzio, Duchamp, Schwitters, Tatlin and Beuys - but strangely not, for example, William Blake, John Soane, Ruskin or William Morris, all of whom might easily have qualified.

Szeemann instinctively seemed to have something against what he might have felt was the positivist approaches of the British to both art and life. But then subjectivity was the essence of Szeemann's manner of seeing art. He was combative, even to colleagues. After my colleague Christos Joachimides and I had organised a highly successful exhibition of then new painting and sculpture in Berlin in 1982 with the title " Zeitgeist" ("The Spirit of the Times"), in 1989 Szeemann responded with a more deliberately chaotic exhibition which he called " Zeitlos" - "Timeless".

But of his creativity and energy as an exhibition maker there can be no doubt. He will be missed by many, many artists, who were his closest friends, and the world of art everywhere.

Norman Rosenthal

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