Curatorial Privilege


Curatorial Privilege

By Anuradha Vikram March 13, 2018

#Hashtags is a column, formerly published on Daily Serving, that explores the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.

With the acquisition of Harald Szeemann’s archives in 2010, the Getty Research Institute (GRI) embarked on a seven-year project to re-create the Swiss curatorial impresario’s gesamstkunstwerk, titled Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us, originally exhibited in 1974 in Szeemann’s Bern apartment, and now on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles. Up on the hill at GRI, the show Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions features highlights of the Szeemann archive from the 1960s until his death in 2005, including original photographs, correspondence, and ephemera related to the exhibitions for which he is best known, 1972’s Documenta V and Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form at Kunsthalle Bern in 1969. Los Angeles, with its confluence of top-tier museums and celebrity culture, and the influence of Szeemann-like figures in the region such as Paul Schimmel and Philipp Kaiser (who co-curated the exhibition and co-edited the GRI catalog), seems a fitting site for a deep dive into the mind of this super curator, whose unorthodox methods are now canonical, if not yet uncontroversial. At the same time, a focus on Szeemann in Los Angeles feels like the last hurrah for a Eurocentric, bombastic curatorial aesthetic that both revolutionized and perpetuated the status quo.

Harald Szeemann (seated) on the last night of Documenta 5: Questioning Reality–Image Worlds Today, at Museum Fridericianum, 1972. The Getty Research Institute, 2011.M.30. Photo: Balthasar Burkhard.

My introduction to Szeemann’s work and ethos was in the late 1990s, when I worked in the studio of the artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, who had met while working on Documenta V as commissioned artist and assistant curator, respectively. Then an aspiring studio artist with a head full of art history, I had few fabrication skills, but I could wield a telephone, and I found the figure of artist–curator that Szeemann proposed very appealing. More than a conservator or facilitator of artists’ projects, Szeemann was a guru with wild hair and eyes, commanding an army of brawny artists to shake up conservative Old Europe. Oldenburg’s contribution to Documenta V was The Mouse Museum (1977), an archive of tchotchkes and industrial samples sourced from the wholesalers of New York’s East Village. The objects were housed in a structure that, seen overhead, took the form of the Geometric Mouse, an abstract shape resembling a Mickey-Mouse-head-cum-reel-to-reel-camera that has been one of the artist’s signature images. The Mouse Museum is at once an emulation and a quotation of the work of the curator, making transparent the task of museums in elevating selected objects from trash to treasure through classification and preservation. Szeemann, by contrast, curated a boxing match with Joseph Beuys and happenings with Oldenburg, Allan Kaprow, Nam June Paik, and a host of Fluxus artists. His infamous exhibition, Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form, included aggressive interventions into the architecture of the museum, including Michael Heizer’s assault on the Kunsthalle Plaza with a wrecking ball and Richard Serra’s massive lead splashes in interior corners (which must be crowbarred away from the surfaces that serve as their molds). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Szeemann was pushed out of his position at the state-run Kunsthalle Bern over this and a proposed Beuys solo exhibition, whose contribution to Live in Your Head had included a pile of fat seeping into a corner of the gallery. Szeemann’s departure introduced the concept of the independent curator to contemporary parlance.

Calling German Names, performed by James Lee Byars at Documenta 5: Questioning Reality–Image Worlds Today, at Museum Fridericianum, 1972. The Getty Research Institute, 2011.M.30. Photo: Balthasar Burkhard. © The Estate of James Lee Byars.

Three years later, Joseph Beuys would also depart from his position as professor of art at the Dusseldorf Academie. While Szeemann transgressed the physical structures of the museum, Beuys transgressed the gatekeeping structures of the academy by allowing students to attend his classes without paying tuition or passing prerequisites. The two soon teamed up for Documenta V. During the exhibition’s run, Beuys’s Rudolf Steiner–inspired pedagogical project, Office for the Organization of Direct Democracy, may or may not have been successful at convincing people of the superiority of this political model, but in Boxing Match for Direct Democracy, Beuys, fighting as Direct Democracy, would win against his opponent, Representative Government (portrayed by a younger artist, David Abraham Christian). Much about Harald Szeemann’s curatorial legacy can be gleaned in the ethos of a boxing match between two generations of strapping Teutonic men fighting about political economy.

Harald Szeemann lecturing in front of Werk Nr. 003 (undated) by Emma Kunz, n.d. The Getty Research Institute, 2011.M.30. Artwork courtesy of Emma Kunz Zentrum. © Anton C. Meier.

Organizing the main exhibitions for the Venice Biennale in 1999 and 2001, Szeemann was an early example of what has become an archetype: the globetrotting curator. His were the first international centerpiece exhibitions at the Biennale to incorporate the vast fourteenth-century Arsenale, as is now standard. The Biennale president Paolo Barrata explained, “Harald Szeeman carried within him the new brilliance that was being acknowledged in the figure of the curator: first and foremost the capacity to relate to the artists at the vital moment of artistic creation. He seemed to share the vitality of the work, the energy that emanated from it, the ability to translate ideas and concepts into form, as well as the most intimate sensibilities and an insight into social life and history, utopias and obsessions.”1 Szeemann favored turning the Biennale over to younger artists, beginning a trend that has recently been reversed, with contemporary wunderkind curators like Massimiliano Gioni featuring under-celebrated late-career artists.

Postcards from Harald Szeemann’s collection of 'pataphysics material. The Getty Research Institute, 2011.M.30.

The current institutional vogue for Szeemann seems to embrace his visionary aesthetic—but not his vision for championing an art that was evolving, groundbreaking, and new, at the expense of institutional priorities. This may be because his legacy remains controversial, even among the artists whose freedom he ostensibly championed. Says Glenn Phillips, the GRI’s director of modern and contemporary art and the lead curator of the exhibition, “Szeemann’s Museum of Obsessions comprised not only the physical place of the archive but also a mental landscape that encompassed all moments of genius and artistic intensity in his exhibitions, both realized and unrealized, past and future.”2 On the one hand, for artists who struggle to keep their authentic voices in a sea of critical argumentation and publicity buzz, the figure of a curator who contains all of the artist’s moments of genius and intensity could be an imposition, and Szeemann’s inheritors have been criticized for instrumentalizing artists toward their curatorial visions rather than playing supportive roles. On the other hand, Szeemann understood how to use his position of privilege, first as a staff curator in Bern and later as a new model of art-world celebrity, to support artists in realizing the impossible. If contemporary curators take one lesson from Szeemann’s legacy, it should be to use their privilege to support artists when their work is most free, risk-taking, and vulnerable.

Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions is on view at Getty Research Institute through May 6, 2018. Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us is on view at ICA LA through April 22, 2018.


  1. 1999 Historic Archives for Contemporary Arts (ASAC) Foreword by Paolo Barrata, president of la Biennale di Venezia, Google Arts & Culture,, retrieved March 2, 2018.
  2. “Getty Research Institute Presents ‘Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions,’” press release.,, retrieved March 2, 2018.

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