press release

Harald Szeemann
Museum of Obsessions & Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us

These two exhibitions about an exhibition organizer are as unusual and extravagant as their subject, the legendary curator Harald Szeemann. A native of Switzerland, Szeemann realized experimental exhibitions that broke with established conventions. Szeemann’s impressive track record, combined with his idiosyncratic self-image and the close relationships he cultivated with artists, have dramatically shaped our understanding of the curator’s role in contemporary society.

This wide-ranging exhibition brings together archival documents, original artworks, and documentary films to offer insight into the life and work of Harald Szeemann, revealing the complex themes and obsessive interests that occupied him over the course of a five-decade-long curatorial career.

Harald Szeemann was born in 1933 in Bern. He was director of the Kunsthalle Bern from 1961 to 1969, the year of his groundbreaking exhibition Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form. Following his resignation from the Kunsthalle Bern later that year, Szeemann founded his Agency for Spiritual Guest Work and worked as a freelance curator. He curated over 150 exhibitions across five decades until his death in 2005. His base of operations was the Fabbrica Rosa in Maggia, located in the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino. The 2,700-square-meter former watch factory served as his office and archive, where all of his research materials, books, and exhibition planning documents were organized. In addition to curating exhibitions, Szeemann was an avid collector and documentarian.

In 2011, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles acquired the vast estate of the exhibition maker and obsessive collector. Over the course of seven years, a team of archivists and cataloguers processed Szeemann’s heterogenous collection, which spanned some 600 meters of shelves. This endeavor revealed the importance of curatorial history as a discipline and the indispensable role of figures like Szeemann, who brought to light overlooked visionary artists and forgotten creative utopias in the wake of the student and worker protests of 1968.

Documenta, the quinquennial global art exhibition which has taken place in Kassel since 1955, achieved mythical status only after Harald Szeemann organized its fifth iteration in 1972. The trilogy of exhibitions he curated over the next decade was less engaged with contemporary art and more focused on outsider artists and notions of utopia. These exhibitions included The Bachelor Machines (1975), Monte Verità: The Breasts of Truth (1978), and The Tendency Toward the Gesamtkunstwerk: European Utopias since 1800 (1983). In the last 15 years of his career, Szeemann broadened the focus of his exhibitions to encompass global surveys in Gwangju (1997), Venice (1999 and 2001) and Seville (2004) and explorations of national and regional identity. In exhibitions like Visionary Switzerland (1991), Austria in a Net of Roses (1996) and Blood and Honey: The Future Lies in the Balkans (2003), he took a singular approach to the representation of single nations and cultural regions, bringing together a remarkable range and number of cultural artifacts that often featured graphic wallpapers, salon-hung walls, and impressive large-scale installations.

With the aim of introducing the curator’s work to a broad audience for the first time, the Getty Research Institute presented two related exhibitions in Los Angeles in February 2018: Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions at the Getty Research Institute and Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us (1974) at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (ICA LA). The latter comprised a full-scale reconstruction of Szeemann’s historic 1974 exhibition devoted to his grandfather Étienne Szeemann (1873–1971), a Hungarian immigrant and an inventive hairdresser. Originally mounted in his apartment in Bern, Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us was Szeemann most personal and radical exhibition.

From Los Angeles, both exhibitions traveled to Szeemann’s hometown of Bern. From the June 9 to September 2, Museum of Obsessions was exhibited at the Kunsthalle Bern while Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us was re-installed in Szeemann’s original apartment at Gerechtigkeitsgasse 74.

The two exhibitions are presented together for the first time at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, offering a multifaceted view into Harald Szeemann’s universe. Next the exhibitions will travel to the Castello di Rivoli near Turin and then to the Swiss Institute in New York.

Glenn Phillips and Philipp Kaiser curated the exhibition with Doris Chon and Pietro Rigolo and in Düsseldorf in collaboration with Gregor Jansen. An exhibition catalog was published by Scheidegger & Spiess in Switzerland.

The exhibition is supported by the Ministry of Culture and Science of North Rhine-Westphalia, the Kunststiftung NRW and prohelvetia.