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Getty Acquires Harald Szeemann Archive and Library

GRI acquisition brings one of the most important private research collections for modern and contemporary art to Los Angeles

The Getty Research Institute has announced the acquisition of the Harald Szeemann Archive and Library—one of the most important private research collections for modern and contemporary art in the world.

The largest collection ever acquired by the Getty Research Institute, the Szeemann acquisition contains a vast amount of unique archival materials from important visual artists and cultural luminaries, which will significantly enhance the GRI’s reputation as a center for modern and contemporary art scholarship. Following the recent joint acquisition of the art and archival material of Robert Mapplethorpe by The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the J. Paul Getty Trust, this major acquisition further establishes Los Angeles as one of the key places for the study of 20th-century art.

Marcia Reed, chief curator at the Getty Research Institute visits the Szeemann Archive in Maggia, Switzerland. Photo: © 2011 J. Paul Trust

Perhaps the most influential curator of the second half of the 20th century, Harald Szeemann is synonymous with some of the most important artistic developments of the postwar era. An ardent advocate of conceptualism, postminimalism, happenings, and performance, and of artists as varied as Joseph Beuys, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, and Cy Twombly, Szeemann developed a new way of exhibiting art, closely collaborating with artists and incorporating a sweeping global vision of contemporary culture.

“The Szeemann archive will set the research agenda in contemporary art for the next generation of scholars,” said Thomas Gaehtgens, director of the Getty Research Institute. “Harald Szeemann was a legendary figure, and his archive captures his brilliant scholarship, the incredible breadth of his vision, and the intensity of his relationships with artists.”

Deborah Marrow, interim president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, added: “This acquisition is a tribute to the strength of the Getty Research Institute’s exceptional collections and to the depth of its scholarship. The Research Institute is uniquely positioned to care for this extraordinary archive and to share it with a broad audience.”

Initially noted as the youngest museum director in the world—he assumed the directorship of the Kunsthalle Bern in 1961 at the age of 28—Szeemann has been widely credited for inventing the profession of “independent curator.” After leaving Bern in 1969, he worked nomadically, organizing major exhibitions at institutions around the world. Szeemann developed and produced his exhibitions using his own team to design, to transport, and to install the artworks at host sites, a production model that Szeemann described as “from vision to nail to vision.”

“The archive offers a remarkably complete picture of Szeemann’s research and development process, from his initial correspondence with artists, their proposals and sketches for new works, down to the loan forms, floor plans, and budgets for a project,” said Andrew Perchuk, the deputy director of the Getty Research Institute.

The archive contains a comprehensive record of Szeemann’s correspondence with major artists, curators, and scholars from the late 1950s until his death in 2005. It encompasses more than 1000 boxes of research files, containing letters, ephemera, drawings, and other rare and unique materials from the late 19th-century onward, which Szeemann assembled over the course of organizing and researching more than two hundred exhibitions.

Also included are approximately 36,000 photographs, documenting Szeemann’s projects and the artists with whom he was associated, such as key images from Szeemann’s 1969 exhibition Live in Your Head. When Attitudes Become Form at the Kunsthalle Bern and the “100 Days” of events Szeemann organized as secretary general of Documenta V in 1972.

The acquisition also comprises Szeemann’s library of more than 28,000 volumes, including thousands of rare monographs, artists’ books, and limited edition publications, as well as special collections devoted to topics such as anarchism, pataphysics, and lesser-known artistic movements.

“His projects and working methods had a transformative impact on curatorial practice, and the innovations he introduced while organizing major exhibitions for Documenta and the Venice Biennale continue to impact the world of contemporary art,” noted the GRI’s chief curator Marcia Reed.

A consummate archivist, Szeemann saved nearly every piece of correspondence, ephemera, and research material throughout his career. His approach to exhibition-making is mirrored in the structure of the archive. Szeemann kept detailed notes of his thought process, constantly sketching and diagramming his concepts and recording his social interactions and impressions.

“Szeemann’s exhibition files contain riveting narratives of projects in development,” said Glenn Phillips, the GRI’s principal project specialist and consulting curator of contemporary art. “Luminary artists confided in him and tested ideas. He carefully preserved not only the remarkable correspondence he received from artists and colleagues, but also the responses he sent back, keeping a complete record of communication chains that sometimes extend over decades.”

Significant work will be required over the next three to four years to prepare the collection and to make it accessible to scholars. The complex process of cataloguing and preserving the archive spanning more than 2,500 linear feet of materials will become part of a major research project and a case study for archival procedures. By acquiring this archive, the GRI takes on the responsibility of continuing the legacy of Harald Szeemann and his vision of 20th-century art history.

About Harald Szeemann (1933-2005)

As director of the Kunsthalle Bern from 1961-1969, Harald Szeemann gained prominence for a lively and experimental series of exhibitions that included early projects with Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and James Rosenquist. He showcased kinetic art, op art, and Happenings, and was the first to commission Christo and Jeanne-Claude to wrap a building. Szeemann’s career skyrocketed in 1969 following the opening of the exhibition Live in Your Head. When Attitudes Become Form, a sprawling and controversial international survey of postminimalism and arte povera at a moment when these movements had yet to gain wide exposure. Szeemann left the Kunsthalle Bern shortly afterwards to become a full-time “independent curator,” calling his business the “Agentur für geistige Gastarbeit,” or “Agency for Spiritual Guest-Labor.” Traveling and meeting with artists constantly, Szeemann became sought after as the person with the best grasp on the international art world as a whole. Taking on the organization of Documenta V in 1972, Szeemann transformed the exhibition into a dynamic and gargantuan survey of young artists from across the world. Likewise, when asked to co-direct the Venice Biennale in 1980, Szeemann introduced a new concept that became a mainstay of the Biennale: the Aperto, an international and multigenerational group exhibition that contrasted with the Biennale’s traditional focus on national pavilions. The important biennials he later organized in Lyon, Seville, and Kwangju—as well as his return to the Venice Biennale in both 1999 and 2001—broadcast astonishing surveys of art-making from all parts of the world.

In his more than two hundred exhibitions, Szeemann often tackled enormous themes that cut across regions and spanned the 19th and 20th centuries. Exhibitions focused on topics such as utopia, disaster, and the “Plateau of Humankind” offered sweeping and provocative surveys, while exhibitions such as Visionary Belgium (2005), Austria in a Lacework of Roses (1996), and Blood and Honey: Future’s in the Balkans (2003) aimed at examining narrower topics and regions in staggering interdisciplinary depth. Szeemann also became known for producing definitive survey exhibitions of the most famous figures of the modern era—not only on contemporary artists such as Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke, and Bruce Nauman, but also about earlier cultural icons such as Charles Baudelaire, James Ensor, and Egon Schiele. Over the course of developing these many projects, Szeemann built an unparalleled research archive, gathering every piece of available information on the artists with whom he worked and carefully preserving the remarkable correspondence he maintained with his artists and colleagues. Szeemann died in 2005 at the age of 71, shortly before the opening of his exhibition Visionary Belgium.

The Getty Research Institute is an operating program of the J. Paul Getty Trust. It serves education in the broadest sense by increasing knowledge and understanding about art and its history through advanced research. The Research Institute provides intellectual leadership through its research, exhibition, and publication programs and provides service to a wide range of scholars worldwide through residencies, fellowships, online resources, and a Research Library. The Research Library – housed in the 201,000-square-foot Research Institute building designed by Richard Meier – is one of the largest art and architecture libraries in the world. The general library collections (secondary sources) include almost 900,000 volumes of books, periodicals, and auction catalogues encompassing the history of Western art and related fields in the humanities. The Research Library’s special collections include rare books, artists’ journals, sketchbooks, architectural drawings and models, photographs, and archival materials.

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