This spring, Stockholm’s Moderna Museet plays final host to Robert Rauschenberg: Combines (2007), a monumental exhibition featuring more than seventy key assemblage works produced between 1954 and 1964, that has toured from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. With the passing of Pontus Hulten this past October, the exhibition will serve as a fitting tribute to a man who will not only be remembered as the founding director of three of these venues, but also the dynamic impresario behind the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, the Museum Tinguely in Basel, and the Institut des Hautes Études en Arts Plastiques in Paris.
If 1954 was to be a decisive year for Robert Rauschenberg—who by then had figured out a working method to locate his practice in the gap between painting and sculpture—it was also to be a seminal year for the independent filmmaker, artist, and curator Pontus Hulten, who set in motion a curatorial project that proposed an alternative to the polemics offered by a post-war European art scene entangled in issues around hot and cold forms of abstraction.
Having completed a dissertation on Vermeer and Spinoza in his native Sweden, Hulten travelled to Paris in the early 1950s where he familiarized himself with the Art Concret circles aggressively promoted by gallerists such as Denise René. More importantly perhaps, he introduced himself to a marginalized younger generation of artists whose individual forms of anarchism challenged not only the technocratic optimism of Bauhaus-inspired work and the existential angst espoused by an international Art Informel, but also the increasingly decorative tendencies of the École de Paris.
In 1954, Hulten managed to convince Denise René to let him use her gallery to organize the exhibition Le Mouvement that positioned her established stable of artists (Victor Vasarely, Alexander Calder, Robert Jacobsen) in relation to young artists recently arrived in Paris (including Jean Tinguely, Yacoov Agam, Jesús Rafael Soto, and Pol Bury). To bridge René’s constructive artists with these more deconstructive ones, Hulten reintroduced the kinetic work of Marcel Duchamp, which functioned, in spiral fashion, to open up her gallery to Hulten’s own interest in machines, movement, irony, and chance. From this moment forward, Hulten developed a close working relationship not only with Duchamp, but also with many of his “bachelors” who would later be labeled Neo-Dadaists and Nouveau-Réalistes.
By 1960, Hulten had worked his way into the position of director of a new museum of modern art in Stockholm. To call it “new” might be a bit of a stretch. The museum had come into being in 1958 as a result of a donation to the Nationalmuseum that came with the condition that all “modern art” was to be removed from their otherwise royal national collection. As a result, a derelict naval gymnasium on the island of Skeppsholmen was allocated to house more or less discarded artworks. With little pressure to succeed, Hulten took on the task of transforming the space into something not unlike today’s Palais de Tokyo: a dynamic labyrinth (as Constant would call it) featuring interdisciplinary experiments in contemporary art with an openness towards audience participation.
By the mid-1960s, Hulten had catapulted Moderna Museet into the spotlight of the international art world. He achieved this with an insistence on a dialectical repositioning of both art and institution in order to ensure a dynamic relationship between the artist, art work, and audience. This often meant exhibitions organized with a Dadaist spirit, stressing allegorical conflict over any unifying principle.
Hulten’s first grand curatorial statement would come in 1961 when he organized Rörelse I Konsten (Movement in Art) with the help of scientist Billy Klüver and artist Daniel Spoerri. As ambitious in scale as MoMA’s The Art of Assemblage of the following year, and featuring many of the same artists, Hulten’s exhibition was a critical appraisal of kinetic art in the twentieth century and was arguably more elastic, eclectic, messy, moving, and fun. Most importantly, it rejected the jingoism found in both Paris and New York—a welcome relief for artists often living on the edge of the economy of these art centres.
By the mid-1960s, the assault on bourgeois taste and sensibility that would characterize Hulten’s early curatorial career had managed to bypass censorship to access state funding (Hulten was particularly good at disguising his anti-Social Democratic politics with wit and irony). Not only did his anti-bureaucratic attitude attract important artists, but the exhibitions, films, talks, and happenings he programmed captured the imagination of a new generation of post-war Swedes looking for the “social” in social democracy. These events were, in fact, so successful with the public that attendance records at Moderna Museet often looked more like statistics from an amusement park than a contemporary art gallery.
Perhaps Hulten’s biggest strength was his ability to build bridges between individuals and institutions worldwide. He used Moderna Museet and all his future institutions as a stage for dialogue and experimentation. For someone like Rauschenberg, this meant that a peripheral space such as Moderna Museet became a welcomed opportunity to experiment with everything from art to technology. After his participation in Movement in Art, Rauschenberg would be invited back to the museum on numerous occasions to participate in exhibitions such as Four Americans (1962) and 5 New York Evenings (1964).
By the end of the 1960s, Hulten produced a parade of impressive exhibitions including 106 Forms of Love and Despair (the first major exhibition of pop art in Europe in 1964), She: A Cathedral (1966)—a “giant” critique against pop art by Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely, and Per-Olof Ultvedt consisting of a three-story amusement park in the form of a pregnant female figure (the entrance was between her legs), solo exhibitions by Claes Oldenburg (1966), Andy Warhol (1968), as well as the more overtly political Poetry Must be Made by All! Transform the World!, an exhibition in 1969 addressing a history of radical politics showcasing the likes of the Russian Constructivists, the Situationist International, Vietnam draft-dodgers, and the Black Panthers.
With this record, it is no surprise that he would be head-hunted by other institutions. While Hulten was hired to curate individual blockbuster exhibitions such as The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age (1968) at New York’s MoMA, he was also eventually invited to be in charge of a number of new and highly charged institutions. In 1973, he moved on to Paris where he became the founding director of the Centre Pompidou. Here he used his new-found power and financial flexibility to organize Paris-New York (1977), Paris–Berlin (1978), and Paris–Moscou (1979), exhibitions that recontextualized Paris in relation to the world’s other art capitals.
In 1981, Hulten expanded his horizon by moving to California where he became the founding director of Los Angeles’ MoCA, the city’s first contemporary art museum. This move was most likely spawned by his friendship with the painter Sam Francis and his own passion for sailing. By 1983, he had already returned to France where he convinced Daniel Buren and others to help him start up Institut des Hautes Études en Arts Plastiques, a new kind of art academy that wasn’t as focussed on creating students with degrees as much as it was meant to provide working artists with a social space in which to engage in long and serious discussions.
Palazzo Grassi in Venice made Hulten artistic director in 1985 and he took the opportunity to organize monumental exhibitions on his favorite subjects and artists such as Futurismo & Futurismi (1986), Jean Tinguely (1987), and Marcel Duchamp (1992). In 1990, he took on yet another role as founding director of Bonn’s Kunst und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Perhaps most fittingly, he became the director of the Museum Jean Tinguely in Basel, devoted to his best friend who had died in the late 1980s and whose anarchic machines had given expression to Hulten’s own political and philosophical vision in the early 1950s.
Artists didn’t work for Hulten, nor did Hulten work for artists. They worked together, jointly invigorating conversations about the contemporary world in an effort to keep art from turning static. Illustrated in the way he produced catalogues such as the one for the 1961 Movement in Art, Hulten’s very personal hand in an exhibition guaranteed that theory and practice were redesigned to make history.
About the Author
Patrik Andersson is Associate Professor in Critical and Cultural Studies at Emily Carr Institute. Since 1997, he has also been operating Trapp, an independent curatorial project.