Jump to Content

Collection Guide
Collection Title:
Collection Number:
Get Items:
View entire collection guide What's This?
PDF (0.69 Mb) HTML
Search this collection
Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Biographical / Historical Note
  • Administrative Information
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Harald Szeemann papers
    Date (inclusive): 1892-2010, bulk 1957-2005
    Number: 2011.M.30
    Creator/Collector: Szeemann, Harald
    Physical Description: 1400.0 linear feet
    The Getty Research Institute
    Special Collections
    1200 Getty Center Drive, Suite 1100
    Los Angeles, California, 90049-1688
    (310) 440-7390
    Abstract: Harald Szeemann's vast archive traces his career as a visionary curator of more than 200 exhibitions over the course of almost five decades, from 1957 to 2005. An advocate of movements such as conceptualism, land art, Happenings, and performance, and of artists such as Joseph Beuys, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, and Cy Twombly, Szeemann developed a new form of "exhibition-making" that centered on close collaborative relationships with artists and a sweeping global vision of contemporary visual culture. His papers thoroughly document his curatorial practice, including preliminary notes for many projects, written descriptions and proposals for exhibitions, installation sketches, photographic documentation, research files, and extensive correspondence with colleagues, artists and collaborators. At this time, only the photographic material in Series IV is available for research. The remainder of the archive is unprocessed. Each series will be opened for use as processing is completed.
    Request Materials: Request access to the physical materials described in this inventory through the catalog record  for this collection. Click here for the access policy .
    Language: Collection material is primarily in German

    Biographical / Historical Note

    Perhaps the most influential curator of his generation, Harald Szeemann (Swiss, 1933-2005) organized more than 200 exhibitions over a career that spanned almost five decades. He studied art history, archaeology and journalism in Bern and Paris and had a brief but successful theatrical career before he organized his first exhibition in 1957. At age 28 he became one of the youngest museum directors in the world when he was appointed to head the Kunsthalle Bern in 1961. Szeemann gained prominence for a lively and experimental series of exhibitions at the Kunsthalle Bern that included early projects with Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, and Christo. In addition to showcasing current developments in contemporary art such as kinetic art, op art, and Happenings, Szeemann also examined areas of early 20th-century modernism such as Dada and surrealism, and artists such as Duchamp, Malevich, and Kandinsky.
    Following his 1969 exhibition Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form, a sprawling and controversial international survey of postminimalism and arte povera, Szeemann left the Kunsthalle Bern to become an independent curator. Calling his business the "Agentur für geistige Gastarbeit," or "Agency for Spiritual Guest-Labor," Szeemann developed a new form of "exhibition-making" that centered on close collaborative relationships with artists and a sweeping global vision of contemporary visual culture. Because he traveled extensively and frequently, he was able to integrate emerging developments from disparate parts of the world into exhibitions that became touchstones of their time. Taking on the organization of Documenta V in 1972, Szeemann transformed the exhibition into a vast and dynamic 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. He continued to survey art-making from all parts of the world in the biennials he later organized in Lyon, Seville, and Kwangju, as well as his return to the Venice Biennale in both 1999 and 2001.
    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 interdisciplinary depth. Szeemann also became known for producing definitive survey exhibitions of individual artists - 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. Szeemann died in 2005 at the age of 71, shortly before the opening of his exhibition Visionary Belgium.

    Administrative Information


    Series IV is open for use by qualified researchers with the following exceptions. Boxes 81, 214, and 224 are sealed pending further review. Boxes 82, 215, and 252-267 are unavailable until conservation treatment is completed. Audiovisual materials, nitrate negatives and computer files are unavailable until reformatted. The remainder of the archive is unprocessed. Each series will be opened for use as processing is completed.

    Publication Rights

    Preferred Citation

    Harald Szeemann papers, 1892-2010, bulk 1957-2005, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, Accession no. 2011.M.30.

    Acquisition Information

    Acquired in 2011.

    Processing History

    Alexis Adkins, Laura Schroffel, Medria Martin and Emmabeth Nanol processed and cataloged Series IV under the supervision of Andra Darlington. Szeemann's original organization of the material was retained, and previously unfiled items were integrated into the orginal order whenever possible.
    Conservation treatment for some of the photographs was done by Mark Benson and Teresa Mesquit. Nitrate negatives were rehoused by Alexis Adkins in consultation with Teresa Mesquit and are permanently restricted.
    The series are being processed out of order, with Series IV being processed first, followed by Series I (to becompleted July 2013) and Series II (to be completed July 2014). As a result, the box numbers are non-sequential.

    Scope and Content of Collection

    Harald Szeemann's vast archive documents his career as a visionary curator for almost five decades, from 1957 to 2005. Included are project files tracing the development of numerous exhibitions and other projects, extensive correspondence with noted artists and cultural figures throughout the world, photographic documentation of exhibitions and artworks, video art and recorded interviews, exhibition announcements and other ephemera from hundreds of museums and galleries, Szeemann's research files on a broad range of topics, a small group of personal papers, and his business records. Only the photographic material in series IV is open for research at this time. The remainder of the archive is unprocessed. Each series will be opened for research as processing is completed.
    Series IV contains more than 40,500 photographic prints, negatives, slides, and transparencies. Included is extensive documentation of many of Szeemann's exhibitions and other projects; photographs of artists with whom he worked and their individual artworks and performances; a collection of portraits of the Monte Verità intellectual circle by photographer Margarethe Fellerer; Szeemann's slide library, including slideshows compiled for lectures; collections of photographs reflecting Szeemann's interdisciplinary subject interests with a focus on cultural sites and geographic locations; portraits and snapshots of Szeemann and his family.
    The project files in Series I are currently being processed and will be open for use in July 2013. This series documents Szeemann's curatorial process from conception to installation, including his detailed notes, installation sketches, correspondence, building plans, exhibition announcements and checklists, and documents related to the production of didactic material, framing, and shipping.
    Series II is currently unprocessed. This series will be available for use in July 2014. The artist files in series II include extensive correspondence with hundreds of artists, unique drawings, rare posters, and other limited-edition items. Files are not limited to visual artists, but also include poets, playwrights and other culteral figures. Szeemann accrued particularly extensive files on Joseph Beuys, Marcel Duchamp, Antonin Artaud, and Hugo Ball, among others.
    Series III and Series V-IX are unprocessed. They will be opened for research when processing is complete. Series III contains Szeemann's files on other curators and art world figures. Series V contains hundreds of video recordings and some audio recordings, including video art, taped interviews and other documentation. In Series VI are Szeemann's research files on topics as disparate as dance and pataphysics. Series VII contains the museum and gallery ephemera Szeemann acquired from hundreds of institutions around the world. His personal files in Series VIII include correspondence with family and a small number of his school projects. Among Szeemann's business files in Series IX are many years' worth of bank statements and other financial records.


    The collection is arranged in nine series: Series I. Project files; Series II. Artist files; Series III. Curator files; Series IV. Photographs; Series V. Videos; Series VI. Topical files; Series VII. Ephemera; Series VIII. Personal papers; Series IX. Business files.

    Indexing Terms

    Subjects - Names

    Beuys, Joseph
    Boltanski, Christian, 1944-
    Byars, James Lee
    Christo, 1935-
    De Maria, Walter, 1935-
    Duchamp, Marcel, 1887-1968
    Heizer, Michael, 1944-
    Jarry, Alfred, 1873-1907
    Kienholz, Edward, 1927-1994
    Kowalski, Piotr, 1927-2004
    Laib, Wolfgang, 1950-
    Merz, Mario
    Nauman, Bruce, 1941-
    Nitsch, Hermann, 1938-
    Oldenburg, Claes, 1929-
    Polke, Sigmar
    Rabinowitch, Royden, 1943-
    Rätz, Markus
    Schulthess, Armand, 1900-1972
    Serra, Richard, 1939-
    Sonnier, Keith, 1941-
    Soto, Jesús Rafael, 1923-2005
    Szeemann, Harald
    Tinguely, Jean, 1925-1991
    Toroni, Niele, 1937-
    Twombly, Cy, 1928-2011
    Vautier, Ben, 1935-
    Warhol, Andy, 1928-1987

    Subjects - Topics

    Art museum curators
    Art, Modern--20th century
    Conceptual Art
    Earthworks (Art)
    Fluxus (Group of artists)
    Happening (Art)
    Installations (Art)
    Monte Verità (Artists' colony)
    Museum curators--Correspondence
    Performance art

    Genres and Forms of Material

    Black-and-white negatives
    Color negatives
    Color photographs
    Color slides--20th century
    Color transparencies
    Ephemera--20th century
    Gelatin silver prints--20th century


    Beeren, Wim
    Bezzola, Leonardo
    Boersma, Pieter
    Burkhard, Balthasar
    Drayer, Walter
    Eggmann, Verena
    Fellerer, Margarethe, 1886-1961
    Gaechter & Clausen
    Hellgroth, Brigitte
    Merola, Andrea
    Sattmann, Didi, 1951-
    Shunk, Harry
    Wehrmann, Erhard, 1930-2004