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Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Biographical / Historical Note
  • Administrative Information
  • Related Materials
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Harald Szeemann papers
    Date (inclusive): 1836-2010, 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: Swiss art curator Harald Szeemann (1933-2005) organized more than 150 exhibitions during a career that spanned almost five decades. An advocate of movements such as conceptualism, land art, happenings, Fluxus and performance, and of artists such as Joseph Beuys, Richard Serra, Cy Twombly and Mario Merz, 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. He organized vast international surveys such as documenta 5, as well as retrospectives of individual artists including Sigmar Polke, Bruce Nauman, Wolfgang Laib, James Ensor, and Eugène Delacroix, and thematic exhibitions on such provocative topics as utopia, disaster, and the "Plateau of Humankind." 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 Series I. Project files, Series II. Artist files and Series IV. Photographs are 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 with some material in Italian, French, English and other languages.

    Biographical / Historical Note

    Among the most influential art curators of his generation, Harald Szeemann (Swiss, 1933-2005) organized more than 150 exhibitions during 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. In 1961 at the age of 28 he became one of the youngest museum directors in the world when he was appointed to head the Kunsthalle Bern. From 1961 to 1966, Szeemann was also in charge of the exhibition program at the Städtische Galerie Biel. Szeemann gained prominence through a lively and experimental series of exhibitions 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 twentieth-century modernism such as Dada and surrealism, including artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Kazimir Malevich, and Vassily Kandinsky, as well as various fields of visual culture such as Art Brut, science fiction and religious iconography.
    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, aided by a pioneering vision of fundraising. 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 5 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, the curator 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 representations. He continued to survey art-making from all parts of the world in the biennials he later organized in Lyon, Seville, and Gwangju, as well as when he returned to the Venice Biennale in both 1999 and 2001. Szeemann often tackled enormous themes that cut across regions and spanned the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with a stunningly original approach, as in his trilogy The Bachelor Machines (1975), Monte Verità: The breasts of truth (1978), and Tendency towards the Gesamtkunstwerk (1983), meant to give a visual account of the three main myths which, in his opinion, informed twentieth-century culture. Exhibitions focused on topics such as utopia, disaster, and the "Plateau of Humankind" offered sweeping and provocative surveys, while exhibitions such as Visionary Switzerland (1991), Austria in a Net of Roses (1996), Blood and Honey: the Future Lies in the Balkans (2003) and La Belgique Visionnaire België: C'est arrivé près de chez nous (2005) aimed at examining narrower topics and regions in interdisciplinary depth. Szeemann was also active on a local level in Ticino, Switzerland, where he organized several exhibitions and worked on various museum projects, among which Casa Anatta on Monte Verità, devoted to the history of the early 20th-century colony of anarchists, artists and life reformers, is to be counted among his greatest achievements.
    During his collaboration with Kunsthaus Zürich (1981-2000), Szeemann also became known for producing definitive survey exhibitions of individual artists, not only on contemporary artists such as Joseph Beuys, Georg Baselitz, and Bruce Nauman, but also on cultural icons such as Charles Baudelaire, Alfred Jarry and Egon Schiele. Szeemann's mid-1980s contemporary sculpture group exhibitions included Traces, Sculptures and Monuments of Their Precise Journey (1985) and De Sculptura (1986). He referred to these as "poems in space," and investigated the "breathing space" between artworks and within the exhibition venue. From that time onwards, he often embarked on big projects set in historical buildings including Deichtorhallen in Hamburg, Halle Tony Garnier in Lyon, and the Arsenale in Venice. It was the first time these locations showed contemporary art exhibitions.
    Even when collaborating with big institutions, Szeemann relied on the same team of independent partners for the technical aspects, believing that "only tribes survive." Long-term friends and coworkers include his wife Ingeborg Lüscher and daughter Una Szeemann, his son Jérôme Szeemann who was in charge of installation, architect Christoph Zürcher, model designer Peter Bissegger, and Josy Kraft who was in charge of transportation and storage.
    Szeemann began his personal archive in the late 1960s when, leaving the Kunsthalle Bern, he decided to bring a substantial part of the exhibition documentation with him. The archive grew significantly over the decades. Szeemann kept all documents and research material related to his projects, including all correspondence sent or received. The archive is not only a resource for the study of Szeemann's exhibitions, activities and interests, but is also an invaluable trove of rare gallery and museum ephemera such as invitation cards, press releases and posters from the 1960s to the 2000s. Previously scattered between Bern and Ticino, in the mid-1980s Szeemann permanently housed the entirety of the archive in a former watch factory in the village of Maggia, in Ticino, which Szeemann called the "Fabbrica Rosa" or "Pink Factory."
    The result of almost 50 years of professional activity, the archive might be considered as one of Szeemann's main achievements. Both a physical office and a tool for retrieving information, it functioned also as an instrument of self-representation, ranging from his high school years and theatrical experiments to his "Museum of Obsessions." The archive also afforded Szeemann the opportunity to personally write and partially rectify the history of his own professional life, and it is possible to trace examples of concealment through intentional "misfiling" of exhibitions he felt were unsatisfactory. The importance the Fabbrica Rosa played in the Szeemann's understanding of his own career is demonstrated by the fact that Szeemann had planned to retire from exhibition-making in 2006 and focus all his energies on the reordering of this archive. Unfortunately he died unexpectedly in 2005 at the age of 71.

    Administrative Information


    Series I, II and IV are open for use by qualified researchers with the following exceptions. Boxes 81, 214, 224, and RX are sealed pending further review. Boxes 82, 215, and 252-267 are unavailable until conservation treatment is completed. Box 1074B requires special handling; contact the repository regarding access. Audiovisual materials, nitrate negatives and computer files are unavailable until reformatting is complete. Boxes 1074C and 1074D are restricted due to fragility; contact repository to request digital imaging. 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, 1836-2010, bulk 1957-2005, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, Accession no. 2011.M.30.

    Acquisition Information

    Acquired in 2011.

    Processing History

    In 2012 and 2013 with grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), Holly Deakyne, Pietro Rigolo, Alexis Adkins, Alice Poulalion and Melanie Tran processed and cataloged Series I. The records were rehoused into archival containers from the boxes, plastic cartons and ringed binders in which they were found, and the original organization of the materials within these containers was retained. When possible, records from boxes of unsorted or unlabeled materials were identified and added to the end of the appropriate project.
    In 2013 and 2014 with grant funding from the NEH, Deakyne, Rigolo, Adkins, Heather Courtney, B. Karenina Karyadi, Emmabeth Nanol, Elena Salza, Laura Schroffel and Isabella Zuralski processed and cataloged Series II. The records were rehoused into archival containers from the wine boxes and manila folders in which they were found, and the original organization of the materials within these containers was retained. When possible, records from boxes of unsorted or unlabeled materials were identified and added to the appropriate artist.
    Adkins, 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 Adkins in consultation with Mesquit and are permanently restricted.
    The series are being processed out of order, with Series IV processed first, followed by Series I and II. As a result, the box numbers are non-sequential.

    Digital Collection

    Selected photographs are being digitized and made available online. Connect to selected digitized images from Series IV. Photographs, 1892-2007.  

    Related Materials

    Prior to the acquisition of the collection by the Getty Research Institute, some of the materials related to Monte Verità were separated by Harald Szeemann and given to the Fondazione Monte Verità in Ascona, Switzerland. The link to information about these materials is at http://www.monteverita.org/en/92/fondo-harald-szeemann.aspx .

    Scope and Content of Collection

    Harald Szeemann's vast archive documents his career as a visionary art 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, research files on a broad range of topics, a small group of personal papers, and business records. Only the project files in Series I, artist files in Series II, and the photographic material in Series IV are 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 I documents Szeemann's curatorial process from conception to installation, including his detailed notes, installation sketches, correspondence, building plans, exhibition announcements and checklists, wall texts, research material, and documents related to the production of didactic material, framing, and shipping. Some projects have files on the individual artists in the exhibition, and there is crossover with Series II. It also includes material related to other projects such as films, books, texts, seminars, lectures and awards ceremonies. Also documented are exhibitions Szeemann co-curated, for which he was consultant, or to which he contributed writings. The files were organized by Szeemann in chronological order, with unrealized projects integrated into the series.
    Series II contains artist files on more than 20,000 artists. While many files contain only one or two items, other files include artist correspondence, unique works of art, rare posters, and limited-edition items along with exhibition announcements and press clippings. Some exhibition records were relocated to the artist files by Szeemann, so there is crossover with Series I. Artist files are not limited to fine artists, but also include authors, musicians, filmmakers, and other creators. Szeemann accrued particularly extensive files on Joseph Beuys, James Lee Byars, Marcel Duchamp, Mario Merz, Antonin Artaud and Hugo Ball.
    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; and portraits and snapshots of Szeemann and his family.
    Series III and Series V-X are unprocessed. They will be opened for research when processing is complete. Series III contains Szeemann's files on and correspondence with other curators and art world figures. Series V contains records on his professional activities as a board member, art consultant, or university faculty member. Series VI contains hundreds of video recordings and some audio recordings, including video art, taped interviews and other documentation. In Series VII are Szeemann's research files on topics as disparate as dance and pataphysics. Series VIII contains the museum and gallery ephemera Szeemann acquired from hundreds of institutions around the world. His personal files in Series IX include correspondence with family and a small number of his school projects. Among Szeemann's business files in Series X are many years' worth of bank statements and other financial records.


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

    Indexing Terms

    Subjects - Names

    Andre, Carl, 1935-
    Bode, Arnold, 1900-1977
    Boltanski, Christian, 1944-
    Brus, Günter
    Buren, Daniel
    Christo, 1935-
    Cragg, Tony, 1949-
    Darboven, Hanne
    De Domizio Durini, Lucrezia
    De Maria, Walter, 1935-
    Distel, Herbert
    Duchamp, Marcel, 1887-1968
    Ensor, James, 1860-1949
    Flavin, Dan, 1933-1996
    Heizer, Michael, 1944-
    Jarry, Alfred, 1873-1907
    Jeanne-Claude, 1935-2009
    Johns, Jasper, 1930-
    Judd, Donald, 1928-1994
    Kienholz, Edward, 1927-1994
    Klein, Yves, 1928-1962
    Kowalski, Piotr, 1927-2004
    Kunz, Emma, 1892-1963
    Laib, Wolfgang, 1950-
    LeWitt, Sol, 1928-2007
    Lijn, Liliane, 1939-
    Lischetti, Carlo E., 1946-
    Long, Richard, 1945-
    Martin, Étienne, 1913-1995
    Medalla, David, 1942-
    Merz, Marisa
    Nauman, Bruce, 1941-
    Nitsch, Hermann, 1938-
    Oldenburg, Claes, 1929-
    Oppenheim, Meret, 1913-1985
    Picabia, Francis, 1879-1953
    Polke, Sigmar
    Rhoades, Jason, 1965-2006
    Roth, Dieter, 1930-1998
    Ryman, Robert, 1930-
    Rätz, Markus
    Rückriem, Ulrich
    Schulthess, Armand, 1900-1972
    Schwitters, Kurt, 1887-1948
    Serra, Richard, 1939-
    Sonnier, Keith, 1941-
    Soto, Jesús Rafael, 1923-2005
    Spitzer, Serge, 1951-2012
    Spoerri, Daniel, 1930-
    Szeemann, Harald
    Tinguely, Jean, 1925-1991
    Toroni, Niele, 1937-
    Tuttle, Richard, 1941-
    Twombly, Cy, 1928-2011
    Vautier, Ben, 1935-
    Warhol, Andy, 1928-1987
    West, Franz, 1947-2012
    Wölfli, Adolf, 1864-1930

    Subjects - Corporate Bodies

    Biennale di Venezia
    Festival internazionale del film di Locarno

    Subjects - Topics

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

    Genres and Forms of Material

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


    Beeren, Wim
    Beuys, Joseph
    Bezzola, Leonardo
    Boersma, Pieter
    Burkhard, Balthasar
    Byars, James Lee
    Cotton, Paul, 1939-
    Drayer, Walter
    Eggmann, Verena
    Fellerer, Margarethe, 1886-1961
    Gaechter & Clausen
    Geluwe, Johan van, 1929-
    Hellgroth, Brigitte
    Lüscher, Ingeborg, 1936-
    Merola, Andrea
    Merz, Mario
    Mühl, Otto
    Rabinowitch, Royden, 1943-
    Sattmann, Didi, 1951-
    Shunk, Harry
    Wehrmann, Erhard, 1930-2004