Jump to Content

Collection Guide
Collection Title:
Collection Number:
Get Items:
Finding aid for the Harald Szeemann papers
View entire collection guide What's This?
PDF (4.10 Mb) HTML
Search this collection
Collection Details
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): 1800-2011, bulk 1949-2005
    Number: 2011.M.30
    Creator/Collector: Szeemann, Harald
    Physical Description: 1943.28 linear feet (3798 boxes, 448 flatfiles, 6 crates, 3 bins, 24 reels)
    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 contemporary 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; 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." Szeemann's 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.
    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. Szeemann 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 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, conceptual art, 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, a one-man enterprise relying on a group of independent partners, 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 of exhibitions The Bachelor Machines (1975), Monte Verità: The breasts of truth (1978), and Tendency towards the Gesamtkunstwerk (1983). 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 became known for producing definitive solo exhibitions, not only on contemporary artists such as Joseph Beuys, Georg Baselitz, and Bruce Nauman, but on such cultural icons 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 them as "poems in space," and investigated the "breathing space" between artworks and within the exhibition venue. From the late 1980s onward, he often embarked on large-scale 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 hosted contemporary art exhibitions.
    Even when collaborating with large institutions, Szeemann relied on the same team of independent partners for the technical aspects, believing that "only tribes survive." Long-term friends and coworkers included his wife Ingeborg Lüscher, an artist; daughter Una Szeemann, also an artist; 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's parents were Julie Szeemann-Kambly (1907-2005) and Étienne Ernst Szeemann (1904-1958), and his younger brother was Rolf Szeemann (1935-1994). His father worked in a salon owned by Szeemann's grandfather, Étienne Szeemann (1873-1971), a successful hair stylist during the early 20th century, who was the subject of Szeemann's exhibition Grandfather - a pioneer like us . Szeemann married twice, the first time to Françoise Bonnefoy (1934-) in 1959. He has three children: Jérôme (1959-) and Valérie (1964-) from his first marriage, and Una (1975-) with Lüscher.
    Szeemann began his personal archive in the late 1960s when, leaving the Kunsthalle Bern, he decided to take a substantial part of the documentation for his exhibitions 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. In the mid-1980s Szeemann permanently housed the entire archive in a former watch factory in the village of Maggia, in Ticino, which Szeemann called the "Fabbrica Rosa" or "Pink Factory." Previously it had been scattered between his homes in Ticino, Bern, and Civitanova Marche.
    The result of almost 50 years of professional activity, the archive can be considered 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 of his energies on reordering this archive. Unfortunately he died unexpectedly in 2005 at the age of 71 before realizing his plan.

    Administrative Information


    Open for use by qualified researchers with the following exceptions.
    Unreformatted audiovisual materials, nitrate negatives and computer files are unavailable. Contact repository to request reformatting.
    Boxes 81, 214, 224, 2409, 2418, RX and RX2 are sealed pending further review. Boxes 230-267 contain nitrate negatives and are restricted.
    Boxes 82, 215, and 1074B require special handling; contact the repository regarding access. Box 2885A is restricted due to fragility; contact the repository regarding access. Boxes 1074C and 1074D are restricted due to fragility; contact repository to request digital imaging. Boxes B-13**, B-16**, B-43**, B-48**, B-79**, B-81**, B-83**, B-84**, B-86**, 3741**-3743**, 3765*-3767* and TP-drawers are housed off-site and only open for use with the curator's permission. Contact repository regarding access. Boxes 320-321, 924, 2955-3028*, 2966**, 3716-3730, 3727*, 3748-3754, 3755*-3757*, TP59A-TP59B, TP77-TP78, and 3109* are currently only open for use with the curator's permission. Contact the repository regarding access. Boxes 2214-2312, 2315-2346, 2353-2360 and 3513-3531 contain unreformatted audiovisual materials and are restricted; all reels are also restricted; contact the repository for reformatting of items in these boxes on reels.
    The digital files are accessible on a laptop in the Special Collections Reading Room. All files except emails are available as a mounted disk image in a Windows environment. The emails are on the laptop as imported PST files accessible through a Microsoft Outlook client. Digital files containing restricted personal information such as third-party bank account numbers or student records are restricted until 2081.

    Publication Rights

    Preferred Citation

    Harald Szeemann papers, 1800-2011, bulk 1949-2005, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, Accession no. 2011.M.30.

    Acquisition Information

    Acquired in 2011.

    Processing History

    From January to June 2012, 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 Adkins in consultation with Mesquit and are permanently restricted.
    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 files.
    In 2013 and 2014, with grant funding from the NEH, Deakyne, Rigolo, Adkins, Heather Courtney, B. Karenina Karyadi, Emmabeth Nanol, Elena Salza, Laura Schroffel, Sue Tyson, Xiaoda Wang, 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 files.
    In 2014 to 2015, Rigolo processed and cataloged Series III.
    In 2014 to 2015, Lindsey Sommer processed and cataloged Series IX under the supervision of Rigolo.
    In 2015, Sommer processed and cataloged Series VIII under the supervision of Rigolo.
    In 2015, Wang and Sommer processed the posters and works of art that were housed separately in tubes and flatfiles at the Fabbrica, and incorporated them in to Series I and Series II.
    In 2015, Deakyne, Rigolo, Wang, and Judy Chou processed and cataloged Series VII. The materials 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, materials from boxes of unsorted or unlabeled materials were identified and added to the appropriate city.
    In 2015, Sue Tyson processed and cataloged Series VI. The materials were rehoused into archival containers from the wine boxes and manila folders in which they were found. When possible, unsorted or unlabeled materials were identified and added to the appropriate category.
    In 2013 Shay Cornelius began processing Series V. She assessed the condition of the audiovisual material and began an inventory. Tyson finished processing and cataloging the bulk of the series in 2015. The audiovisual materials were rehoused into archival containers or left in the original containers when appropriate. Wang processed and cataloged additional materials in 2016, and the cataloging was completed by Deakyne in 2016.
    The series are being processed out of order, with Series IV having been processed first, followed by Series I, II, III, IX, VIII, VII, VI, and V. As a result, the box numbers are non-sequential.
    In 2015 and 2016 Deakyne and Wang processed Series X. Deakyne accessioned the digital files in 2015 by forensically imaging the disk drive for preservation. She and Wang reviewed and processed the disk image using Forensic Toolkit (FTK) in 2015 and 2016. Processing included flagging files to be ignored, such as .tmp, thumb.db, shortcuts, zero byte files and files with the file name [deleted]. Also flagged were email trash and spam folders. The files were searched for personally identified information (PII) such as ID numbers, bank account numbers, credit card numbers, and student records. Any PII from third-parties was flagged as restricted. A new disk image containing only documents and emails and excludng all flagged items was created for access. Email PST files were exported from this disk image for access. Deakyne mounted the subsidiary disk image and loaded email onto a non-networked laptop that is available for research.
    Deakyne, Maggie Hughes, and Wang interfiled additional materials to all series and enhanced description from 2015 to 2016.

    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.
    Series I documents Szeemann's curatorial process from conception to installation ("from vision to nail"), 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. The project files also include 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 a consultant, or to which he contributed writings. The files were organized by Szeemann in chronological order. Unrealized projects have been integrated into the series by the archivist using the earliest date mentioned in the records.
    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, Gilbert Clavel, Marcel Duchamp, Mario Merz, Antonin Artaud, and Hugo Ball.
    Series III contains Szeemann's files on and correspondence with other curators and art world figures, including architects, gallerists, art critics, art historians, choreographers, collectors, and photographers. Correspondence with catalog contributors and other collaborators to his exhibitions can be found here, as well as materials on art associations, magazines, companies, awards, publishing houses, and fairs.
    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 V comprises Szeemann's audiovisual collection of approximately 2240 items including films and videos submitted by artists, radio and television interviews, music, photographic and textual files regarding exhibitions or artists, and materials received from museums and galleries. Some of the material has been separated from other series. Formats include VHS, compact discs, vinyl records, DVDs, audiocassettes, CD-ROMs, CD-Rs, floppy disks, and film and audiotape reels.
    Series VI documents Szeemann's research interests in wide range subject areas including fine and graphic arts; art collectors and publishing houses; dance and choreography; film, video, and broadcast media; literature and philosophy; music; theater; countries, regions, and cities in Europe and around the globe; people; politics, environment and society; and assorted topics he collected under the rubric Temi (themes). Materials include clippings from newspapers, magazines, and press bureaus; brochures and pamphlets; publications including books, journals, and newsletters; photographic materials; postcards; drawings; posters; theater and film programs; calendars; city guidebooks; and maps.
    Series VII contains the ephemera Szeemann collected from hundreds of museums and galleries throughout the world. He also collected ephemera from international exhibitions, festivals, symposiums and workshops, and other events. Materials include brochures, booklets; exhibition and institution guides; catalogs; correspondence in the form of faxes, emails, postcards and letters; posters; price lists; ticket stubs; and city guidebooks; and, less frequently, items such as matches; pins; shopping bags; and coasters.
    Series VIII includes family correspondence; materials collected by Szeemann about individuals in his family; materials collected by his family about his death including obituaries and condolence letters; and objects.
    Series IX reflects Szeemann's business activities and contains many years' worth of bank statements, receipts, and other financial records created or used by Szeemann during the course of travel or work, with a small portion covering personal family expenses, such as tuition and house repairs.
    Series X contains Szeemann's hard drive which includes his emails from Microsoft Outlook; and other files, mostly JPG, BMP, PDF, TIF, HTM, and Microsoft Word, primarily relating to artists and exhibitions.


    The collection is arranged in ten series: Series I. Project files; Series II. Artist files; Series III. Curator and museum professional files; Series IV. Photographs; Series V. Audiovisual; Series VI. Topical; Series VII. Gallery and museum ephemera; Series VIII. Personal files; Series IX. Business files; Series X. Digital 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