Space and Time for New Art
The Hallen für Neue Kunst as a consequence of an altered understanding of art
by Christel Sauer
The Hallen für Neue Kunst in Schaffhausen was a manifesto for the art of a generation who wanted to foster an awareness of the role of the individual in a general process of change. In a paradigmatic presentation inside a transformed industrial building, visitors experienced pioneering installations by artists who have given the appearance and function of art a seminal new significance.
As the work of the artist Urs Raussmüller, the Hallen für Neue Kunst embodied the principle of an innovative, active approach. Raussmüller’s clear, open architecture, and the unconventional presentation of the works, allowed the art to come to full effect in exemplary fashion. The “Schaffhausen model” exerted an international influence and brought about a change in the understanding of “museum”.
The Hallen für Neue Kunst was completed between 1982 and 1984, whereby Raussmüller’s first long-term installation of around fifty works by Robert Ryman was already put in place in 1983. The impact of his concept and his exhibition spaces upon the artists involved was extraordinarily motivating. The New York Times wrote: “If you are really interested in seeing work of the highest calibre, very well presented, then it is necessary to visit Schaffhausen.”
Christel Raussmüller Sauer was her husband’s closest collaborator from the very beginning. Together they ran the Hallen für Neue Kunst for thirty years, before closing the institution in 2014 and relocating their activities to Basel. In 2004, to mark twenty years of the Hallen für Neue Kunst, Christel Sauer wrote a text on the conception of the pioneering art venue.1 Her text is reproduced here in slightly revised and abbreviated form. In order to preserve its immediacy, the use of the present tense has been left unchanged.
The publication “Das Kapital Raum 1970-1977 & Die Hallen für Neue Kunst Schaffhausen – The Creation of a Work”, published in 2012, is available in the Raussmüller webshop.
In the 1960s a fundamental shift towards a new understanding of art took place in the Western world. In a broad movement, the aim was to develop new forms for new content – not only in art, but in all social spheres. The need for change generated a visionary potential, which in Europe as well as the USA demonstrated itself in exemplary manner in art. On both continents, albeit in different ways, art was understood as a means of enlightenment and assigned an active role in the context of a comprehensive process of opening. Based on their firm belief in a society capable of change, artists saw it as their task to act upon the consciousness of the viewer. They created works which rescinded prevailing expectations in terms of their message and appearance, and turned them into catalysts for insights and creative experiences.
The art of that time – despite its complexity, soon labelled in simplified fashion as Minimal Art, Conceptual Art, Arte Povera, Process Art, etc. – confronts viewers with unexpected physical directness. In most cases three-dimensional and with a bulky presence, the works spread out as dispassionately precise sequences or unconventionally fabricated structures across floors or walls, to which they are occasionally also firmly attached. They are a rejection of conventional values in their materials and, repeatedly, a challenge to perception in their dimensions. They consist of prefabricated elements such as fluorescent tubes or bricks (Minimal Art) or of found objects from everyday life and nature (Arte Povera). Without pedestals and frames, they are neither picture nor sculpture and are called, rather awkwardly, installation. Since the “erweiterter Kunstbegriff”2, or “expanded concept of art” of this period, the installation has become key to the diversity of media and materials employed by the following generations.
In the mood of new departure around 1970, art indeed acquired a freedom it had never known before. Since the goal of the artistic process was no longer the art object as such, but the process of perception and cognition of its recipients, a work of art could in principle take on any form.3 What mattered was that it functioned. The artwork had become an instrument that assumed an active role in the general strategy of sensitisation. It drew the intensity it needed for this from the high degree of its immediacy: reality became the yardstick of its substance. Artists such as Carl Andre, Jannis Kounellis and Bruce Nauman no longer reacted to the world in an illustrative way, but created works that appeared as their own reality. Viewers found themselves in front of facts, whose appearance and effect were based on the properties of the works themselves. What is more: the elements of the real world – such as space, light, time and the surrounding environment as a whole – became components of this art. And that also included the viewers.
Never before in the history of art had viewers been incorporated into the conception of artworks in comparable fashion as at this time. Having seen themselves, up to this point, only as addressees of art, they suddenly found themselves involved as participants in a process aimed at themselves. They were confronted with works that invited direct utilisation. This placed demands on the viewers, for now they had to become active. The New Art literally set them in motion. Through their physical quality, the works motivate the viewers to take a closer look, to change their standpoint and thus to engage in communication. Art thereby hides or disguises nothing from them: everything that is needed to experience the work of art is actually and visibly present. There is no illusion; potentially, however, there is an existential experience of perception. But this very experience also includes a rejection of prejudices. For this art neither delivers fast (visual) messages nor can it be passively consumed. And it is also not easy to handle – to install and then take down again. It requires time and space for its effect.
With their new characteristics, the works of this period of upheaval are an opposition against a convenient dealing with art as prestige item and commodity. But they are also its victims. Not created for the museums, these works could be experienced almost nowhere, and by the time interest in this art increased, some of them had already ceased to exist.4 The demand for space that would be appropriate to their presentation and storage ran counter to the economy of contemporary art galleries. On the other hand, the artists were not always able to store their works once exhibitions had been dismantled. Provided that gallery owners disposed of sufficient space and were convinced of the importance of their artists, they looked after the works – often in less than ideal fashion. The number of collectors was initially only small. The majority tended to buy small pieces, photographs or objects that could be accommodated on the walls of their homes.
The in part delicate character of these works, moreover, with their combinations of materials undertaken spontaneously and with no claim to longevity, did not necessarily suggest to contemporaries that the body of such artworks should be given a future. Most art historians, as a rule versed in evaluating art against traditional criteria, lacked the prerequisites in order to be able to correctly assess the new developments and their probable relevance. (Art history’s preoccupation with artistic phenomena of the present day is relatively new and has only spread since the massively increased commercial importance of art). Conservators turned away at a loss, and curators confined their engagement at best to temporary exhibitions. Even at a time when the achievements of their creators were already recognized and appreciated, the works were rarely to be seen in larger contexts and, above all, were not on long-term display. The discourse over the new developments in art was chiefly conducted at the theoretical level, in art journals and exhibition catalogues.
The anti-institutional stance of the artists was indeed problematic for the reception of their works when it came to giving these the necessary presence. The artists themselves had also gradually become aware that their non-conformist creations had a right to existence and effect. Above all, however, these works needed to be able to be physically experienced if they were to fulfil their function as instrument. The involuntary renunciation of the sensory perception of installations, and the simultaneous interest in the theoretical manifestos of artists and critics, meant that sight was increasingly lost of the physical qualities of the New Art. Usually reproduced in inadequate fashion and with no reference to their physical scale, the works were often misunderstood as “head art” and intellectual constructs and, on the basis of their lack of presence, provoked, for instance, “gut art” reactions from young artists.5
There was a need, in other words, for structures that were in accordance with the aims and properties of the New Art. For years only latently felt, this need expressed itself above all in the artists’ unease over the lack of suitable places for their works. It is true that new museums of contemporary art were springing up in growing numbers, but these focused their primary interest less on artistic content than on ambitious architecture. Not without reason, the artists feared the subordination of their works to architectural stipulations that conflicted with their convictions. After the opening of the new Stuttgart Staatsgalerie in 1984, Joseph Beuys and Jannis Kounellis, for example, expressed their concerns over architect James Stirling’s perception of himself and his role, after he had called the use of his rooms for such art an imposition on his architecture. The artist who later drew the most resolute conclusion from this set of circumstances was Donald Judd, who created his own, holistically conceived space for art in Marfa, Texas.
This was the situation when, in 1982, we embarked on the construction of the Hallen für Neue Kunst, completed in 1984. Urs Raussmüller, himself an artist, recognized early on the need to give the new, spatial works being created by his colleagues a place where they could take effect.6 In order to make the decisive leap that led to the founding of the Hallen für Neue Kunst in Schaffhausen, however, it needed a particular reason. This was provided by the artist Joseph Beuys. Beuys needed a space with which he could permanently unite his installation Das Kapital Raum 1970–1977 and make it accessible to the public. Raussmüller had already promised him this space before Beuys showed the installation at the Venice Biennale in 1980 – not knowing, at that time, how far-reaching his pledge would be. Only upon seeing the work in Venice did Raussmüller appreciate the requirements he would need to fulfil in order to realize the work. His search for suitable premises finally ended in Schaffhausen, where – in a wing of the disused Schoeller spinning mill – he not only built an adequate space for Das Kapital Raum 1970–1977, but created an entire institution.
The Hallen für Neue Kunst – the name, which means “Halls for New Art”7, speaks for itself – was born out of a firm belief in an art that is direct and not fictive. The understanding of the works as facts was the premise underpinning the design of the institution. Everything was to be able to be what it is: the art, the space, the light, and not least the visitors. Raussmüller’s procedure in his realization of the Hallen für Neue Kunst was based neither on architectural nor on art-historical considerations, but on an artistic behaviour in which the element of intuition, not planning, hallmarks the result. The roots of the holistic effect achieved by the Hallen für Neue Kunst – an effect that continues to relay itself even after twenty years – probably lie in this approach. It was certainly pivotal in terms of the response of the artists involved. Robert Ryman, for example, spontaneously displayed his willingness to complement the holdings of his paintings with important loans; Mario Merz installed an entire Villaggio on the available space with tables and igloos; and Joseph Beuys was motivated, together with Urs Raussmüller in the space the latter had created specifically for the environment, to make Das Kapital Raum 1970–1977 into a legacy whose impact would endure beyond his lifetime.
It was part of the concept, right from the start, to forgo the concepts and organisational forms that would have jeopardised an open approach. We thought neither in the category of museum, collection nor exhibition, but tried to create a suitable platform for the artistic achievements that had opened up a new dimension for art since the 1960s. On the basis of a minimal operational structure and with plenty of room for the works, the aim was to create a venue for art as artists would wish it. The functional character of the architecture was intended to give art the freedom of scope that it claimed in its conception and appearance, and to allow it to unfold without restriction. Visitors, too, were to profit from the art’s freedom of scope, since there is no sequence and no hierarchy in the presentation of this art. The understanding of the works as a means of acting upon the consciousness of the viewer was key to the institution’s understanding of itself. The Hallen für Neue Kunst was intended to communicate itself as a work that is capable of relaying creative processes.
Looking back, the choice of an industrial building for the exhibition of large-scale three-dimensional art seems an obvious decision, but at that time it was truly an invention. Among the most popular commissions for architects in the early 1980s was the building of new museums and municipal art galleries, and the idea of repurposing existing structures that did not exactly lend themselves to cultural use in the same way as palaces or castles, still lay outside the conventional mindset. The Hallen für Neue Kunst thus became a prototype for the conversion of factory halls into art museums and – in an era of lavish, often politically motivated museum buildings – made an immediate and forceful impact. From a financial point of view, it embodied a remarkably inexpensive solution and at the same time exerted a strong influence on the aesthetic concepts of subsequent projects. Today it can boast of having served internationally as a source of inspiration in terms of conception, content and design.8
The Hallen für Neue Kunst represents a section from art history, of a kind that is unique in Europe in this concentration. As a focal point for the installative art of the first generation, the Hallen offers space to an art movement that, like none before it, has made space its material. Many artists of the day played an active part in this development, but only a few made an enduring mark upon it with independent concepts. When it came to the selection of works to be displayed, we decided against a broad representation of the phenomenon of the times, and opted in favour of twelve trailblazers.9 Rather than being filled with a large number of artists, the abundant space was subdivided into larger areas in such a way that, for each of the protagonists, a characteristic overview of their work took shape. Even if the number and arrangement of the works are in each case different, their installation is always such that they convey the intentions of their artist. It is possible even for unprepared visitors to put themselves in the picture, as it were, without a guided tour or reading material, simply by looking at the works.
In the years since the founding of the Hallen für Neue Kunst, many museums have begun to present their holdings in terms of specific themes.10 Back then, by contrast, the concept of “restriction” was a surprise. Through the focus on the pioneers, and the density of their work groups, there were no quality gaps in overall terms. All the artists represented are judged by art history to be of comparable significance. All of them, in the 1960s, had initiated the process of change in art with their own concepts, and each had lent their own works a unique and distinctive outer appearance. The concentration on a relatively short period of time and a limited number of artists proved to be particularly revealing: bearing in mind that it represents a section from art history, it emphasizes the complexity that distinguishes this section.
In the Hallen für Neue Kunst, it quite soon becomes clear to unbiased viewers that the selection and installation of the works serves not to confirm art-theoretical categorisations but, on the contrary, to reinforce independent positions. Against the backdrop of the artists’ common will to innovate, the individual forms in which their ideas find expression become increasingly apparent – not only in a comparison between American and European concepts, but also within closer networks of relationships. The term “Arte Povera” proves visibly misleading in the face of the rich and strikingly different creations of Jannis Kounellis and Mario Merz, and the would-be key of “Minimal Art” hinders access to the different nature of the oeuvres of American artists, rather than helping to open the door. Instead, the Hallen für Neue Kunst reveals itself as a rich fund of unexpected discoveries. Simply studying and comparing the materials and their use is enough in itself to yield a wealth of insights. These confirm the function of the artworks as triggers of processes of perception and instil in visitors the awareness of an enriching experience.
In the Hallen für Neue Kunst, the generous scale of the architectural situation easily becomes a yardstick for the dimensions of the art on display. Occasionally, visitors fail to register the actual dimensions of the works, because their proportions seem so natural in relation to the surrounding room. When a painting such as Light Ellipse/Grey Frame (1989) by Robert Mangold, measuring 2.15 x 4.5 metres, holds a wall, this seems quite normal. Chiaro Oscuro (1984), the smallest of Mario Merz’s igloos in the Hallen für Neue Kunst, is a dark brushwood hemisphere lit by neon numbers from the Fibonacci sequence. It has a diameter of 5.5 metres, yet in the context of the Hallen für Neue Kunst reveals a surprising poetic delicacy. In the case of Bruce Nauman’s Floating Room (1972), too, only once inside does the viewer become aware that the work corresponds to a room of almost 24 square metres. Its relation to the viewer’s physical size then acts like a wide-angle lens, which moves the walls apart and underscores the discrepancy, typical of Nauman, between expectation and experience. Such surprises are all the greater because the works appear wholly undramatic in their architectural surroundings – as if their dimensions were perfectly natural.
The dimension of time played a particular role in our reflections. Art was to have not only a place, but also time in which to take effect. Contrary to what was becoming increasingly common in museums of art, the Hallen für Neue Kunst was concerned not with implementing a changing programme of exhibitions, but with giving selected works a presence. Unverified as they still were, these works were to be able to prove their validity. Above all, however, their static quality was to come into play. Seen in this light, the Hallen für Neue Kunst functions as a calm setting for an enhanced experience of art. Viewers have the opportunity to experience the works on display under changing conditions. These changing conditions may result from external influences, such as fluctuating levels of natural light, but they can depend even more upon the different sensibilities of the viewers themselves. These include their moods and experiences, their growing familiarity with the works, and their resulting perception of how they themselves have changed.
New Art differs from the framed works of earlier epochs in the way it takes effect. Since the frame is missing, the work is exposed much more directly to its surroundings. In other words, the entire environment of a work of art becomes its frame. This means that, ultimately, not only is the artwork exhibited, but its viewers, too, “exhibit” themselves in their encounter with the work. In the static presence of the art object, with the subtle modulations of an environment in principle staying the same, they can “see” the process of their increasingly more differentiating perception. The prerequisite for this “insight” is the length of time they dedicate to the process of perception, whether they encounter the artwork just once or repeatedly. If this art, whose explicit goal is to expand the viewer’s perception, is to achieve its effect, time is indeed just as elementary a condition as space, light and the willingness of the viewer to engage with the expanded aesthetic experience.
With its artistic charge, the Hallen für Neue Kunst can be regarded as a storehouse of energy and a source of stimuli. Like the works it shows, it is based on the breaching of conventional criteria and categories. Not founded as a museum, it has asserted itself as a space in which art can take effect – a space that corresponded to the non-conformist energy of a far-reaching development. Both the Hallen für Neue Kunst, and the art for which it was realized, have today achieved international standing. New Art has established itself as a firm component of art history, and the Hallen für Neue Kunst has become a model for museums corresponding to artists’ intentions.
Text: © 2004-2019 Christel Sauer / Raussmüller
Translated by Karen Williams
1 This text was first published in: Roger Fayet (ed.), Im Land der Dinge. Museologische Erkundungen (Interdisziplinäre Schriftenreihe des Museums zu Allerheiligen Schaffhausen), vol. 1, Baden 2005
2 The German term “erweiterter Kunstbegriff” was formulated by Joseph Beuys. The term was subsequently also broadly applied to the conceptual and physical expansion of art.
3 In 1969 Sol LeWitt wrote in his Sentences on Conceptual Art: “Ideas can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. […] Since no form is intrinsically superior to another, the artist may use any form, from an expression of words (written or spoken) to physical reality, equally.” First published in Art-Language. The Journal of conceptual art, vol. 1, no.1, May 1969, pp. 11–13.
4 A number of the original Pyramids (1959) by Carl Andre, for example, were not preserved. According to the artist, their fir-wood sections were used as firewood during a cold New York winter.
5 “Gut art” – in German, “Kunst aus dem Bauch” – was a term applied e.g. to the Neo-expressionist painting of the Junge Wilden (“young wild ones”), which emerged towards the end of the 1970s.
6 In 1978 Urs Raussmüller established the exhibition space InK, Halle für internationale neue Kunst, in Zurich and over the following three years organized ground-breaking exhibitions featuring in total eighty-two European and American artists. Despite a resounding international response, in 1981 InK was obliged to close, owing to the conversion of the municipal building in which it was located.
7 New Art (Ger. Neue Kunst) does not mean art by young artists. The term refers to the art from the period around 1970, which is our subject here (cf. Anne Rorimer, New Art in the 60s and 70s. Redefining Reality, London 2001)
8 The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh refers expressly to the Hallen für Neue Kunst as a model in its inaugural publication of 1994. The Dia Center for the Arts in New York, opened in 1988, also oriented itself towards the Hallen für Neue Kunst. This line of succession continues right up to the present. In Germany, for example, it includes the Neues Museum Weserburg in Bremen, the Ludwig-Forum für Internationale Kunst in Aachen, the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg, and the Hamburger Bahnhof and Rieckhallen currently under construction in Berlin.
9 The artists are: Carl Andre, Joseph Beuys, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Jannis Kounellis, Sol LeWitt, Richard Long, Robert Mangold, Mario Merz, Bruce Nauman, Robert Ryman and Lawrence Weiner.
10 See Nicholas Serota, Experience or Interpretation. The Dilemma of Museums of Modern Art, London 1996/2000, p. 42: “One influential model is the Hallen für Neue Kunst in Schaffhausen, Switzerland […].”