Johannes Cladders’ anti-museum

Text by Lorenzo Benedetti



Few have been able to interpret the true potential of the contemporary museum as Johannes Cladders (1924-2009), the curator who marked with great impact the moment of transition from modern to contemporary, establishing himself as a leading figure of the 20th century. With a strong program coherence, Cladders was able to give great significance to the exhibition in the life of the museum, in particular thanks to the exhibitions dedicated to those figures who interpreted the crucial phases of the transformation of the artistic practices of the century. Through his relentless curatorial activities, he literally redefined the museum’s role as an institution, masterfully balancing the attention to the public and to the content. Cladders, like other key players in the history of 20th century curatorship, devoted considerable attention to the relationship between the museum and the artist: it is no coincidence that many of his most important solo exhibitions were held in a museum context. Through a critical but productive relationship with the institution, in the vision of the German curator the work of art was called to eliminate barriers with the public, giving rise to a new vision of the museum, thanks to the contribution of artists who, like Broodthaers and Buren, turned to the institutional question the focus of their research.

Cladders’ career began in 1957 in Krefeld, Germany, at the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum first and then at the Haus Lange Museum. For ten years the curator joins one of the pioneers in the reformulation of the identity of contemporary art museum, Paul Wember. From him Cladders learns how to work in direct contact with the artists and to find the right balance with local policies. In those years, in particular in Krefeld under Wember’s direction, the idea that contemporary art should be represented in museums starts taking shape. Within that context Cladders himself curated the first solo exhibitions of a large number of artists who would become highly significant in the history of the twentieth century, but whose work had not yet been exhibited within an institutional dimension.

Joseph Beuys, installation views, Stadtisches Museum Monchengladbach, 1967 Photo: Albert Weber

Among the activities he carried out in Krefeld and then in Mönchengladbach, the list of artists who had their first solo exhibitions includes names such as Joseph Beuys (1967), Carl Andre (1968), Hanne Darboven (1969), Stanley Brouwn (1970), Richard Long (1970), Lawrence Weiner (1973), and Daniel Buren (1971). In a 1968 writing entitled Das Antimuseum1 [The anti-museum], Cladders discloses a paradigm that will be the basis of his later research, which is the museum’s ability to interpret the same spirit of the artists who, through their practice, develop forms of expression capable of opposing the establishment. His references are the Dada movement, Duchamp and all the artists that define the anti-art positions particularly in vogue in the ’60s and that develop a variety of alternative positions to the prevailing systems: “The museum has long been devalued and dusty; art remains an ever living presence.”2

Over the years in Mönchengladbach, Cladders builds relationships with a few major art centers such as Antwerp, with the Wide White Space and A379089, Eindhoven, with the Van Abbemuseum, but especially Düsseldorf, where the figure of Konrad Fischer catalyzes attention towards a new generation of artists. Fischer understood the importance of giving space to new contemporary production which, between Europe and the United States, was revolutionizing the schemes of art. An awareness that could translate into the promotion of many artists he worked with, also in collaboration with Cladders.

The central elements of the exhibitions by the German curator included the idea of sharing, the multiplicity of perspectives and the dialogue between the works and the observer. The modernity of his vision lay in the ability to modulate the work of art according to its relation to space and its placement in the exhibition, through a new the concept of “motion.” Walking into the museum, placing oneself in a direct and unexpected relationship with the works, allowed the viewer to reconsider his/her relationship with them, reaching a sort of visual and critical autonomy. Space was the true device for the work and the exhibition setup opened a series of new accesses to its reading, oblique and transverse points of view, which not only strengthened the relationship with the public but also the very meaning of the artists’ research.

The space was the raw material that brought together artist and curator. Cladders did not like writing, which he preferred to replace with the possibility of a continuous reinterpretation of space. The exhibition setup was based on an open model in which works and artists found an appropriate context for discussion and dialogue. Such ‘democracy’ of elements tended to put everything on the same level and to confer the work, the public and the exhibition space the same degree of responsibility. The visitor, hitherto not used to playing an active role, was now called on to establish a series of relationships, but above all to develop new meanings through the association between the various elements. It was vital that the museum should promote a collective discourse, the metaphor of the changes taking place in society in those years.

Joseph Beuys, installation views, Stadtisches Museum Monchengladbach, 1967 Photo: Albert Weber

Joseph Beuys, installation views, Stadtisches Museum Monchengladbach, 1967 Photo: Albert Weber

Between 1967 and 1978, in the Mönchengladbach museum then located in Bismarckstrasse, Cladders produced an amazing series of exhibitions, beginning with Joseph Beuys and ending with Jannis Kounellis3. Beuys the war veteran, then a 46-year-old outsider, was not yet considered among the leading figures of the 20th century. His solo exhibition4 accounted for Cladders as a sort of manifesto against the current fashions. The German artist chosen as the protagonist of the first exhibition of his program at the head of the Mönchengladbach museum clearly showed the willingness to discover artists capable of reinterpreting the role of the museum of contemporary art.

From then onwards Cladders presented a relentless series of solo exhibitions of young artists who rode the research of that intense artistic moment: among them were Hanne Darboven, Panamarenko, Manzoni (the protagonist of a retrospective), Bernd and Hilla Becher, Stanley Brouwn, Daniel Buren (to whom, not surprisingly, two exhibitions were dedicated), but also Hans Hollein, an Austrian architect who at the time was part of the dynamic movement of the radical architects.

The Marcel Broodthaers exhibition, among others, was another prototypical moment in the history of the museum. He, among the most important figures in the research of the relationship between artist and museum space, shortly after the death of Duchamp (1968) had opened in his apartment in Brussels5 the first section of the “Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, Section XIXème siècle.” For the opening of his own museum, Broodthaers had invited Cladders to hold a speech on the theme of “art and society.” Cladders’ invitation of the Belgian artist to Mönchengladbach represented a continuation and a confirmation of the affinity between the two figures’ interests. After all, no one could embody the artist-curator figure better than Broodthaers, for whom each exhibition was an institution in itself. And for Cladders the involvement of an artist-curator within the museum was the perfect sign of the new relationship which was being built between the institution and the contemporary art production.

Daniel Buren also played a key role in Cladders’ path. The French artist was invited by the curator the first time in 1971 and then four years later. Through the Buren exhibitions, Cladders showed how the place could become a significant aspect of the work itself. For the 1971 solo exhibition, the artist produced a series of posters which put in relation different places not necessarily related to an artistic context, thus creating a kind of conceptual map centered on the idea of diffusion and dispersion: diffusion in the museums circuit and dispersion in the urban environment. Through the artists he worked with, Cladders was able to communicate, without having to do it directly, his own idea of museum. Buren, for example, in the text of the presentation of the exhibition, explained how the museum was to understand the artist’s provocation as something positive, stressing the constructive aspect of the work in relation to the criticism that it was making against the museum institution. According to the artist, in fact, the museum needed the radical transformation process that was actually taking place.

The second Buren exhibition curated by Cladders, which took place in1975, centered on the concept of retrospective, emphasized another fundamental aspect of the new spirit of the museum. The museum institution, unlike the private gallery, had its own symbolic significance and hence a responsibility to consecrate the path of artists, highlighting the key moments of their work and their career.

In 1970 Stanley Brouwn, among the most representative figures of Conceptual Art and the Fluxus movement, produced with Cladders an exhibition in which he completely emptied the museum, showing nothing but empty and white spaces6. The project proved that the museum spaces were themselves part of the exhibition and of the work of artists.

In 1972 Cladders was called by Harald Szeemann as one of the curators in one of the sections of documenta 5 in Kassel. Cladders represented for the Director of documenta a reference figure and a source of inspiration. Szeemann admired his ability to invite artists who had no major exhibitions experience, giving them confidence. After all, the very title of Individuelle Mythologie, given to one of the sections of the exhibition, was an indication that the individual element, the single intervention, had a public and collective resonance. For the occasion, the team of curators studied a myriad of visual worlds in which “high culture” and “low culture” could be juxtaposed, leaving it to be the public to decide what art was and was not.

Cladders gradually convinced himself that a further step was necessary, in which the established format of solo exhibitions should be married to the idea of a new architectural space, which would combine the ideas of museum and anti-museum. The new museum structure, designed by Austrian architect Hans Hollein, opened its doors in 1982 and was a huge media and cultural event. The museum and its architecture imposed itself immediately as the manifesto of postmodern culture, the height of an architectural movement born during the previous decade and which went to take on a dominant role in contemporary culture. The Museum Abteiberg was the first and most important product of the modernist culture of the time, consisting of a complex structure, the subject of controversy and debate, even among artists and curators called to work in it. The building project, born from the long confrontation and the long correspondence between Cladders and Hollein, had its germ in the radical architecture investigated in the exhibition organized in 1970 at the Bismarckstrasse premises, and was based on decentralization of the rooms, the versatility of the prospects, the asymmetrical structure and an anti-monumental approach. The Museum Abteiberg was supposed to be, according Cladders, a device to observe art in a different way, by opening more perspectives and breaking the traditional exhibition scheme: “It was the fate of anti-art, to still remain art. And the anti-museum will remain a museum.”7

Even the catalogs, in addition to the museum space, became for Cladders original spaces for artists to experiment in. Over the Bismarckstrasse years, for each exhibition he produced a limited edition box – the so-called “kassetten” – instead of traditional exhibition catalogs, thus giving the opportunity, compared with the latter, to also include objects, so that anyone could take home a part of the exhibition. Cladders’ choice to use such a means was linked to his usual idea of contextualizing a work within a structure. Cladders’ catalog-box thus became a metaphor of the museum.

Johannes Cladders’ thought, now dating back almost four decades, seems to be more relevant today than at that time. The conception of the museum by the curator was for him a process similar to a work’s creation by the artist. Cladders’ vision, favored by the social and political situation of those years, influenced by the outcomes of ’68, was able to generate without historic compromise a new museum or anti-museum model for the emerging generation of artists.

1. J. Cladders, Das Antimuseum, in Beleg. Kunstwerke der zweiten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts aus dem Besitz der Stadt Mönchengladbach, exhibition catalog, Städtisches Museum, Mönchengladbach, 1968.
2. Ibid.
3. 11 May – 11 June 1978.
4. 13 September – 29 October 1967.
5. Rue de la Pépinière, Brussels, 27 September 1968.
6. Exhibition opening speech, 4 September 1970.
7 .J. Cladders, Das Antimuseum, op. cit.

The exhibition as a platform for the new museum
Text by Lorenzo Benedetti