Among the most influential art curators of his generation, Harald Szeemann (Swiss, 1933-2005) organized more than 150 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 the age of 28, he became one of the youngest art 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 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, including artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Kazimir Malevich, and Vassily Kandinsky, and various fields of visual culture such as Art Brut, science fiction and religious iconography. From 1961 to 1966, Szeemann was also in charge of the exhibition program at the Städtische Galerie Biel.
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, as well as on a pioneering vision of fund-raising. 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 when he returned to the Venice Biennale in both 1999 and 2001. 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.
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" (1978), "Tendency towards the Gesamtkunstwerk" (1983), meant to give a visual account of the three main myths which 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), and "Blood and Honey: the Future Lies in the Balkans" (2003) aimed at examining narrower topics and regions in interdisciplinary depth. 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, Sigmar Polke, and Bruce Nauman, but also on cultural icons such as Charles Baudelaire, James Ensor, and Egon Schiele. In his contemporary sculpture group exhibitions of the late 1980s that he liked to refer to as to "poems in space," Szeemann 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 opened for the first time to host contemporary art, such as Deichtorhallen in Hamburg, Halle Tony Garnier in Lyon, and the Arsenale in Venice.
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 were his second wife, Ingeborg Lüscher, and daughter Una Szeemann, architect Christoph Zürcher, model designer Peter Bissegger, Josy Kraft, in charge of transportation and storage, and his son Jérôme Szeemann for the installation.