Hans-Ulrich Obrist talks with Pontus Hulten
Of Pontus Hulten, Niki de St. Phalle once said "[he has] the soul of an artist, not of a museum director." Indeed Hulten always maintained a very special dialogue with artists, though he was not one himself, establishing lifelong friendships with Sam Francis, Jean Tinguely, and Niki de St. Phalle, whose careers he not only followed but shaped from the start. The Interactive, improvisational spirit that infused exhibitions like de St. Phalle's She, 1966 - a giant sculpture of a woman whose interior was fashioned by Tinguely and Per Olof Ultveldt - characterized the whole of Hulten's career. Director of Stockholm's Moderna Museet for fifteen years (1958-73), Hulten defined the museum as an elastic and open space, hosting a plethora of activities within its walls: lectures, film series, concerts, and debates.
Thanks to Hulten, the Moderna Museet was to be one of the '60s most dynamic contemporary-art institutions. During his tenure, the museum played a seminal role in bridging the gap between Europe and America. In 1962, Hulten organized a show of four young American painters (Jasper Johns, Alfred Leslie, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Stankiewicz), followed two years later by one of the first European surveys of American Pop art. In return, Hulten was invited to curate an exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art in '68: his first historical and Interdisciplinary show, it explored the machine in art, photography, and industrial design.
In 1973 Hulten was to leave Stockholm and enter one of the most significant periods of his career. As founding director of the new museum of modern art at the Centre Georges Pompidou, which opened in 1977, Hulten organized large-scale shows that examined the making of art's history through the links between artistic capitals: "Paris-Berlin," "Paris-Moscow," "Paris-New York," and "Paris-Paris" included not only art objects that ranged from Constructivist to Pop, but films, posters, documentation, and reconstructions of exhibition spaces such as Gertrude Stein's salon. Multivalent and interdisciplinary, these shows marked a paradigm shift in exhibition making, entering the collective memory of generations of artists, curators, and critics as few others have.
Hulten's career after Beaubourg reflected the same commitment to working closely with artists that has caused so many to remember him fondly. Invited by Robert Irwin and Sam Francis to establish a museum in Los Angeles (LA MoCA) In 1980, Hulten went, but, after four years of infrequent exhibitions and much fundraising, returned to Europe. From 1984-90, he was in charge of Venice's Palazzo Grassi, and in 1985, he founded, along with Daniel Buren, Serge Fauchereau, and Sarkis, the Institut des Hautes Etudes en Arts Plastiques in Paris, which Hulten described as a cross between the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College.
Artistic director of the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle, Bonn, from 1991-95, he now heads the Jean Tinguely museum in Basel, where he curated the Inaugural exhibition. Currently writing his memoirs and a book on his years at Beaubourg, Hulten met with me in his Paris apartment to talk about his lifework at the center of the art world.
HANS-ULRICH OBRIST: Jean Tinguely always said you should have been an artist. How did you end up running a museum?
PONTUS HULTEN: In Paris, where I was writing my dissertation, I met Tinguely, Robert Breer, and some other artists who urged me to take up artmaking. I resisted this idea, but did make some films with Breer, who worked as an animator, and also some objects with Tinguely. To tell the truth, if I had had a chance to become a film director, I wouldn't have hesitated. Though I managed to make some short films, I realized that the mid '50s wasn't a very good time to try and make features. I made a twenty-minute film with a friend, but it was a great failure because the producer released it with the wrong feature film. …