by Vladimir BelogolovskyMay 16, 2023
Dependency on clients is an imperative issue for both artists and architects. The best clients are the ones who can facilitate opportunities for creatives to express their artistic visions to their fullest potential. Peter Noever, a genuine impresario and entrepreneur of art and architecture, fits this category perfectly. The Vienna-based curator who positions himself as ausstellung machen, or the maker of exhibitions, was the artistic director and CEO of MAK—Austrian Museum of Applied Arts and Contemporary Art—for a quarter of a century from 1986 to 2011, and is both a dreamer and a fighter who has a keen interest in ideas that are new, radical, and adventurous. He is against art as a passive object and he sees his role as a discoverer of artists who ask questions that haven’t been posed before.
While at MAK, which Noever transformed into a creative laboratory where art, architecture, design, science, and philosophy intersect and fuse in the most fortuitous ways, the curator engaged in experimental projects with such leading artists as Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Jenny Holzer, Donald Judd, James Turrell, Anish Kapoor, and Vito Acconci. He also organised conferences with and exhibited the work of such avant-garde architects as Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss, Carme Pinós, James Wines, Lebbeus Woods, and a fellow Viennese Wolf Prix, at a time when they had few opportunities to build.
For almost two decades, Noever taught at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and he continues to give lectures all over the world. In 1970, the curator founded the first concept store in Austria, 'Section N,' which was designed by Hans Hollein. For a decade, it presented and sold objects of aesthetic intelligence and hosted small exhibitions and discussions within the architecture and design community. In the early 1990s, he was the publisher and editor-in-chief of UMRISS, an architectural magazine. While at MAK, Noever expanded its presence internationally. First, in 1994, he founded the MAK Center for Art and Architecture with a residence program in Los Angeles and activities taking place at three buildings designed by the pioneering Austrian-American architect Rudolph Schindler (1887–1953). And then, in 2006, he established the Josef Hoffmann Museum, Brtnice; it operates as a joint branch of the Moravian Gallery in nearby Brno, the Czech Republic, and the MAK Vienna.
In my interview with Peter Noever over Zoom between New York and Vienna, during which the curator preferred to stand, lean, and walk in front of massive ceiling-high stacks of books, scale models, posters, and framed drawings in his studio while talking and sipping coffee one cup after another, we discussed his ingrained curiosity; his early self-initiated exhibitions at the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts, years before it became his iconic MAK; what it means to be a curator, the power of resistance, the need to break rules, the true mission of an art institution, and The Pit, a life-long creative project being built and rebuilt in the curator’s own backyard.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: You once said, “Experimenting means not being sure of what lies at the end of the road or the end of the day.” What inspired you to think this way?
Peter Noever: Many things, but at the end of the day, it’s always about my curiosity. Also, I don’t believe in concepts at all, because that approach requires having a definition of what you’re trying to achieve right from the start. That’s too backwards-thinking. If you’re trying to do something that’s actually new, you need to be intuitive. It is experimenting that gives artists the energy to drive their ideas forward. Doing so is becoming very difficult at today’s schools of art and architecture. But I think that if artists and architects do only what they are asked, it will endanger our society in the long run.
VB: Who would you credit most for believing in such perpetual experimentation and remaining endlessly as curious as you are?
PN: Marshall McLuhan, a philosopher and the founding father of media studies, who was a cult figure in 1960s America. He originated the idea of the 'Global Village' and is often mentioned in the same breath as Timothy Leary and Buckminster Fuller. In 1974, I decided to visit him in Toronto and spent a long time wandering around the University of Toronto campus before finally discovering the world-famous Centre for Culture and Technology. To my great surprise, it was situated in an inconspicuous coach house. McLuhan himself was surrounded by a group of students and devotees and at first, remained wholly invisible to me. A few years later, in 1979, together with Hans Preiner, an avant-garde filmmaker and program director working for ORF (Austrian Broadcasting Corporation), and Barrington Nevitt, a Toronto-based author, we founded the Center for Understanding Media in Vienna. McLuhan became its president.
VB: I wonder how you started your career as a curator. What was your first exhibition?
PN: I was about 25 years old when I realised my first exhibition at the MAK, which at that time, was still called the ‘Austrian Museum of Applied Arts.’ Entitled Selection 66, First Environment Exhibition, it presented furniture—especially chairs as distillations of modern architecture: the chair as a manifesto, a model, an urban architectural strategy, and a starting point for a newly conceived environment. I invited Hans Hollein to design the exhibition. I still remember, well, how I absolutely wanted to have Walter Pichler in it, and this led to the development of his aluminium ‘Galaxy’ armchair, which was manufactured by Svoboda & Co, a furniture producer.
My mother, who passed away a few years ago at the age of 104, was a major shareholder and executive at Svoboda. Back then, I was concerned with what I call “aesthetic intelligence”—and with this exhibition, despite the resistance from the company but with the generous support of my mother, I was able to present now “classics of modernism”—chairs by Le Corbusier, Mies, Breuer, and Charlotte Perriand—for the first time in Austria, and these were subsequently also brought to market via Svoboda’s distribution channels. It felt like a new beginning, back then. There were lots of people who refused to be discouraged from doing something that they were convinced of and that didn’t yet exist.
VB: Would you call yourself an independent curator?
PN: Who is independent? Is that even possible?! I’m not so sure, but I try all the same. I can’t say I’m successful. (Laughs) And I’m not even sure about the term ‘curator.’ I’d say that I create exhibitions. Let me articulate: I do not see myself as a curator, especially with regard to the generally accepted methods. Because my approach—as far as I understand it—has always been different. To me, the relationship with the artist or architect is the most important thing—with the point being to incite artists to do something that has never been done before. Of course, that’s more difficult to do today without explicitly defining your intentions. Institutions have become very bureaucratic. But I guess I’ve been lucky. I’ve always come up with my definitions after the fact. I tried to be unconstrained because limitations kill creativity. I believe strongly in the power of resistance, and I do wonder: Is there any capacity for resistance left today?
VB: In 1971 you initiated The Pit in Breitenbrunn, Austria. This project has grown into a land art park. You did it in your own backyard, right? What was your vision for it?
PN: Breitenbrunn is a little village close to the Hungarian border. It sits at the beginning of the Eurasian Steppe and looks nothing like the typically Austrian picturesque mountain landscape. This land art project started from a more than 200-year-old sandstone wine cellar connected to a quarry. Over a dozen elements have been built over the years, including the Toilet with Concrete Plateau; the Cubus XXXVII, which was built as a kind of spartan lodge connected underground to the old wine cellar; and the centrepiece, The Pit: a funnel-shaped earth-made amphitheatre covered in grass.
It has occasionally played host to artists and architects who, in principle, could’ve been enlisted to participate in avant-garde conferences at any time. Earlier this year, we organised an art event called The Art Glows in Between together with the French architect Marc Leschelier. As part of this, we celebrated a ‘groundbreaking’ that he performed with his own hands. This project is ongoing, and naturally, we keep acquiring all kinds of required building permits. And the neighbours and local officials evidently haven’t always been entirely happy with us, since there’s been years’ worth of noise and earth-moving without any new buildings having come into existence. (Laughs)
The project was originally inspired by such works as Walter De Maria’s Mile Long Drawing, as well as by pre-Columbian ruins, and Mayan and Aztec pyramids such as in Palenque in southern Mexico or Tikal, Guatemala.
VB: You headed MAK for 25 years. What was your mission?
PN: It is and always was a unique institution. An interesting fact is that the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, now the University of Applied Arts Vienna, was established by the museum. However, an art museum without art is not just problematic but a positively crippling idea over the long term. And with that, of course, I was putting myself under pressure: I had to—but also wanted to—show what contemporary art is capable of today, in the here and now. What art means, what status art has. Perhaps it was this idea that gave rise to whole-room installations by figures like Vito Acconci, Magdalena Jetelová, Chris Burden, or Franz West. Art—and this is the true mission of an art institution—must remain autonomous and shouldn’t subject itself to fashionable or political trends of any kind. Art is unthinkable without distinguishing itself from society and sometimes even pushing back against it.
So, when I arrived, I started bringing in leading artists to experiment with them. At first, no one understood what I was doing. But the point was to let the artists be free, not using our space to display their work but to engage with the space itself. I wanted to have something so that people could understand: this is contemporary art. And I was involved thoroughly in every exhibition. We broke every standard. But today, there are so many protocols and rules, and everyone wants to know every detail about what’s coming. Of course, not all my shows succeeded. But the idea was to manifest the full energy of art, and my focus was always on those artists who engaged the environment or gallery space, directly and completely. As a museum director, I viewed it as my mission to not only serve the public but also build creative relationships with artists. You can never ask the public what they want to see because they want to see only what they know.
VB: You’ve said, “If art is not radical, it doesn’t make sense.” Do you think the same applies to architecture?
PN: Maybe I’m wrong, but I do believe that. I’m sure there must be such young architects and even movements today, but they need to take up more independent stands. I’m not feeling it. I no longer see individual manifestos. I take part in student reviews, and even at schools, I don’t see any resistance. The idea that architecture can be done differently is no longer on the agenda. Architects aren’t offering a new point of departure. But to move forward, we need to break those rules that tell us how to do things. So often architecture follows whatever is in fashion and whatever is politically correct. I think the kind of architecture we build now is fine, but it’s not enough. It’s weak.
VB: You use the word resistance when you describe art and architecture. What other words would you use to describe the kind of architecture that you imagine is missing?
PN: When I say resistance, what I really mean is not accepting the status quo. We need to push what we have and transform it. Every generation feels and thinks differently. Or take the Venice Biennale, for example, it’s become too big, too heavy, and too national in its character. It’s too hard to learn from it. Why not take 10 architects and see what they can come up with? But instead, we’re curious about what everyone is doing, even if it’s all the same. Wherever I travel around the world, cities are the same, museum collections are the same, their exhibitions are the same, they all focus on the same artists, and they’re all closed on Monday. This is absolutely the end of everything. People imagine the same things no matter where they come from. Somehow, we’ve lost our ambitions. In Vienna, every apartment building is the same. And people prefer to live in buildings that are old, not new.
VB: You said, “Every exhibition must raise new questions.” Which ones?
PN: (Laughs) This is, of course, an impossible ambition to fulfil—but the important thing is to try. I like ideas that at first seem impossible. And then you find a way. While I was at the MAK, I learned a lot from the artists who exhibited there. They expanded my horizon. Most importantly, I like presenting work that’s not built yet—that’s interesting. For example, in 1988, I did an exhibition on the Stone House by Günther Domenig [1932–2012] before that house had been built. He put more than a hundred tons of steel and concrete inside the museum, and after the show, those materials and objects went directly to the site. The exhibition was a part of the design and building process—from idea to realisation. For the architect, that meant that the institution and I believed in his work before it was done. We can’t do this all the time, but again, we need to try. Museums must do things that no one else is doing. The key purpose of any museum is to bring art forward. The point is to find the people who have ideas and to share them. Museums need ideas that are new. You have to be radical. Compromise leads nowhere.