After decades of notoriety on the international art scene, Belgian supercurator Jan Hoet finally has a museum of his own. He heads the new Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst -- acronymically dubbed S.M.A.K. -- in Ghent, the beautiful medieval town that is also home to the Cathedral of St. Bavo and Jan Van Eyck's famous 1432 altarpiece with the mystical Adoration of the Lamb.
As top dog at the controversial 1992 Documenta IX, Hoet got static from some critics for his high-handed approach. He also got some negative publicity after he banished from the show then-market-favorite Jeff Koons. Koons responded by installing a giant puppy dog made of flower blooms a few miles away -- a sensational work that to some extent eclipsed the show itself.
Hoet came to international notice in 1986 with "Chambres d'Amis," which opened private homes to artists for the creation of site-specific installations. Standouts in that show were Beuys' 1980 Wirtschafswerte and installations by LeWitt, Kosuth and Merz -- all represented today in the S.M.A.K. collection by the same or similar works.
Hoet, who was once voted one of Belgium's 10 sexiest men, still appears wound up as if ready for a fight. Earlier this summer he explained his plans to a group that included this reporter and several Parisian art critics. We pulled up a few wooden chairs under the trees, while the director chain-smoked and lectured. He stopped to greet the pink-faced Bishop of Ghent, who was invited to sit down and join the group.
The new museum is housed in an 86-year-old festival hall that's been renovated by a municipal architect to "keep the morphology." There's the red brick exterior, or what Hoet calls the "ready-made outside," while the three-story interior has been designed Minimalist white and light.
On the façade of the museum are hung two striking photo banners, one showing the S.M.A.K. staff (about 30 people) and the other a giant photo of a young woman's face, à la Thomas Ruff. Who is it? None other than the first visitor to walk through the doors of the museum on opening day. Pretty democratic stuff.
Inside, S.M.A.K. delivers a power-punch experience comparable to touring Frank Gehry's original Temporary Contemporary in Los Angeles. The S.M.A.K. collection is rich in post-war treasures, with particularly strong works by Carl Andre, Donald Judd and other Minimalists, by Arte Povera's Jannis Kounellis and Michelangelo Pistoletto, and by icons of Flemish modernism like Magritte and Broodthaers. The contemporary Belgian art collection includes works by Wim Delvoye, Jan Fabre, Panamarenko and Luc Tuymans.
Juxtaposition is a central theme at S.M.A.K. As at Documenta, Zoe Leonard's '84 black and white crotch shots are again interspersed among more sober works, including a classic Francis Bacon from the "Cardinal" series and a fatigued-looking effort from Art and Language, ca. 1980.
"We are privileged and must take responsibility," declares Hoet, and to that end he extends his non-hierarchical approach to the community and to his artists. Citadel Park, a greensward surrounding the museum, has been freed of criminals and prostitutes and rejuvenated as a place of recreation.
In Hoet's view it's up to the spectator to make links and draw out meaning -- or not -- from what is seen, not seen, felt, not felt.
The opening show lasts until Dec. 5, 1999, and has a wild online component with web-works by the likes of David Hammons, Panamarenko, Jim Dine, Martial Raysse and Franz West. For more info contact S.M.A.K., Citadelpark, B-9000 Ghent, Belgium, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.