Haacke was born in Cologne, Germany. He studied at the Staatliche Werkakademie in Kassel, Germany, from 1956 to 1960. He was a student of Stanley William Hayter, a well-known and influential English printmaker, draftsman, and painter. From 1961 to 1962 he studied on a Fulbright grant at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia. From 1967 to 2002 Haacke was a professor at the Cooper Union in New York City.
During his formative years in Germany, he was a member of Zero (an international group of artist, active ca. 1957-1966). This group was held together with common motivations: the longing to re-harmonize man and nature and to restore art's metaphysical dimension. They sought to organize the pictorial surface without using traditional devices.
Although their methods differed greatly, most of the work was monochromatic, geometric, kinetic, and gestural. But most of all they used nontraditional materials such as industrial materials, fire and water, light, and kinetic effects. The influence of the Zero group and the materials they used is clear in Haacke's early work from his paintings that allude to movement and expression to his early installations that are formally minimal and use earthly elements as materials.
These early installations focused on systems and processes. Condensation Cube (1963–65) embodies a physical occurrence, of the condensation cycle, in real time. Some of the themes in these works from the 1960s include the interactions of physical and biological systems, living animals, plants, and the states of water and the wind. He also made forays into Land Art, but by the end of the 1960s his art had found a more specific focus.
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