The documenta (Kassel, Germany) is regarded as the world´s most important exhibition of contemporary art today. Ever since the first show in 1955, the documenta has made considerable contributions to the history of art.

If you wanted to sum up the fifty-year-history of the documenta, you might say that, unlike any other large exhibition, it has always intervened in current art debates, adopting one approach or another as its own, and thus triggering a great deal of controversy. For a certain amount of time, the theses formulated by each documenta director influence the artists themselves, as well as curators, galleries, scholars, the art market, and the public.

On June 9, 2012, the “the hundred-day museum” as the documenta is also known (because it will last exactly one hundred days) will open its gates in Kassel for the thirteenth time. And once again, we can assume that hundreds of thousands of visitors will make pilgrimages to the Hessian city, in order to be part of this great cultural spectacle. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Artistic Director of the dOCUMENTA (13), regards this art event as more than just an exhibition. Since the documenta is rooted in a tradition entirely of its own making, Christov-Bakargiev believes that it embodies a “state of mind,” which distinguishes it from other, comparable international events.

The first documenta, in 1955, came upon the heels of “trauma,” for it was called into being in the early days of modern German history, which was a special context—in a political sense, too. Because, ten years after the end of the Nazi regime, when Arnold Bode, professor at the Kassel Werkakademie, started his work in Kassel with art historian Werner Hafmann, taking stock of modern art produced after 1905, Bode also wanted to offer the Germans a quasi-“democratic” overview of art in the western world.

Due to war, persecution, destruction, and a rigid, anti-modernist art policy, the era of the Third Reich marks a profound caesura in German twentieth-century art history. In 1955, therefore, a great deal still had to be done, in order to catch up. And so, the two curators—whose project was part of the Federal Garden Show, financed by the City of Kassel, the State of Hesse, and the Federal Republic of Germany—formulated their goals thusly: “The intent of the exhibition is, first, to document and trace the development of the fine arts in our century in Europe, from the revolutionary, unsettling antecedents to the beginning of our century; and second, to define, as precisely as possible, the positions achieved today.”

The place where this documentary process occurred was symbolic: for one thing, after the division of Germany, Kassel lay on the periphery of a border zone; and for another, Kassel’s Fridericianum Museum, which was a ruin in 1955, had helped to write history: erected between 1769 and 1776, it was the first museum in Germany. To this day, the Fridericianum has been the heart and soul of each documenta. In the 1950s, however, no one could have conceived how influential the documenta would become in the future. Yet, Bode’s large project led the way. He presented 670 works by 148 artists, ranging from classic modernists to the younger generation—and attracted 130,000 visitors. At the time, those were record numbers.

Both press and public were enthusiastic. And so the organizers decided that the documenta would be repeated every four years; this became a five-year interval in 1972. In order to finance it, the documenta GmbH was founded, and Bode brought in a whole row of renowned experts, who assisted him in organizing the documenta in 1959. This even more elaborate, second exhibition in Kassel became a media event, as every documenta since then has been. Bode and his staff traveled the world in order to discover the art that they wanted to show. Before the exhibition even began, an intensive press and public relations campaign was instigated, a logo was designed, brochures and proofs were printed, and the DuMont-Schauberg publishing house produced a three-volume catalogue.

The exhibition itself almost caused a scandal, because the main focus of the show was clearly on abstract art, which many theorists of the time considered a “universal language.” Bode, it was said, avoided “grouping the painters according to their countries, in order to prove that contemporary art was indeed a universal language,” as Richard Biedrzynski wrote in the Stuttgarter Zeitung. A few critics accused Bode and his colleagues of censorship, claiming that the selection was too heavily concentrated on non-representational art, especially abstract American painting. At the same time, the show was definitely considered political—in the Cold War climate, it was thought of as a counterweight to the state-regulated, Socialist Realism found in the Eastern Bloc countries. In an exhibition catalogue, Stationen der Moderne (Stages of modernism, Berlin, 1988/89) Kurt Winkler wrote, “Accusations of this kind belong, in the meantime, to the standard arguments made in opposition to every new documenta, against every ambitious exhibit attempting to survey modern art in general. Again and again, the same objection is raised, namely, that art history is being ‘made,’ i.e., manipulated, here.”

Nevertheless, through the documenta, Bode and his colleagues succeeded in taking the debate about the possibilities of contemporary art straight to the public. Their successors have pursued the same path. Swiss curator Harald Szeemann, for example, organized the 1972 documenta, which demonstrated the deep division between “fans of painting and those who despised painting,” meaning, the division between Conceptualists or action-oriented artists such as Joseph Beuys (who planted the first of his famous 7000 oaks ten years later in Kassel) and realist painters or sculptors, such as Edward Kienholz. Manfred Schneckenburger, director of both the 1977 and the 1987 documentas, attempted to integrate architecture and design into the concept. Jan Hoet, who turned the 1992 documenta into a gigantic, sensory art spectacle, took a great deal of criticism for this, but the show attracted 616,000 visitors.

French curator Catherine David, on the other hand, reflected the quiet, intellectual sides of art. In particular, she supported an ambitious discourse, inviting artists, philosophers, filmmakers, and authors to participate in a series of public forums, titled “100 Days – 100 Guests.” David’s concept was certainly successful: 629,000 people attended the documenta in 1997. This was a record, broken only by the Documenta 11 in 2002, a great success for the Nigerian-American Okwui Enwezor, who instituted worldwide event platforms (Platforms 1-4), in preparation for the show in Kassel, thus expanding the documenta to include a discourse on the global and socio-political conditions involved in the production, mediation, and reception of art. In turn, this freed the show from the primacy of the western understanding of art. In 2007 Roger M. Buergel decided to consciously avoid presenting a show involving market-oriented art; instead, he invited mainly lesser-known artists from the “periphery.” In return for his very subjective selection, there was massive criticism, which claimed that his approach did not do justice to a “global art exhibition.” Despite this, the documenta set another attendance record, attracting 751,000 visitors.

According to Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the dOCUMENTA (13) will not be based on a preconceived curatorial concept; instead it will be “like a piece of choreography, [gathering together] multifaceted materials, methods, and forms of knowledge,” which will articulate the “heterogenous ontologies” and “paradoxical conditions of life today” ( Whether this succeeds or not will be seen in Kassel in 2012.

February 18, 2011 Petra von Olschowski

Veröffentlicht am: 18.02.2011