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by Kathryn M. Floyd

d is for documenta: institutional identity for a periodic exhibition

Every five summers, Kassel, Germany is covered over with signs and advertisements for what is billed as the most significant periodic exhibition of contemporary art: documenta. [fig. 1] The publicity for the thirteenth edition in summer 2012 managed to attract over 905,000 visitors to this small Hessen city where they viewed hundreds of works by 194 global artists in ten venues and additional public spaces. Organizers dubbed the unassuming branding device commissioned for this enormous blockbuster a “non-logo.” Instead of producing a unique signet or single wordmark to distinguish the event from its twelve predecessors, the Milan-based firm Leftloft developed a “visual grammar” for writing the name in an infinite variety of typefaces. The rules dictated that the name be written with “a lowercase ‘d’ while the rest of the letters will all be uppercase and followed by the number thirteen in brackets.”[i] The resulting wordmarks,[ii] including those used for official publications and signage [fig. 2], conveyed dOCUMENTA (13)’s “pluralist, imaginative, and cumulative” character, and required “active engagement, attention, and a certain amount of extra time on the keyboard.”[iii] This challenging, inexhaustible, and flexible functionality mirrored the exhibition’s enormity, which exploded its typical boundaries in a display of global art spread out not only across the city, but also across the globe.[iv]

Signage in front of the Museum Fridericianum at documenta, Kassel, Germany, 1955 Werner Lengemann / © documenta Archive

Leftloft’s “non-logo” for documenta (13), 2012 Courtesy of Leftloft Milan

Leftloft’s non-logo also suggested the nature and history of the documenta institution, itself a “grammar” whose regularized five-year cycle, location, and focus on contemporary art are rewritten with fresh leadership and artistic content twice a decade. The design also acknowledged the series’ history by maintaining the lowercase “d” from the wordmark for the inaugural 1955 edition, a groundbreaking survey of international modern art. documenta’s original logotype, the name of the exhibition simply lettered in a form of Azkidenz Grotesk, appeared on the catalogue cover and publicity materials, like the official poster whose only image was a large letter “d.” [fig. 3] Variations on this modernist wordmark, especially with the lowercase “d,” have become standard elements in the branding of documenta’s subsequent editions from the second documenta in 1959 to this year’s documenta 14. And while dOCUMENTA (13)’s insistence on typographical diversity might seem a richer celebration of the series’ multiplicity in comparison to the original logo, the austere 1955 design nevertheless embodies a complexity and flexibility beneath its simple surface. Like the first documenta itself, an enormous survey of modern art from 1905 and 1945 that was displayed in a ruined but rehabilitated museum, this wordmark drew together threads of a postwar conversation about aesthetics and ideology, style and commodity culture, nationalism and internationalism, and history and progress in a single, multi-coded sign. Informed by its 1950s context, documenta’s first logo also proved a highly adaptable framework, a grammar even, for marketing this periodic exhibition into the future.

Poster for documenta 1955 © documenta Archive

documenta 1955: event as design

A number of forces shaped the first documenta. Now a well-told story, the history of this recurring exhibition finds its origins in a city reduced to rubble in 1943 [fig. 4] and in postwar West Germany’s subsequent struggle with a difficult past and the promise of a “miraculous” new economy.[v] As Walter Grasskamp importantly articulated, the first documenta was also bound up with the rescue and repurposing of the international avant-garde, which had been denigrated, expelled, and destroyed by the Nazis beginning in the 1930s.[vi] documenta’s nascent periodic format—it is likely that its founders intended a kind of series from the start—was, like all recurring exhibitions, originally born from nineteenth-century displays of mastery and progress, such as academy salons, world’s fairs, and universal expositions, that have now evolved into the many biennials that drive innovation in contemporary art, cultural tourism, and urban renewal.[vii] Kassel artist, designer, educator, and documenta founder Arnold Bode (1900-1977) tied these political, economic, artistic, and historical threads together. His concept for an ambitious international exhibition of modern art that would rehabilitate the art historical past, make a significant statement about Germany’s postwar return to the sphere of international modern art, and rejuvenate Kassel’s local economy, provided the final spark.

Max Bill’s Konstruktion (1937) installed in room 14 of the Museum Fridericianum at documenta 1955 Erich Müller / © documenta Archive

Bode, a Kassel native, former Kassel Kunstakademie student, and member of the Kassel Secession, taught painting in Berlin before his career was cut short by the events of 1933 and he returned to Kassel. With the help of his brother, architect Paul Bode, he took on “anonymous” work designing packaging, furniture, and exhibits for trade shows and industrial exhibits.[viii] These modern displays however, were not his first exposure to the world of innovative exhibition design. He helped organize three contemporary art exhibitions in Kassel in the 1920s and attended the Paris Exposition in 1937. After the war, he visited the Venice Biennale and the influential 1953 Picasso exhibition in Milan’s ruined Palazzo Reale where paintings such as Guernica (1937) projected out from the walls on systems of metal wires and scaffolding. [ix]

These events and experiences coalesced in his 1954 concept for a postwar grosse internationale Ausstellung (large international exhibition) of modern art. [x] Organized by a self-appointed local committee, sponsored by the city of Kassel, the state of Hessen, and the federal government, and supported by international art dealers and German corporate sponsors, documenta, unlike the Venice Biennale, harmonized its diverse contents through aesthetic and formal concepts, rather than by national affiliations or art historical movements. The first documenta in fact comprised a wide constellation of synthesizing approaches and arguments about unity and connectivity across traditional borders of art, politics, and culture that fit the country’s new democratic and capitalist interests.

The Bundesgartenschau (Federal Garden Show), a trade show slated for Kassel in summer 1955, provided the immediate impetus for carrying out Bode’s idea. Like documenta, which would become its pendant, the BuGa also linked aesthetics to practical aims through its focus on landscape design, horticulture, and urban revitalization.[xi] In 1954, Bode used the upcoming event to pitch local officials on the idea of a parallel exhibition that would advance similar goals through the fine arts. The first documenta would join the ideal with the functional, as well as the historical with the contemporary, by creating something “useful” out of the histories and forms of modern art. It fulfilled, in Bode’s words, “urgently necessary” (“dringend nötig”) local, national, and international goals, focused on creating connections among individuals, geographies, histories, and nations. The event was to be “for artists, to create closer contact with foreign culture; for the state of Hessen, to emphasize the regional significance of the Garden Show; for the federal government, because the idea of a common European art as a sign of the pan-European movement can prove to be a unifying force.”[xii] But while it began as an accompaniment, documenta soon surpassed this role. Its curatorial program, unique design, and rare convergence of “high-quality” works[xiii] eventually attracted over 130,000 visitors.[xiv]

Bode’s team of artists, art historians, critics, businessmen, and city leaders established under the name The Society for Twentieth-century Western Art, worked quickly and efficiently to carry out this ambitious plan.[xv] They separated specialized tasks, from curatorial work to financial and logistical labors, like a modern corporation. A “study group” devised the first documenta edition’s theme and content. They organized a half-century of modern art to create an ideal, international art historical genealogy that linked postwar modernism to its prewar antecedents. Approximately 600 works from Great Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, and the US by Expressionists, Cubists, Futurists, and Constructivists like Kandinsky, Picasso, Matisse, and Arp hung together with recent work by Baumeister, Moore, Winter, Vedova, and others. Social realism and Berlin Dada, along with styles linked to political radicalism or totalitarianism, were omitted. Instead, through visual juxtaposition and formal correspondence, the 1955 documenta rewrote the contemporary modernists of the present moment not as offspring of the immediate (and fascist) past, but of the international prewar avant-garde. They therefore reauthored Germany’s relationship to progressive art, part of a broader postwar effort to fashion a “usable past.” This narrative idealized the 1920s and the Weimar Republic as the real precursors to the Federal Republic and its “economic miracle.” Totalitarianism was a tragic detour on the nation’s true evolution to democracy.[xvi] documenta’s display of modern art signified freedom, individuality, and universality and signaled the desire to return to its rightful place in the fold of “Western” culture.

The committee’s selection of artworks that embodied these ideals and goals began with art historian and committee member Werner Haftmann (1912-1999), whose Painting in the Twentieth-Century (1954) became the committee’s unofficial guidebook.[xvii] Haftmann, and the group, especially favored the elementary, concrete, “universal” languages of geometric and lyrical abstraction, autonomous art whose “new critical relationship to visible reality,” in Haftmann’s words, embodied the complexities of the long modern epoch. The styles of “our time” were no longer shackled by fixed, visually mimetic relationships to objectivity or “truth,” associations perverted by totalitarian art.[xviii] Thus loosened, modern art’s independence and subjectivity made it universally human, a common language to connect artists across national and cultural boundaries. Even if they refused to replicate their world mimetically, works like Oskar Schlemmer’s Quiet Room (1925), Max Bill’s Construction (1937), and Henry Moore’s King and Queen (1953) expressed a new kind of “truth” as the material documents of the modern Weltanschauung.

The first documenta’s exhibition design also manifested similar unifying strategies by colliding architectural elements from a liberal historical moment with those of the postwar era. Contemporary materials suggesting capitalist innovation resurrected the Enlightenment-era Museum Fridericianum, designed by Simon Louis du Ry (1726-1799) for Landgrave Friedrich II’s (1720-1785) cabinets. Opened in 1779 as the first purpose-built public museum, it served this function until 1943 when bombs devastated its evacuated galleries.[xix] Bode’s team partially reconstructed the museum’s shell, whitewashed its brick interior, and hung the space with colorful, temporary wallboard and translucent plastic sheeting provided by Göppinger plastics and other businesses with which Bode had been connected through his wartime design work.[xx]

In the museum’s attic, photographs of modernist architecture by Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, and others served as the first documenta’s “epilogue” and depicted the useful application of the abstract forms expressed in the paintings and sculptures below.[xxi] But despite Bode’s career, which engaged both fine and applied arts, this display was the only specific exhibit of modern design at the show. The first edition of documenta did not incorporate the applied arts, a history in which Germany had played a key role in the twentieth century. Examples of Bauhaus housewares, de Stijl furniture, or Swiss graphic design, for example, were not, despite their centrality to modernism and the historical avant-garde, staged as objects of display. Instead documenta merely evoked these histories through the abstract forms of its paintings and sculptures, or the inclusion of specific artists, with which they were closely associated. Modern design at the first documenta instead remained firmly ensconced in its functional roles as exhibition hardware, café furniture, catalogues, signage, and other ephemera.

But from the broadest perspective, the unifying principles and connective strategies of the entire documenta enterprise might in fact define the event as a monumental example of German design. Like a Bauhaus teapot or a mid-century “kidney table” (“Nierentisch”), the exhibition harnessed abstract forms to produce something useful beyond the circumscribed world of fine art. Its lofty educational, political, and cultural goals and its advancement of unity and universalism were one useful aim. Organizers also tasked the event with tangible urban progress. Just as the itinerant Garden Show generated jobs, tourist monies, and permanent green spaces when staged in cities like Hanover (1951), the first documenta accelerated efforts to rehabilitate Kassel. The exhibition also sought to improve Kassel’s cultural standing. German tourism was on the rise, but Kassel, a central railroad hub now near the border with East Germany, had never been a real draw for the cultural traveler. Unlike Berlin or Munich, it seemed to lack distinct artistic and cultural traditions, an assumption Bode used to the show’s advantage. It therefore became necessary for planners to motivate visitors to consider the city a true destination, not just a stopover.

documenta required a promotional identity that synthesized its broad concepts and unifying aims. It should signify progressive content, but also imbue its new narratives and innovative forms with prestige and authority. Most of all, it had to set documenta apart from similar exhibitions without repelling visitors who might still be unsure of modern art. While the international names “Europa” and “European Art of the Twentieth Century” were initial ideas for a title, the committee soon turned to Bode’s unique solution “documenta” and shunted “Art of the Twentieth Century” into a subtitle.[xxii] The choice of a distinct proper name established  “documenta” as a true brand, not just an exhibition title. It possessed a flexible, adaptable quality and sounded historical and modern, German and universal, cultural and capitalist all at once. And, when expressed in a modernist typeface, it resonated with both fine art and commodity culture and signified documenta’s status as “good design” as a logo befitting a useful, efficient, high-quality, and ultimately reproducible event.

documenta: name as logo

documenta’s proper name derived from the nominative plural of the Latin documentum (from docere, “to teach”) and suggested a variety of useful documents, official papers, archival materials, and objective evidence. Tied to classical education and the “Western tradition,” the Latin origin lent prestige, quality, and authority to the show’s reframing of modernism. Like visual abstraction, Latin also signified international ties and a shared language, history, and values. And, when written out, the name expressed an anti-nationalistic attitude; while “documenta” sounded like the German Dokumente (documents), the word had in fact been stripped of its national characteristics by shifting the German “k” to the Latinate “c,” and the plural “e” to “a.”

The name declared the exhibition a showcase of key documents and examples, not arbitrary, minor, or local specimens of modern art. Haftmann and Bode celebrated creative freedom, but like other art historians, understood individual expression as embodying or “documenting” an artist’s modern world. As Haftmann wrote, “The profoundly revolutionary developments in painting, which set in about 1890, cannot be viewed apart from modern mankind as a whole, whose situation they illustrate.”[xxiii] Conversely, Nazis like Alfred Rosenberg exhibited modernism as material evidence of the corruption of German culture during the Third Reich. Displayed in “chambers of horror” like the 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition, modern art’s expressive forms became “proof” of the diseased elements infiltrating pure German culture. Articles and announcements for these exhibitions used the term “Dokumente” or “Kulturdokumente,” not “Kunst” (art), to describe work deemed Jewish, Bolshevik, or foreign.[xxiv] “documenta” subtly rehabilitated this term, reauthoring formerly “degenerate” art into legitimate cultural history.

“Documentation” also described an open category. With no limit to the themes, narratives, or concepts a document can record, the title provided an infinitely adaptable framework that might summarize a variety of modern styles, artists, and subjects under its moniker. But this flexible, streamlined descriptor also readied the exhibition for potential reproduction, like so many modern products entering the growing West Germany market. In fact, “documenta” could have been the name of a mass-produced commodity or international corporation. With its hard consonants and final “a” ending, it emulated the brand names of household goods, appliances, and building materials, like “Recta-Form” or “abstracta.”[xxv] The “a” ending, popular in the 1920s and 1930s, and again in the 1950s, was related to the modern practice of acronymy often used to fashion company names, many of which ended in “AG” for Aktiengesellschaft (a public corporation). Ufa, for example, began as (the Latinate) Universum Film AG. Trade show names often ending with “Ausstellung” (exhibition) were similarly constructed. Cologne’s 1928 Pressa (Internationale Presse-Ausstellung), grafa (Graphische Fachausstellung) for the 1930s Swiss printing fairs, and Constructa, the 1951 Hanover Building Exhibition where Bode designed the display for the firm Korrekta, are just three examples.[xxvi] The German habit of contracting words also produced a-endings; Leitz camera became “Leica” and Bundesgartenschau (the Federal Garden Show), BuGa. The creation of new words to brand corporations, products, and events underscored these businesses’ innovative qualities.

The names and trademarks of the first documenta’s corporate sponsors like Göppinger plastics, Eternit AG, and Siemens-Schuckertwerke appeared at the back of the exhibition catalogue. documenta owed much of its success to these industries to which Bode had become connected through his earlier design work.[xxvii] This experience no doubt helped him understand the power of coherent corporate identities. In the burgeoning economy, a business’s need for a cohesive persona was a cornerstone of the growing profession of marketing. As companies expanded into multinational corporations or global conglomerates associated with multiple products, diverse services, and far-flung locations, they required identities that fused their expansive structures. Institutional characteristics were communicated through distinct brand names and integrated promotional programs of coordinated logos, wordmarks, signets, and typefaces. Multinational corporations located themselves not in specific spaces like a local storefront or factory building, but in a flexible, transportable, reproducible and, perhaps ideally, ubiquitous set of images and concepts. With the need to define unified corporate identities from diffuse practices and products, the professional graphic designer who could conceptualize and construct memorable, unified branding schemes became an essential figure.

documenta had much in common with the modern corporation, from its organizational structure to its negotiations with industry and government agencies to its merging of local economic and cultural concerns with a global purview. The 1955 documenta team instrumentalized high-quality “commodities” (artworks) for their cause and merged a diverse range of “products” (the artists, styles, and histories) under a common concept. Just as the installation was organized under harmonious aesthetics, documenta’s branding scheme had to summarize its complexities into an attractive, meaningful identity. The planners chose to harness the impact of the show’s flexible, multivalent title, which they formed into an equally functional logo.

documenta: text as image

The full meaning of “documenta” can be understood only when the word is visualized. The organizing committee therefore selected a textual wordmark as the exhibition’s logo. The typographic design and publicity program, by Bode, Heinz Nickel, and Ernst Schuh, all colleagues at the Kassel Werkakademie, underscored, but also expanded, the word’s many associations. A condensed, bold version of the Akzidenz Grotesk typeface, it spelled out the name in lowercase characters and was used on letterhead, posters, signs, brochures, tickets, and other publicity materials. Records reveal almost nothing about the design team’s deliberations about the logo itself or their plans for its use. But to understand the choice one might consider conventional solutions they bypassed, in particular the use of pictographic symbols or visual imagery.

Images associated with place have long been employed to promote large fairs or international exhibitions; they ground ephemeral events in their locations and reveal the tourism and urban development motivations so often behind event organization. Venice’s winged lion of St. Mark has been the signet for the Biennale since 1895. The first documenta’s designers, however, eschewed local icons, selecting, for example, neither images of the famous Farnese Hercules monument that overlooks the city from Kassel’s Bergpark, nor images of documenta’s main venue, the Museum Fridericianum. The symbol of the powerful hero at rest might have been too politically or historically suggestive. Similarly, the neoclassical museum, while its status as a provisional ruin became a significant element within the exhibition design itself, might have signified only the past, not continuity with the present. Most important, for international audiences with whom organizers hoped to communicate, the Fridericianum’s image, like the city itself, was unremarkable and essentially unknown. Kassel was no Paris or Berlin. Bode, however, embraced this undefined, peripheral status, writing in 1954:

Kassel lies in a border zone. [It] was totally destroyed and is actively rebuilding. It can be an example thirty kilometers from the border [with the Iron Curtain] . . . Kassel is not burdened by artist groups and political-artistic linkages . . . Kassel doesn’t want to build on old traditions . . . but rather wants to create . . . a new living tradition, whose basic idea is . . . expandable.[xxviii]

The logo designers’ decision to forego all pictographic imagery, whether realistic symbols or abstract motifs, may seem odd for an event that asserted visual art’s power. But at documenta’s celebration of the international and universal, imagery might have inadvertently advanced one style, movement, or media over another. In the wake of German fascism, which had relied deeply on visual symbols that identified absolute power or absolute powerlessness, emblematic imagery of any kind might have simply proved too problematic. Whether the committee considered such issues can only be surmised. What is certain is that their selection of a word-image cleverly produced an economic, tautological (therefore modernist) visual identity: a text-based logo that signified what is usually textual—a “document.” This literalizing design choice also affirmed the show’s titular description of itself as truthful, material, and “real” and maintained the name’s flexibility as a reproducible framework by refusing to associate it with specific stylistic content. The wordmark allowed documenta to be defined and redefined, produced and endlessly reproduced in a functional and efficient manner.

The official 1955 documenta poster illustrates the logo’s typical use. Composed on a grid, the composition features a large lowercase “d” in bright blue that fills the left half of the sheet’s white field. The full wordmark appears at top right, in smaller black text. Below, the subtitle is repeated in French, English, and Italian in an unjustified column ranged right. It also appears (or perhaps disappears?) in German within the large initial’s bowl and ascender. Posters were printed with blue, red, or yellow “d”s, expressing the primary colors. Meeting minutes reveal that the committee, working with a limited budget, chose two-color printing over four-color to reduce costs. A June 22, 1955 invoice from a local printer shows that 1000 “d” posters (200 yellow, 300 blue, and 500 red) on heavy 84 x 199 cm paper cost a very reasonable 675 DM.[xxix]

The wordmark’s typeface clearly recalled prewar progressive art and design, especially the Weimar-era International Constructivists who embraced geometric shapes, primary colors, and economic elements like sans serif typeface. Prewar designers employed or developed modern fonts like Akzidenz Grotesk or Futura (Paul Renner’s typeface and another “brand” ending in “a”) to produce and communicate efficiency, rationality, and universalism. Jan Tschichold famously argued in his treatise The New Typography (1928) that type and design must represent its time and culture.[xxx] For the technologically driven modern era, he advocated efficient, sans serif typefaces for Roman letters, rather than ornamented national scripts like the gothic German Fraktur (later revived by the Nazis) to communicate legibly across national borders. To further economize and universalize, Tschichold also encouraged the exclusive use of majuscule or minuscule characters and the rejection of national idiosyncrasies, like the German practice of capitalizing a noun’s first letter.[xxxi]

The typeface Akzidenz Grotesk, while first created in Germany in 1896 for commercial (Akzidenz) printing in the 1920s and 1930s, was similarly praised as clean and efficient, but not excessively austere. Like Futura, it was associated with the avant-garde, although not exclusively. It appeared in Wassily Kandinsky’s 1913 book of woodcuts Die Klänge (Sounds) and Theo Van Doesburg’s 1920s ads for Fagus Shoes. However, it was most closely tied to iconic Swiss designer Max Bill who studied at the Bauhaus in the late 1920s before moving to Zurich. He used the typeface continuously from the 1920s into the 1950s. Incidentally, in 1955, the year he was selected to lead the Ulm design school, Bill’s geometric sculptures, not his design work, were exhibited at documenta. [fig. 4]

The manifestation of documenta’s logo, in particular its initial letter “d” in exhibition ephemera, further emphasized connections to prewar movements like International Constructivism and its institutions, like the German Bauhaus. [fig. 5] Despite the significant differences between the two typefaces, one can’t help but note, for example, the strong visual resonances between the first documenta’s poster and Herbert Bayer’s proposal for a “universal” lettering system for the Bauhaus as published in 1926 in the journal Offset: Book and Advertising Art. A large red letter “d” is presented next to the smaller, complete alphabet as an example of the “optical effects” of scaling up Bayer’s rounded lowercase letters. [fig. 6] While Bode, Haftmann, and the documenta team remained committed to notions of “fine art” and omitted such examples of prewar modernist graphic and industrial design by Bauhaus practitioners and others from the exhibition itself, their concepts and goals nevertheless paralleled the Bauhaus’s use of abstraction to advance ideals like social harmony and universalism, as well as utilitarian applications in education and industry. The important early history of modernist design was indeed present at the exhibition, but it remained tethered to its utilitarian duties instead of being transformed into a museal object.

While the team’s Akzidenz Grotesk wordmark and its use in publicity materials conjured up the history of the Bauhaus, closed in 1933 by the Nazis for its radical politics, not, as is sometimes assumed, for its streamlined modernist aesthetics, both the documenta logo and its Constructivist associations were also entirely “on trend” in 1955. By the 1950s, the Bauhaus, as a concept, had been stripped of its revolutionary affiliations and troubled history, and had been rewritten as a style or “brand” that signified innovative, sophisticated design and high-quality products vaguely evoking an idealized notion of prewar liberalism.[xxxii] The history of the Bauhaus’s alternative educational program, radical politics, and revolutionary architecture and design were smoothed over into a simplified notion focused primarily on the school’s renowned fine, rather than applied, artists, like Kandinsky and Klee, whose autonomous and free-flowing abstract forms became the forerunners of contemporary abstract painting but also inspired popular midcentury design like West Germany’s trendy Nierentisch (kidney table) style, an organic look named for the rounded furniture and affordable plastic objects it produced.[xxxiii]

Cover of the catalogue for documenta 1955 © documenta Archive

International Style graphic design, often identified with Switzerland, the home of so many of its famous practitioners, was, like the Nierentisch trend, another midcentury mode derived from prewar art.[xxxiv] It shared with Nierentisch its roots in Constructivism and the Bauhaus, but was not so much a new interpretation inspired by these forerunners, but instead a direct and continuous reformulation of earlier practices. The movement retained many of its prewar formal principles, and the careers of some artists like Max Bill actually bridged the gap between the pre- and postwar worlds. Their designs took from prewar Constructivism an emphasis on rational, spare compositions defined by a grid and a legible informational aesthetic that, although sparse and clean, was never as austere as some of the early twentieth-century examples that inspired them. The differences, in fact, are quite subtle. International Style designers often used imagery, like photographs or arrangements of abstract shapes that were, like constructivist posters and book covers, often asymmetrical and included elementary colors and forms. International Style designers also regularly chose Akzidenz Grotesk and other sans serif fonts, but articulated their typographic elements with less geometric rigidity.

Gradually, modernist styles became associated more with the principles of so-called “good design” and efficient, innovative industry than with the radical avant-garde or revolutionary Marxist and Communist origins from which they once sprang. This process of de-politicization reached its apex in the postwar period, where modernism’s neutrality and simplicity were instrumentalized by the era’s growing consumerist and corporate culture. Like Nierentisch, the new graphic design retained a vague anti-fascist character—the memory of its suppression by totalitarian forces lent it this quality—but its sense of “freedom” became more connected to the innovations of the open market and the unfettered growth of international corporate culture.[xxxv]

Herbert Bayer, Design for Universal lettering, page 399 from Offset. Buch und Werbekunst, 1926 Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin / © 1926 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Most important, International Style design became a significant force not only for postwar advertising campaigns, but also for creating unified “corporate identity programs” for large international concerns and conglomerates. The International Style and its principles signified everything these organizations wished to communicate about themselves, especially that their products and services were advanced, fashionable, and high quality. The use of progressive but also historically tried and true forms expressed that their innovations were stable and trustworthy. The spare economic style centered mainly on text, basic geometry, and often photographs conveyed a sense of the literal, the objective, the truthful, and the legible. Elementary shapes, colors, and typefaces connoted a universality that showcased the corporation’s global purview and broad appeal. Most important, the clean logos, simple designs, and coordinated materials for diverse and growing companies like Deutsche Bank, Philips, Geigy, and others, expressed the notion that these enormous, complex organizations were at their core universally relevant, coherent, and reliable. The minimal aesthetic masked their complex, diffuse systems that in later decades would only grow in scale.

The documenta logo and design program, like the exhibition itself, served to create another bridge between a liberal prewar Germany and the postwar present. This linkage is achieved through a kind of double-coding embodied in the wordmark and its manifestation. On the one hand, it could be read as a reference to Weimar-era German design, suggesting a Constructivist or Bauhaus example chronologically aligned with the paintings and sculptures on display. While functional design was not shown at documenta 1955, the poster, so similar in style to Bauhaus examples, stood in for this omission while fulfilling its job as a utilitarian “document.” On the other hand, the design program could also be read as an example of current midcentury International Style graphic design, a mode closely linked to postwar commerce and industry, in particular to international corporate culture. Perhaps the first documenta’s greatest achievement, summarized in its name and logo, was not its lofty ideals of unification and harmony across artistic, historical, or political borders, but the way it reauthored avant-garde art, design, and visual culture, and in the process authored itself, as relevant, useful, and necessary in the postwar present. The exhibition proposed that modernism should not only be understood for its own sake, but that it might find value as a “usable past” with contemporary applications not only for young artists, but also for postwar urban renewal, cultural politics, consumer culture, and international industry. 

conclusions: logo as institution

Periodic exhibitions like documenta and other contemporary art biennials are by definition diffuse, yet permanent institutions. Held together by their “grammars” or frameworks, not their complex or diverse contents, they are defined by their fundamental linking of the past to the present and future in a chain of unique but connected events. Unlike museums and other art institutions, their “permanent” identities are embodied in their histories, temporal structures, and traditional frameworks, rather than in fixed architectural structures, organizational hierarchies, or aesthetic concerns, which are often ephemeral or unstable. The original documenta logo, and the “grammar” of the lowercase “d” are one small, yet impactful element that creates a kind of visual “location” and institutional continuity, and therefore ongoing identity, for documenta. Its simultaneous evocation of these fundamental characteristics of the periodic exhibition reveals the complexity beneath its seeming simplicity.

Contemporary art, which documenta now purports to survey every five years through the eyes of a new artistic director and curatorial team, is a constantly changing category driven to constant “innovation” by the forces of neoliberal capitalism that make up the “global” art market. documenta and other periodic exhibitions in many ways represent themselves as hollow vessels in this system, cyclically filled, emptied, and refilled, with the newest contents that emerge and enter its networks. The flexible signifier of the documenta name and logo, too, appear as a kind of blank slate, underscoring the institution’s self-image as a stable framework for infinitely unstable contents; in later years Bode aptly described documenta as a “Museum of 100 Days.” The wordmark maintains both the word’s (and the institution’s) presence and materiality, while conserving an unending flexibility that insures that documenta remains ever “expandable.” In this way, like all good design, it can be produced and multiplied, made and remade, defined and redefined, endlessly, and in an efficient, functional way.

Over the decades, documenta’s lowercase “d” has repeatedly served as a site for the expression of the series’ Janus-faced embodiment of tradition and innovation; some documenta curators have played on its history, while others have overtly rejected it.[xxxvi] In either case, its influence looms large as a framework to be reckoned with one way or another. This year’s documenta 14 will maintain the lowercase “d” in its design program and promotional material. But unlike many previous documenta curators, Artistic Director Adam Szymczyk has selected a visual image, the Owl of Athena, to be the primary identifier of the show. documenta 14 is already breaking through some of documenta’s other traditional structures and historical boundaries; for the first time the exhibition will be “split in two”[xxxvii] and will take place in partly overlapping time frames in two cities—Kassel and Athens, Greece.[xxxviii] But even these “innovations” will no doubt be subsumed into the constellations of historical continuity, endless multiplicity, and constant expandability that documenta—name, logo, event, and institution—embodies.

Kathryn Floyd is Associate Professor of Art History at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. She teaches courses in modern and contemporary art, as well as in the history of the arts of Africa and the history of photography. She has BA degrees in Fine arts and Anthropology from Vanderbilt University, an MA in Art History from the University of Georgia, and a PhD in Art History from the University of Iowa where her dissertation “Between Change and Continuity: documenta 1955–2005” won a Graduate Deans' Distinguished Dissertation Prize in the Humanities. Before coming to Auburn, Floyd worked at the International Dada Archive at the University of Iowa Libraries and served as Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History at Skidmore College. In 2017 she received the Auburn University College of Liberal Arts Teaching Excellence Award. Floyd’s research is concerned with the history of art in twentieth-century Germany with a specific focus on the history and historiography of art exhibitions and their mediation in catalogues, installation photographs, and film. Floyd has conducted extensive research on the history of documenta. Her current book project explores a set of installation photographs of Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s Expressionist sculpture Kneeling Woman (1911) taken at different modernist exhibitions in Germany and the United States, from the Armory Show in 1913 to the first documenta in 1955. She also recently served as guest editor of a special issue of the journal Dada/Surrealism that explores the history of avant-garde art exhibitions.

[i] From http://www.leftloft.com/project/2207/documenta-13-identity. Accessed 05.11.2013.

[ii] Leftloft describes their work for documenta thusly: “For the 13th edition, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and devoted to the theme ‘Collapse & recovery,’ our work was driven by one certainty: when it has to do with the art, the design must be able to step aside and become a transparent container that enhances the content. We did not build a visual identity, but an analytical grammar that describes the project and structures it as an invisible skeleton.” See http://www.leftloft.com/case-study/documenta-13. Accessed 03.01.2017.

[iii] From an April 19, 2010 press release from the documenta organization, available at www.d13.documenta.de.

[iv] dOCUMENTA(13) produced smaller exhibitions, talks, and workshops in Canada, Egypt, and Afghanistan. See dOCUMENTA( 13) Das Begleitbuch/The Guidebook (catalogue 3/3), Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2012.

[v] There are many historical analyses of documenta’s origins and history, but the best comprehensive history of documenta remains Harald Kimpel, documenta: Mythos und Wirklichkeit (Cologne: DuMont, 1997). Another excellent history can be found in Ian Wallace, “The First documenta, 1955” in dOCUMENTA (13) The Book of Books (catalogue 1/3), Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2012.

[vi] Walter Grasskamp, “‘Degenerate Art’ and Documenta I: Modernism Ostracized and Disarmed” in Daniel J. Sherman and Irit Rogoff, eds., Museum Culture: Histories, Discourses, Spectacles, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1994, pp. 163-194.

[vii] Although documenta 1955 diverged significantly from the nationalist and imperialist frameworks upon which earlier biennials were based (most notably, its rejection of nation-based categories), the recurring format, formally established in 1959 at documenta II, but which many experts believe was Bode and the committee’s intention from the start, is often linked to these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century forms that purported to visualize and materialize historical positivism and cultural progress. There are numerous sources on the biennial format. See, for example Filipovic, Elena et al, The Biennial Reader, Hatje Cantz and Bergen: Bergen Kunsthalle, Ostfildern, 2010.

[viii] For more on Arnold Bode see Marianne Heinz, ed., Arnold Bode (1900-1977): Leben und Werk, Staatliche Museen, Kassel, 2000.

[ix] Photographs by Magnum photographer Rene Burrí of the 1953 Milan show provide vivid evidence for the influence of the exhibition on documenta 1955.

[x] Anonymous, untitled publicity piece dated February 14, 1955, documenta Archiv, documenta 1, Mappe 8.

[xi] For more on the German Federal Garden Shows see Chapter 2 of Andrew Theokas, Grounds for Review: The Garden Festival in Urban Planning and Design, Oxford University Press, Liverpool, 2004, pp. 28-95.

[xii] “Sie wird aber immer nötiger: für die Künstler, damit für sie der Kontakt mit dem Ausland immer enger wird, für das Land Hessen, um die überlokale Bedeutung der Gartenschau zu unterstreichen, für den Bund, weil der Gedanke einer gemeinsamen europäischen Kunst im Zeichen der Europa-Bewegung einende Kraft beweisen kann.” The original text of the so-called ‘Bode Plan’ is found in the documenta Archiv, documenta 1, Mappe 8, but there are various drafts and related exposés in the files. The text (and discussion about the Bode Plan) can also be found in Heiner Georgsdorf, ed. Arnold Bode: Schriften und Gespräche, B & S Siebenhaar, Berlin, 2007, pp. 50-55.

[xiii] The word ‘Qualität’ appears numerous times in various exposés and organizational materials for documentas 1955 and 1959. The idea of bringing important works of art by well-known artists to Kassel was a cornerstone of the committee’s plans.

[xiv] See Roger M. Buergel, “The Origins” in Archive in Motion: 50 Jahre/Years documenta, Michael Glasmeier and Karin Stengel, eds., Steidl, Göttingen, 2005, p. 171.

[xv] An undated report about the exhibition, completed after the close of documenta 1955 explicitly notes the importance of teamwork and collaboration that might not have been overtly apparent: “Der Plan der Ausstellung, der Entwurf und die Bauleitung des Innenausbaus ist von Arnold Bode. Hier aber sollte ausdrücklich gesagt sein, dass die ‘Documenta’ ein echtes Team-work gewesen ist, und dass die selbstlose und unermüdliche Mitarbeit aller Beteiligten unerlässlich für das Gelingen war, auch wo sie nach aussen nicht in Erscheinung trat.” See report in Documenta Archiv, documenta 1, Mappe 8.

[xvi] The literature on postwar Germany’s negotiation of the past is vast. For a recent survey of these issues in art, see Stephanie Barron, et al. The Art of Two Germanys: Cold War Cultures,Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2009.

[xvii] Originally published as Werner Haftmann, Malerei im 20. Jahrhunderts (2 vols.), Prestel, Munich, 1954. Citations here refer to the 1965 English edition. Werner Haftmann, Painting in the Twentieth Century, transl. Ralph Manheim, Praeger, New York and Washington, 1965.

[xviii] Haftmann, vol. 2, 8-13. The team used “der Kunst unserer Zeit” (the art of our time), “Stil unserer Epoche” (style of our epoch), and “Kunst der Gegenwart” (art of the present or “contemporary art”) interchangeably to describe the show’s contents.

[xix] James Sheehan, Museums in the German Art World: From the End of the Old Regime to the Rise of Modernism, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, pp. 36-39.

[xx] For a discussion of documenta as an immersive sensory space, see Charlotte Klonk, Spaces of Experience: Art Gallery Interiors from 1800 to 2000, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2009, pp. 173-189.

[xxi] Harald Kimpel and Karin Stengel, documenta 1955: Erste Internationale Kunstausstellung – eine fotografische Rekonstruktion, Edition Temmen, Bremen, 1995, pp. 138-141.

[xxii] See various letters and texts in documenta Archive, documenta 1, Mappe 8.

[xxiii] Werner Haftmann, “Preface to the German Edition,” trans. Ralph Manheim, Painting in the Twentieth Century, Vol. 1, Praeger, New York, 1965, p. 10.

[xxiv] For a detailed history of the Nazi exhibitions of “degenerate art” see Christoph Zuschlag, “Entartete Kunst": Ausstellungsstrategien im Nazi-Deutschland, Wernersche Verlagsgesellschaft, Worms, 1995.

[xxv] As Lutz Jahre writes, names like “Nivea,” “Tempo,” or “Constructa” met the needs of the postwar German economy: “If you were searching for a forward-looking name, you went with something that sounded international…It was especially popular to tack on an a, which according to psychologists of language makes a word sound more optimistic to German ears.” See Lutz Jahre, “Curators and Catalogues: In the Documenta Reading Room,” in Archive in Motion: 50 Jahre/Years documenta, Michael Glasmeier and Karin Stengel, eds., p. 46.

[xxvi] Karl Oskar Blase, another designer from Kassel wrote that the name “Constructa” had thrilled Bode and he always suspected that this influenced “documenta.” For more on Bode’s designs for Korrekta, see Bettina M. Becker, “Vom anonymen Raumgestalter zum prominenten Designer,” in Arnold Bode: Leben und Werk (1900-1977), Marianne Heinz, ed., pp. 46-53.

[xxvii] For more on Bode’s relationship to these companies and its importance to documenta, see Alfred Nemeczek, “Archäologie im documenta-Urgestein – Glanz und Elend des Gründervaters Arnold Bode,” in Arnold Bode: Leben und Werk (1900-1977), pp. 14-16.

[xxviii] “Kassel liegt im Zonengrenzgebiet. Kassel war sehr zerstört und baut aktiv wieder auf. Beispielhaft kann es wirken, den Europagedanken in der Kunst 30 km von der Zonengrenze entfernt der Welt ins Bewusstsein zu rufen. Kassel ist nicht belastet durch Künstlerbünde und politisch-künstlerische Verflechtungen, die sich störend auswirken müssen. Kassel will nicht an alte Traditionen anknüpfen, wodurch die Gefahr von Parteienstreit zu befürchten ist, sondern mit dieser Ausstellung eine lebendige neue Tradition schaffen, denn die Grundidee ist – wie angegeben – aus baufähig.” ‘Bode Plan’, documenta Archive, documenta 1, Mappe 8.

[xxix] Documenta Archive, documenta 1, Mappe 9.

[xxx] See Jan Tschichold, The New Typography: A Handbook for Modern Designers, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1998.

[xxxi] Tschichold would also later come to see how these principles of efficiency and unification might also be used to, as Johanna Drucker writes, “mask, shield, and conceal many contradictions in texts, images, and communication more generally” and could be “deformed” in service of “concealing…the structures of economic power in corporate, state, and military production.” See Johanna Drucker, The Visible Word: Experimental Typography and Modern Art, 1909-1923, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1994, pp. 244-245.

[xxxii] For an overview of the reception of the Bauhaus during and after World War II see Rainer Wick, “Preliminary Remarks on the Reception of the Bauhaus in Germany” in Teaching at the Bauhaus, ed. Rainer Wick, HatjeCantz, Ostfidern-Ruit, 2000, pp. 302-337.

[xxxiii] See Paul Bett’s important analysis of postwar design and the Nierentisch style in his The Authority of Everyday Objects: A Cultural History of West German Industrial Design, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2004.

[xxxiv] For a history of International Style design see Richard Hollis, Swiss Graphic Design: The Origins and Growth of an International Style, 1920-1965, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2006.

[xxxv] For a discussion of the neutering of the revolutionary power of prewar modernist typography and graphic design in the postwar period, see Johanna Drucker’s discussion of “the demise of typographic experiment” in which she describes how innovative typography became “well-behaved elements of the corporate machine, and the advertising profession became a most efficient partner in the business of promoting consumption as an effect of seamless images and a smoothly functioning ideological apparatus.” See Drucker, The Visible Word: Experimental Typography and Modern Art, 1909-1923, p. 245.

[xxxvi] For a short survey of the different identity programs for documenta 4-11, see Stefanie Herbst, “Meaning Communicated: Documenta Design between Convention and Transmission of Values in Archive in Motion: 50 Jahre/Years documenta, pp. Michael Glasmeier and Karin Stengel, eds. pp. 62-65.

[xxxvii] Brian Boucher, “Documenta 17 Goes to Athens, Splits Self in Two” Art in America (October 7, 2014): http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/news/documenta-17-goes-to-athens-splits-self-in-two. Accessed 4.3.2017.

[xxxviii] The idea of “splitting” the usual Kassel summer event into two urban locations (and the expressed ideas of political borders, migration, and the breakdown of center/periphery models of “globalism”) is also represented in the design of the documenta 14 website. A jagged white line dividing a solid black field, like a crack, coastline, border, or boundary, is the first image to emerge when the website opens. See www.documenta14.de.

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Issue 33

the documenta issue

by Nanne Buurman & Dorothee Richter

by Vesna Madžoski

by Ayşe Güleç