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by Kristian Handberg

The Shock of the Contemporary: documenta II and the Louisiana Museum

Knud W. Jensen (1916-2000), founder and director of Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, often referred to his visit to documenta II in 1959 as his “documenta-Shock.”[i] The impact of this encounter with the 1,000 works of art in the 100-day museum of contemporary art led to a fifteen-page illustrated essay in the yearbook Louisiana Årbog 1959. Moreover, it inspired him to organize the exhibition of Works from documenta at Louisiana just a few weeks after the end of the show in Kassel. After the remarkable initiative of opening a privately funded museum around his collection of early Danish modernist art in a distinctively modern work of architecture in 1958, a year later documenta II gave Jensen a “new view on how the collection should and ought to have been – and—which art the museum should present in the future.”[ii] I will use Jensen's inspiration by documenta II, which he declared to be “the biggest art shock of his life,”[iii] as a point of departure to look at exhibition-making in the late 1950s and 1960s in the years formative for the notions of modern and contemporary art. In the Afterall Exhibition series "Documents for Contemporary Art" (2014), Lucy Steeds has argued that exhibitions of contemporary art can “act as a forum for the experience and critical articulation of cultural contemporaneity.”[iv] This accentuation of the contemporary was already present at the core of documenta II and thereby foreshadowed tendencies of the 1960s, when curated, thematic, and temporary exhibitions became more common in the new museums of modern art, like Louisiana, for instance. In the article, I will discuss the impact of documenta II, focusing on three aspects: its curatorial agenda of instituting the contemporary as a world view, its combination of showing contemporary art and setting up a recent art historical horizon for the present, and, finally, its impact on the development of museums of modern art as visitor attractions and popular events that present art in spectacular surroundings.

Any study of past exhibitions deals with complex and ambiguous matters: how can we comprehend a long-gone exhibition like documenta II, even with the help of meticulous documentation like documenta II 1959. Eine fotografische Rekonstruktion available?[v] My aim here is not to provide a reconstructive exhibition history or to concentrate on an excavation of documenta II as such. Instead, the idea of this article is to point towards a relational exhibition history stressing the entanglements of documenta with other exhibitions and institutions and their shared agendas to showcase contemporaneity. While the attention on documenta history has been considerable, both in the archival documenting sense and in the collective art historical memory, the second edition has hardly been submitted to the canon of “most important exhibitions,” unlike, for instance, Szeemann’s documenta V in 1972, or the contemporaneous exhibitions of Willem Sandberg and Pontus Hultén.[vi] Instead, studies have tended to see documenta II with critical distance and as symptomatic of general tendencies, for instance, in the discourse on the era’s Americanization and Cold War policies[vii] or in Walter Grasskamp's strikingly titled essay “For Example, documenta, or, How is Art History Produced?”[viii]. As Grasskamp has stated, “In its historiography documenta is seldom seen in the larger context of its time but is regarded as a unique event, a stroke of genius of Arnold Bode, which in many ways is without antecedents. To reconstruct documenta’s prehistory in the context of the postwar German and European art scene is work still to be done and might lead to levelling its singularity perhaps a bit.”[ix] Hopefully this article can contribute to this expanded understanding by pointing to the overlooked aspects of the event and its important interplay with other venues of modern and contemporary art.

Page view from “Indtryk fra Documenta,” Louisiana 1959. Photograph by: Kristian Handberg

From a "Peaceful Province" to a "Hectic Metropolis"

Jensen's decision to go to Kassel seems to have been encouraged by the French gallerist Denise René, who had close contacts to Denmark and provided works for documenta II. In advance of his visit, Jensen wrote to documenta founder and primus motor Arnold Bode (1900-1977) asking for a meeting with him and expressing the wish to receive materials about the exhibition for a planned essay in the Louisiana yearbook.[x] Jensen and Bode found interest in each other’s projects and also developed a personal friendship with mutual visits. This paved the way for Louisiana as the only museum showing works from documenta. As a last tribute, Jensen would also later contribute the text “documenta-Shock” to the 1986 anthology Arnold Bode. Jensen reveals his experience of documenta II in the essay “Indtryk fra Documenta” (“Impressions from Documenta”), which appeared in the yearbook Louisiana 1959. The length of fifteen richly illustrated pages bears witness to the importance Jensen attributed to the event, which was impressive, but also provocative for the relatively inexperienced museum founder. Jensen presents the exhibition as an attempt by Bode to offer postwar Germany a necessary “updating on world-art”[xi]—an updating he indeed also deemed urgent himself. While he starts his essay providing a characterization of Kassel as a provincial “bombed-out” city halfway between Hamburg and Frankfurt, far from art’s traditional centers, he concludes by claiming in contrast that, “The visit was for a Northerner like arriving in a hectic, fascinating, almost frightening metropole.”[xii] The updating, according to Jensen, was a goodbye to previous distinctions, “isms,” and genres, as “a zone of freedom had been cleared for art”, so that “[a]rt today seems to unfold itself in a hitherto unknown freedom” and “a restless searching, experimenting, and researching” by “artists in all [free] countries.”[xiii] The so-called free art was predominantly non-figurative, he observes, “Of 700 paintings, 685 were non-figurative,”[xiv] and Jensen notes that “the victory of the non-representational art was so absolute that it was now just about using freedom, the disappearance of norms, and the unlimited possibilities of expression.”[xv] Indeed, the victory of abstraction as a “world language” was an ideological resonance with the free West, even though Jensen (in accordance with the universalist world images of the time) claims that the chosen works represented the whole world.[xvi]

Besides this celebratory rhetoric of being shocked by the new and hitherto unknown freedom, Jensen also accentuates the way documenta is staged as a reaction to the darker origins of its contemporaneity. “The bombed-out baroque palaces with their empty window recesses and blackened walls were an effective frame, in its way a symbol for the world in which modern art is created. […] the society of wars, nuclear build-up, mass production, and human standardization,”[xvii] where (with reference to the sculptures of Germaine Richier) “[o]ne is forced to think about Hiroshima.”[xviii] This reveals two central areas of ambivalence: first, the experience of a new freedom (perceived by the West and projected onto the world) and the presence of similarly world-spanning threats of the Cold War era. And second, on the one hand, the idea of autonomy of (abstract) art and the “absolute” freedom for artists to dedicate themselves to experiment with inner worlds, and simultaneously art as a reaction to the outer world and its perceived social, political, cultural, and philosophical modernity. Jensen was a good observer, so much so that his account reads like a catalogue of typologies of the postwar era, its anxieties and utopias. He was impressed by “the massive call-up of convincingly topical, high-quality art”[xix] as well as by the ways in which it was presented in equally inspiring frameworks, where “the overall impression, strangely enough, despite the background of ruins, is festive, light, and uplifting,”[xx] inducing an awakened energy in the visitor. The documenta shock was not just a confrontation with the gravity of contemporary art, but just as much with the new potentialities of remaking the art institution. A new museum, for Jensen, had to be based on three principles: representing the contemporary, showing its foundations in modernist art history and creating a total experience for the viewers.

The Musealization of Modernism

Despite the central importance of Bode, the influence of Werner Haftmann—curatorial advisor of documenta I-III—also needs to be taken into account for understanding the interplay of documenta and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Even though a bit forgotten today, the German art historian Werner Haftmann (1912-1999) was a key figure in the world of European art in the postwar era—and in the creation of documenta. Through his dedicated promotion of abstraction, which he boldly claimed to be a “world language,” one could call him the “European Greenberg” as a founding figure for the paradigm of postwar modernism and its institutions. Where references to the American art historian Greenberg appear as being quite scarce in the following European 1960s debates, Haftmann had a profound influence through his writings, promotion of artists, and curatorial work reaching from documenta over important exhibitions like Zeugnisse der Angst in Moderne Kunst (Darmstadt 1963) and membership of the jury of the Venice Biennale in 1960 and 1962, to being the founding director of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, which opened in 1968.

Werner Haftmann in front of Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin. 1968. Photo: Reinhard Friedrich/Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

His Malerei im 20. Jahrhundert (1954) (English edition: Painting in the Twentieth Century (1965)) became a standard work in the era, with an ambitious reading of “the profoundly revolutionary developments in painting”[xxi] illustrating the situation of modern European mankind, from the “turning point” of Cezanne up to the “tangled, chaotic growth, which we call ‘the present.’”[xxii] Going through the foundations of modern painting in France, Germany, and Italy in the late 19th and early 20th century and sketching out the internationalizing contemporary art scene from 1945 on, Haftmann promotes the qualities of abstraction in exactly the combination of modernist autonomy and definitive response to the situation by (white Euro-American) man in his time that Jensen would later read out of his documenta experience. Haftmann notes about Wols (1913-1951), for instance: “What gives the life and work of Wols their value as contemporary documents is Wols’ exemplary acceptance of the destiny which man meted out to man in the chaotic years before and after the war: persecution, poverty, homelessness, and perpetual flight. Gently submissive to his fate, he recorded what befell him: not the facts, but the images provoked by the wounds that inflicted his psyche.”[xxiii] In a central passage, the art historian describes the fulfilled postwar abstraction as an expanded, new realism: “[…] abstract painting is also concerned with the creation of realities: harmonic realities existing in their own right, and expressed by structures of form and colour; psychic realities expressive of man’s inner world; and realities relating to the outside world, reflecting modern scientific insights.”[xxiv] Haftmann’s view on art and the modern world is further exemplified in the essay “Utopie und Angst” for the exhibition Zeugnisse der Angst in der Modernen Kunst: a large-scale exhibition of modern art that complemented the intellectual meeting of the Darmstädter Gespräche 1963 with the theme Angst und Hoffnung in dieser Zeit (“Fear and Hope in These Times”). Here, Haftmann observes the art of his time (especially Asger Jorn is mentioned) through the complementary forces of utopias and fears: an existential approach where inner and outer worlds are mixed for the “Aufbau einer neuen Welt” (building of a new world) of the postwar era, where the “utopian future projection” is tied to “contemporary fear.”[xxv] Once again, a world picture very similar to Jensen’s reading of documenta II.

Compared to Greenberg’s contemporary formalism and promotion of American painting as heirs of the European modernist tradition, Haftmann was more aware of the positions of European postwar art, such as concrete art or spontaneous abstraction, even if he also left out significant fields not fitting into his art view, i.e. non-abstract art. His thinking was concerned with embedding abstract art in modern and contemporary experience, albeit by its expanded speculative realism, rather than the pure formalist self-critique of Greenberg. From the Western German perspective, in the middle of the “chaotic panorama” of postwar Europe,[xxvi] “free” abstract art appeared as a sign of cultural identity of the rebuilt Western Europe: “The faith in artistic freedom united the creative energies of Europe despite all physical and moral barriers. It alone accounts for the scarcely believable fact that after the end of hostilities, when it became possible once more to take stock of the artistic situation in European countries, a single common pattern stood out clearly. Far more strikingly than before the war, indeed more than ever before, the work done in different European countries seemed to form a European whole.”[xxvii]

International, clearly with universalist aspirations, this points to the ideal of abstraction as a world language (“Abstraktion als Weltsprache”),[xxviii] which became the dictum of the first three documentas, where Haftmann was involved in a sense that today we would definitely call co-curator, or, in the words of Grasskamp, “chief ideologist,”[xxix] also contributing with his academic reputation as an established German art historian. In a speech for documenta III in 1964, Haftmann credits documenta as being the personal initiative of Arnold Bode, but that it was also formed through their common discussions while visiting some scenes of international art life, such as Venice or Paris.[xxx] This pointed beyond the German situation, which is sometimes evoked in the documenta myth of the “Ausstellungswunder” rising from the ruined city, and revealed a more comprehensive image of modern art. The first documenta exhibition in 1955 did not start from a Stunde Null with contemporary works, but followed the 20th century through a selection of modernist works that drew largely on Haftmann’s expertise and even his Malerei im 20. Jahrhundert, where, as Grasskamp reveals, the plates from the picture section in Haftmann’s book even overlap with the documenta catalogue, as he actually brought some of the color printing blocks with him.[xxxi] The first documenta was intended as a corrective to the infamous 1937 Nazi exhibition Entartete Kunst (“degenerate art”) in order to construct a rehabilitating narrative of modernism for the German people. While the first Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung in Dresden in 1946 had already been dedicated to this cause much earlier, the task of atoning for that exhibition was also manifestly taken up elsewhere in the 1960s, like at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, the city where the most famous of the Nazi’s exhibitions on “degenerate art” had originally been shown, with the exhibition Entartete Kunst. Bildersturm vor 25 Jahre (“Degenerate Art: The Iconoclasm 25 Years Ago”) in 1962.[xxxii] The success of documenta, and the establishment of its recurring form with documenta II, was thus not just connected to the exhibition of new works, but also to a curated selective presentation of the past for the present. It established a resonance for contemporary art in the modern tradition, which was not yet musealized at that time. The 100-day museum, as Bode would call documenta in the catalogue of documenta III (in 1964),[xxxiii] did not have a collection, but was able to show a specific vision of the past.

This was also the case in documenta II (1959), where Haftmann continued his art historical curatorship. At first, the goal was to present “Art since 1945,” a horizon already stretching beyond the year of the previous exhibition in 1955. However, Haftmann’s catalogue essay draws a horizon for the contemporary in the previous art of the 20th century, like psychological representations made possible by fauvism and expressionism or the harmony of concrete forms established by suprematism, de Stijl, and the Bauhaus, set up as foundational “arguments” for contemporary art.[xxxiv] These central arguments about the foundation of modern art were also carried out in the beginning of the actual exhibition, through rooms with a prominent selected presentation of prewar forerunners in the sections “Die Argumente der Kunst des XX. Jahrhunderts” (“Arguments of 20th-century Art”), “Die Lehrmeister der Malerei des XX. Jahrhunderts” (“The Masters of 20th-century Painting”) and “Wegbereiter der Skulptur des XX. Jahrhunderts” (“The Trailblazers of 20th-century Sculpture”) featuring the likes of Brancusi, Picasso, Klee, and Mondrian.[xxxv] This “monumental historical introduction”[xxxvi] was what first met the visitors before they reached the “Art since 1945” section that was dedicated to contemporary practices. And, of course, it corresponds with Haftmann’s art historical narrative, promoting a canon of masters from a Western universalist perspective. The exhibition also featured testimonial displays of artists who had passed away since 1955: Willi Baumeister, Jackson Pollock, Nicolas de Stäel, and Wols.[xxxvii]

View from “Die Argumente der Kunst des XX. Jahrhunderts”, Museum Friedericianum. Photo: documenta Archiv

documenta II's focus on the art of its present was premised on a profound staging of a selected past, creating a kind of double vision of modernist masters and contemporaries. This strategy of providing a modernist premise of the present production was also the basis of the new museums of modern art, like Moderna Museet in Stockholm and Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts in Vienna, which like the Louisiana Museum, showed the founding arguments of modern art together with its contemporary manifestations. This corresponds with Jensen’s vision for Louisiana, as it became known. Initially, Louisiana was dedicated to early Danish modernism, but the focus changed remarkably after Jensen’s documenta visit.[xxxviii] The “documenta shock” was not a break with the art of the past, but a new orientation of that past in a sharpened direction, as the museum would present selected examples of international modernism, for instance, in exhibitions of Kasimir Malevich (1960), Max Ernst (1963), and Jackson Pollock (1963) in the years following documenta II.

In the Labyrinth of Contemporary Art

Even though the later reception has sometimes perceived documenta II as one-sided in its emphasis on non-figurative art produced as the result of a specific linear art history, a recurring characteristic around the experience of the documenta II was the metaphor of the labyrinth. The room structure of halls and corridors, stairs and bridges in and out of the ruins of palaces and new buildings and the vast array of works gave rise to the notion of the labyrinth to describe the complex intertwining of architecture and art.[xxxix] The term was seemingly introduced by the organizers themselves, taken up by critics and proceeded into popular circulation. Even a contemporary newsreel introduces the exhibition as a “Labyrinth der modernen Kunst” (labyrinth of modern art) (UFA Wochenshau, July 1959)[xl] when showing a summer-clad audience wandering around and wondering about the forms of modern art. As Harald Kimpel and Karin Stengel note in their essay on the exhibition, the labyrinth image contained an ambiguity: “While the exhibition presented itself as a directory through the labyrinth of contemporary art, it appeared as a labyrinth in itself, where a minotaur waited around every corner,”[xli] as an illustration of the “very comprehensive adventure happening in between the positive and negative poles of freedom”[xlii] that Haftmann had formulated as constitutive for modern art. If abstraction was taken as a lingua franca of the contemporary world, this world was not yet perceived as clearly defined and easily accessible, but as a complex labyrinth.

Interestingly, the notion of the labyrinth was also a recurring motif in important exhibitions that would follow documenta II in the 1960s. Groundbreaking large-scale exhibitions like Dylaby (“Dynamical Labyrinth”), curated by Willem Sandberg together with the artists Jean Tinguely, Daniel Spoerri, Niki de Saint Phalle, Robert Rauschenberg, Martial Raysse, and Per Olof Ultvedt at Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1962 and HON—en katedral, curated by Pontus Hultén and de Saint Phalle, Tinguely, and Ultvedt at Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1966, have been perceived through the image of the labyrinth, forming almost a curatorial model of the “labyrinthine” exhibition.[xliii] Even though these exhibitions appear more carnivalesque, offering spectacular experiences—such as walking in through the vagina of a giant body or watching paintings walking on the ceiling—and also presenting art in a neo-dada vein, some kind of genealogy can be observed in the trope of the labyrinth for vanguard exhibitions that were pioneering in the "historicization" of contemporary art.

New curatorial models were necessary for a new age, characterized by an “almost violent dynamism,”[xliv] in the words of the important exhibition-maker Pontus Hultén. The complex, ambiguous image of the postwar world is very present in Haftmann’s account in Painting in the Twentieth Century. As mentioned above, it is presented as a guide into the “tangled, chaotic growth, which we call ‘the present’”[xlv] and the European postwar situation as “a chaotic panorama.” The era offered both new freedom, especially compared to the Nazi past, and new kinds of societal and cultural threats in a consumer society caught in a Cold War—the negative and positive poles of freedom, as Haftmann described in the documenta II catalogue. Haftmann definitely saw modern art as being in tune with the new scientific horizons of the era: “The new scientific view of the world, in which substance is identified with energy, space with time, and finitude with infinity has profoundly influenced the modern artist.”[xlvi] A new universal orientation—with abstract art as its “world language”—is also characteristic of the postwar world, where the traditional European cultures of art (notably, France, Italy, and Germany) have been replaced by an internationalization forming a “European whole” more than ever before, and modern art even extending throughout the whole globe as a “model example of a world culture,” as Haftmann put it in his speech at the opening of the documenta II,[xlvii] so that—according to him—the Japanese Sugai, the Chilean Matta, the Cuban Lam, and the American Pollock felt at home (exhibiting in Kassel). However, this global ambition of modernist world culture was of course restricted to the "free," Western-oriented world, and the art forms of the other side the Iron Curtain a few miles from Kassel were excluded.[xlviii] “Where lack of freedom reigns, under totalitarianism in all its forms, modern art is always persecuted,”[xlix] Haftmann said in the opening speech, clearly directed towards the Nazism of the past as well as the Communist regimes of the present. From analyses of art in the Cold War era, the political charging of free-form abstraction is well known. As Sabine Autsch states in her article on abstraction and Americanization at documenta II, the concept of “artistic freedom” was politicized so that “Abstraction and Americanism” were promoted as synonyms for liberalization, independence, and subjectivism.[l] This is, of course, also a central aspect of the supposedly global scope of contemporaneity that documenta II addresses.

documenta as a Popular Attraction

Besides its art historical statement and proclaimed world-spanning interpretation of the present, documenta II was also shockingly new in a more immediate sense: as a popular experience, where modern art could be enjoyed in a spectacular setting accompanied by contemporary design interiors, cafés and bars, and other facilities, turning the exhibition into a total package of “aura and event,” in the words of Autsch. documenta II was a new type of institution: being art exhibition, cultural festival, and media event at once,[li] and presenting contemporary art as a popular attraction. Here, it is not the art works that are in focus, but the sociality around them, as illustrated by the newsreel’s images of a youthful audience hanging out by Picasso’s fountain sculpture, “Les Baigneurs.”

View with Pablo Picasso: Les Baigneurs, Photo: documenta Archiv

This image is an icon of documenta II as an event for youth, far away from the conventional museum. According to Bode, the exhibition was aimed at youth “across all national borders with clarification for the contemporary and hope for the future.”[lii] With 134,000 visitors, the exhibition was indeed a mass cultural event. These visitors were met by a recognizable lower-case ‘d’ logo on posters, and waving flags outside the Friedericianum reminded a contemporary reviewer of “screaming banners outside a clearance sale in a department store.”[liii] After the modernist historical lesson in the “Argumente der Kunst des XX. Jahrhunderts,” “Lehrmeisters,” and “Wegbereiters” rooms opening the exhibition in the Friedericianum, the audience would reach a café, styled with textile works of Richard Mortensen and Henri-Georges Adam. Cafés in exhibitions were not common at the time (one of the first was the “refreshment room” at the Stedelijk Museum with murals by Karel Appel created in 1951) and caused critics to comment on the “strange mixture” of coffee drinkers with fashionable lipstick colors and the colors of the artworks in the “Labyrinth of the Modern.”[liv] Indeed, as Autch observes, the whole event bore a resemblance to modern life's popular features like cocktail parties, barbeques, and swimming pools.[lv]

Café with Richard Mortensen: Fresque d’Aubusson, 1956, and Henri-Georges Adam: Penmarch, 1958. Documenta Archiv

The integration of artworks, exhibition design, and popular event have been central to documenta II’s concept and initial success. A similarly revolutionary rethinking of showing art took place at the new museums of modern art of the postwar era. At Louisiana, for instance, the art exhibitions were supplemented with jazz concerts, Fluxus happenings, debates, and a café with a sea view. It is likely that Jensen's enthusiasm was not only caused by the works of art on display at documenta II, but also by the ways in which they were presented, including the supplementary designed lounges and cafés. His new museum in Denmark was new in the sense that it displayed art in an informal and modern setting, integrated the experience of art, architecture, and landscape—and featured a café. A poster from the inaugural year of 1958 presents Louisiana as “Collection of Contemporary Art and Crafts” with a “Cafeteria and Park.”

Poster, Louisiana 1958. Photo: Louisiana

At first sight, the Louisiana Museum with its Scandinavian modern architecture in a scenic park at a Nordic seaside location is quite different from the dramatic frames of documenta set by the “bombed-out baroque palaces” and the labyrinthine exhibition design. However, they share a common vision of exhibition architecture: a striking similarity may be observed between the white walls framing the sculptures at the Orangerie outdoor exhibition at documenta II, forming “open-air white cubes” as Grasskamp put it,[lvi] and the way in which sculptures were placed among the white walls of Louisiana at the time. The two exhibition architectures were developed independently of each other, but with a related vision of the staging of contemporary art on a new foundation. While the museum’s architecture was already there before Jensen went to Kassel, Jensen saw that he had to change the emphasis of the contents from a permanent collection to changing exhibitions. And the first exhibition took documenta to Louisiana.

View of the “Open-air white cubes” at the sculpture exhibition at the Orangerie. Photo: documenta Archiv

View of Louisiana with sculptures of Robert Jacobsen at the time of Værker fra documenta, 1959. Photo: Louisiana

In the beginning of October, shortly before the exhibition closed in Kassel on October 11, Louisiana could announce a show of selected works from “the most talked-about and interesting exhibition in Europe,” as the press enthusiastically passed on.[lvii] “We hope to be able to open in October,”[lviii] Jensen said, adding that the opening hours would be expanded during the show, which reveals the improvised spontaneity of the arrangement and the flexibility of the new museum. When Værker fra documenta opened on October 20, it showed forty-one works by fourteen artists. The selection was ostensibly made by Jensen together with Bode and avoided artists previously shown in Denmark, especially French artists.[lix] This was noted in the press reception, which applauded this unusual input “with just one Frenchman,” pointing to the dominating French inspiration in Danish modern art. The critiques were positive, welcoming a “fascinating survey of postwar art” as a “breeze from the outside,” a selection of the “most modern.” One review, for instance, expressed surprise to see works made as late as the previous year. Thus, radical newness and aggressive contemporaneity impressed the Danish reception; reviewers were awed by the presence of the big event in the local context. However, the show was also controversially discussed, as Jensen recalls in his autobiography. Polemics in the press and passionate discussions in the museum sections of Danish art society were complemented by the discontent of Danish avant-garde artists like Ejler Bille and Erik Thommesen, who attacked the works of Pollock, Tàpies, Dubuffet, Wols, and others as being a “whim of fashion, hat trimmings and empty decoration”[lx] with an underlying weariness of giving the new museum away from Danish artists to foreign competition.

The exhibition became a touchstone in the curatorial efforts of Louisiana. Some works were bought from the show, including Victor Vasarely’s Zilah (1957), while other artists, such as Ernst, Pollock, and Dubuffet garnered attention and were consequently exhibited further in the museum. The most important influence of documenta II on Louisiana was, however, the dedication to current contemporary and international art together with their foundation in modernist art history and as a total experience. Louisiana showed a survey of works from documenta IV again in 1968; the same year Haftmann’s Neue Nationalgalerie opened as a “Weltgalerie der Moderne,” built by Mies van der Rohe and arguably the last great modernist museum confidently staging modernist art in modernist architecture in the Kulturforum: the new West Berlin equivalent to Museum Island located in the Eastern part of the city, by then capital of the GDR. The following year, in 1969, Haftmann would spark a debate with his speech on the contemporary museum at the 100-year symposium for Hamburger Kunsthalle, known as his “Hamburg speech,” where he denounced the traditional museum as well as the “irresponsible” anti-museum art of the young 1968 generation.[lxi] New fault lines had occurred, and abstraction was no longer generally considered a world language, neither at documenta, where Haftmann was no longer involved and Bode’s influence increasingly subdued, nor in other parts of the world.


Even if long past today, documenta II of 1959 left a decisive mark on exhibition history. The way it inspired Jensen’s reconfiguration of Louisiana as a modern museum dedicated to the experience of the present is a case in point. Moreover, it turned documenta into a recurring event that matched the format of the perennial exhibition (which had been established by the Venice Biennale, the Great Exhibitions, and the Paris Salons, for instance) with an international scope and a focus on contemporaneity. Thus, the aim and self-understanding of documenta as a stage of current tendencies, aesthetic discourses, and new definitions of international art were constituted here, to be continued and benchmarked in the following documenta editions. Accordingly, as Kimpel and Stengel state, “Since 1959 every documenta functioned from the beginning as an occasion for public reflection of the state of contemporary culture and its social condition; commenting on the exhibition tied the critique of the event with a general diagnosis of the era,”[lxii] giving the event the core designation as Gegenwartsbewältigung—coming to terms with the present. This included a presence of the recent past and considerable engagement in the popular experience-making of the day. Louisiana, as one of the leading new defining museums of the era, followed a similar agenda: “Even though the emphasis is still on experiencing pictorial art, our duty is also to channel some part of contemporary cultural life into our museums,”[lxiii] Knud W. Jensen would later say about the aim of the museum. Hence, I would argue that documenta II worked as a catalyst for Louisiana and other European museums of modern art, while the museums were in turn important for documenta and sources of knowledge on modern art, as well as allies in the forming of a new way of presenting art. However, the role of presenting the art history of modernism, which was still so present in the first three documenta editions, was consequently outsourced to the museums of modern art. Louisiana, but also Haftmann’s decision to leave documenta to become the director of the newly founded Neue Nationalgalerie, are cases in point. I would like to conclude by stressing that institutions like documenta and Louisiana, with their focus on the history of the present, help us understand the formation of the notion of contemporary art as well as its relation to modernity. Their expansive notion of the present with its utopian idea of abstraction as a world language marked an important point in exhibition history, before the notion of the contemporary started to emancipate itself from the historical category of modern art.

Kristian Handberg studied art history, aesthetics, and culture at Aarhus University with a focus on postwar art history and theory, writing his master’s thesis on superrealism and art historiography. He completed his PhD project at the University of Copenhagen on retro as cultural memory through site-specific case studies in Montreal and Berlin, including research as a visiting scholar at McGill University, Montreal. Since 2015, he has been a postdoctoral researcher with the project Multiple Modernities: World Images and Dreamworlds in Arts and Culture, 1946-1972 at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art and the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, a collaborative research project on the radically new horizons of the postwar era and its current reassessment in academic and curatorial practices. He is also a coordinator of the research group Modernisms at the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen and works as an art critic, editor, and curator. His publications include There’s no time like the past: Retro between Memory and Materiality (2014), “No time like the past?: On the new role of vintage and retro in the magazines Scandinavian Retro and Retro Gamer,” Necsus European Journal of Media Studies, December 2015, and “The World Goes Modern: New globalized framings of the postwar era in the contemporary exhibitions After Year Zero and The World Goes Pop”, Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, 2016

[i] This title forms a chapter in his autobiography Mit Louisiana-liv, Gyldendal, Copenhagen, 1986, as well as a contribution to the tribute anthology Arnold Bode. Documenta. Kassel, Stadtsparkasse, Kassel, 1986.

[ii] Knud W. Jensen, Mit Louisiana-liv, p. 50. ”Allerede året efter åbningen af Louisiana fik jeg pludselig et nyt syn på, hvorledes samlingen kunne og burde have været – og hvilken kunst museet i fremtiden skulle vise på sine udstillinger” (all translations by the author).

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Lucy Steeds, Introduction to Exhibition (Documents for Contemporary Art), Whitechapel/MIT Press, London, 2014, p. 19.

[v] Schriftenreihe des documenta-archivs, 2000.

[vi] See, for instance, The Formative Years: Pontus Hultén and Moderna Museet Anna Tellgren, ed., Koenig Books, London, 2017, Andreas Gedin, Pontus Hultén, Hon & Moderna, Bokförlaget Langenskiöld, Stockholm, 2016, Stedelijk Studies, and the interviews in Hans Ulrich Obrist: A Brief History of Curating (2008).

[vii] Sabiene Autsch, “Die Welt schmeisst mit Farben – Abstraktion und Amerikanisierung auf der documenta 2 (1959),” in Lars Koch, Petra Tallafuss, eds., Modernisierung als Amerikanisierung? Entwicklungslinien der westdeutschen Kultur 1945-1960, transcript, Bielefeld, 2007.

[viii] Walter Grasskamp, “For Example, documenta, or, How is Art History Produced?,” in Thinking About Exhibitions, Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W. Ferguson, and Sandy Nairn, eds., Routledge, London, 1996, pp. 48-56.

[ix] Walter Grasskamp, To be continued: Periodic Exhibitions (documenta, For Example), Tate Papers 2009, p. 5.

[x] Letter from Knud W. Jensen to Arnold Bode, August 21, 1959, Mappe 1, archives of Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.   

[xi] Knud W. Jensen,,  “Indtryk fra Documenta II” in Louisiana 1959, Knud W. Jensen, ed., Louisiana/Gyldendal, Copenhagen, 1959, pp. 61-75, 61.

[xii] ”Besøget på Documenta var for en nordbo som at komme fra en fredelig provins til en hektisk, betagende, næsten skræmmende metropol.” Ibid., p. 74.

[xiii] Ibid., p. 61.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] ”den genstandsløse kunsts sejr er så absolut, at det nu kun drejer sig om at udnytte friheden, normernes bortfald, de ubegrænsede udtryksmuligheder”, Ibid. p. 64.

[xvi] Ibid., p. 61.

[xvii] ”Kassels udbombede barokpalæer med de tomme vinduesnicher og sværtede mure var en virkningsfuld ramme, på en vis symbolsk for den verden den moderne kunst er skabt i. Megen kunst betegner et oprør, en protest imod det samfund, vi lever i, krigenes, atomoprustningens, masseproduktionens og den menneskelige ensretnings samfund,” Ibid.

[xviii] Ibid., p. 74.

[xix] Jensen, Mit Louisiana-liv , p. 53.

[xx] Jensen, “Indtryk fra Documenta II,”p. 67.

[xxi] Werner Haftmann, Painting in the Twentieth Century, Lund Humphries, London, 1965, Vol. 1, p. 10.

[xxii] Ibid., p. 11.

[xxiii] Ibid., p. 345.

[xxiv] Ibid., p. 315.

[xxv] Werner Haftmann, ”Utopie und Angst” pp. 77-97 in Zeugnisse der Angst in der Modernen Kunst, Mathildenhöhe, Darmstadt, 1963, p. 80. Exhibition catalogue.

[xxvi] Ibid., p. 311.

[xxvii] Ibid., p. 313.

[xxviii] The formulation was introduced in Werner Haftmann, Malerei der 20. Jahrhundert, Prestel-Verlag, Munich, 1954.

[xxix] Walter Grasskamp, “For example, documenta, or, how is art history produced?,” in Thinking About Exhibitions, Greenberg, Ferguson and Nairn, eds., Routledge, London, 1996, pp. 48-56.

[xxx] Quoted in the presentation by Evelyn Haftmann on http://werner-haftmann.de/documenta/. Accessed 04.18.2017.

[xxxi] Grasskamp, “For example, documenta, or, how is art history produced?,” p. 54.

[xxxii] Okwui Enwezor,“The Judgement of Art: Postwar and Artistic Worldliness” in Postwar: Art Between the Atlantic and the Pacific 1945-1965, Haus der Kunst, Munich, 2016, pp. 23-24. Exhibition catalogue.

[xxxiii] First mentioned for documenta III in 1964.

[xxxiv] Werner Haftmann, “Malerei nach 1945,” in documenta II, M. DuMont Schauberg, Kassel, 1959, p. 17. Exhibition catalogue.

[xxxv] Harald Kimpel, Kirstein Stengel, documenta II 1959. Eine fotografische Rekonstruktion, Schriftreie des documenta-archiv, Kassel, 2000. p. 8.

[xxxvi] Ibid.

[xxxvii] Ibid., p. 9.

[xxxviii] Pontus Hultén’s Moderna Museet and Willem Sandberg’s Stedelijk, with their exhibitions of the historical avant-gardes, were other declared inspirations in the early 1960s, seemingly taken up after visiting documenta.

[xxxix] Ibid., p. 8.

[xl] UFA Wochenshcau 155/1959, 14.7. 1959, Bundesarchiv, Filmothek. Accessed 04.18.2017. https://www.filmothek.bundesarchiv.de/video/584345.

[xli] “Während sich also die Ausstellung als Wegweiser durch das Labyrinth der Gegenwartskunst ausgibt, wird sie selbst zum Irrgarten, in welchem hinter jeder Ecke ein Minotauros zu gewärtigen ist”, Kimpel and Stengel, documenta II 1959. Eine fotografische Rekonstruktion, p. 8.

[xlii] “Die moderne Kultur ist ein sehr umfassendes Abenteuer, das zwischen den negativen und positiven Polen der Freiheit sich ereignet,” Haftmann 1959, p. 14.

[xliii] This was the thesis behind the symposium Lose Yourself. The Labyrinthine Exhibition as Curatorial Model at Stedelijk Museum, February 2017. Accessed 04.18.2017. http://www.stedelijk.nl/en/calendar/theory/lose-yourself.

[xliv] In a letter to Billy Klüver. Quoted in Hiroko Ikegami: The Great Migrator. Robert Rauschenberg and the global rise of American Art, MIT Press, 2010, p. 107.

[xlv]. Werner Haftmann, Painting in the Twentieth Century, Lund Humphries, London, 1965, Vol. 1, p. 11.

[xlvi] Ibid., p. 316.

[xlvii] Werner Haftmann, “Vortrag anlässlich der Eröffnung der 2. documenta am 11. Juli 1959,” printed in Mannfred Schneckenburger, Documenta. Idee und Institution, Tendenzen, Konzepte, Materialen, Bruckmann, Munich, 1983, p. 55.  

[xlviii] It should be acknowledged that the representation of art from outside the West was indeed sparse and only included artists like Lam and Matta integrated into Western scenes and styles.

[xlix] ”Wo Unfreiheit herrscht, Totalitarismus in allen seinen Spielarten, da steht auch die modernen Kunst immer weiter unter Verfolgung”, Ibid., p.54.

[l] Sabiene Autsch, “Die Welt schmeisst mit Farben – Abstraktion und Amerikanisierung auf der documenta 2 (1959),” in Lars Koch and Petra Tallafuss, Modernisierung als Amerikanisierung? Entwicklungslinien der westdeutschen Kultur 1945-1960, transcript, Bielefeld, 2007, p. 234.D

[li] Ibid., p. 246.

[lii] Introduction to documenta II, p. 11: “über alle nationalen Grenzen hinaus Klärung für die Gegenwart und Hoffnung für die Zukunft geben wird.”

[liii] Rainer Zimmermann, “Die zweite documenta in Kassel,” Kulturarbeit 10, 1959, quoted in Kimpel and Stengel, documenta II 1959. Eine fotografische Rekonstruktion, p. 30. (“Grelle Fahnen wie aus dem Sclussverkaufsarsenal eines Warenhaus”).

[liv] Ibid.

[lv] Autsch, “Die Welt schmeisst mit Farben – Abstraktion und Amerikanisierung auf der documenta 2 (1959),”  p. 250.

[lvi] Walter Grasskamp, “The White Wall: On the Prehistory of the White Cube,” in OnCurating, No. 9/11: Curating Critique, 2011, p. 88.

[lvii] “’Dokumenta’ til Louisiana,” Information, October 9, 1959. [misspelling in original]

[lviii] “Europakunst til Danmark,” B.T., October 7, 1959.

[lix] Ibid.

[lx] Jensen, Mit Louisiana-liv, p. 53.

[lxi] Werner Haftmann, “Das Museum der Gegenwart,” in Das Museum der Zukunft, Gerhard Bott, ed., M. DuMont Schauberg, Kassel, 1971.

[lxii] Kimpel and Stengel, documenta II 1959. Eine fotografische Rekonstruktion, p. 7. (“Seit 1959 fungierte jede documenta auch als Anlass zur öffentlichen Reflexion über den Zustand der zeitgenössischen Kultur und deren soziale Bedingungen; im Ausstellungskommentar verbindet sich Veranstaltungskritik mit allgemeiner Zeitdiagnose”).

[lxiii] Knud W.Jensen, “The Ideal Museum Wanted: Qualified Utopias,” paper at CIMAM Conference, 1979. Archive of the Papers of Knud W. Jensen, Louisiana.

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Issue 33

the documenta issue

by Nanne Buurman & Dorothee Richter

by Vesna Madžoski

by Ayşe Güleç