Featuring the Americans

documenta II benefits from sculptures from the Orangerie ruins
documenta II was subtitled “Art after 1945 – International exhibition”. But just as the documenta held in 1955 did not only show pre-1945 modernist works that were banned by the Nazi regime, the succeeding exhibition in 1959 was not limited to postwar art. The temptation to shine by present-ing the big names of the twentieth century was too great and, according to the organizers, the preceding 15 years did not have enough to offer. Therefore, Arnold Bode and Werner Haftmann led into the exhibition with two histo-rical sections in which the pioneers of modernism were presented: “Arguments of Twentieth-Century Art” and “Mentors of Twentieth-Century Art.” As a result, artists such as Fernand Léger and Pablo Picasso were represented twice at documenta II – as crown witnesses of modernism and as contemporaries of postwar artists. While the first documenta presented modern art in a secure framework with unanimous approval and extended the lines of devel-opment boldly, but not provocatively, up to the pre-sent day, documenta II took a biased position in the current debate about the most important tendencies in contem-porary art. Werner Haftmann, the theoretician at the side of the practitioner Bode, saw all art developing towards abstraction. In the catalogue, he wrote: “… all of these individual directions have finally flowed into abstract art, with 1950 as the approximate critical year.” We know that this appraisal was wrong. Abstraction did not become the universal language of modern art. Thus, it is not surprising that some were very critical of documenta II. That others were impressed by documenta II and Kassel as the location of the exhibition was primarily due to the fact that the exhibition grounds were extended to the grounds around the Orangerie ruins. With their torso-like walls, these ruins were a fasci-nating setting for the sculptures placed outdoors. However, Bode reduced the impact of the ruins by presenting the sculptures in front of whitewashed brick walls, thus transforming the sculptural works into three-dimensional images. The second novelty of the 1959 documenta was the inclusion of American artists. Now documenta was no longer an art show fixat-ed on Europe. Large paintings by Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell, to name but a few, dominated the exhibition of paintings nearly taking up all of the exhibition space. What was special about the American works shown was that they were not selected by the paint-ing and sculpture committee, but by Porter McCray, who was responsible for international exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The organizers in Kassel had opted for this path because trips to the USA could not be made for time and cost reasons and because no one in Kassel was up on the art scene there. The appointment of McCray con-tinually fuelled rumours that the CIA was involved. The third new aspect was that in addition to paintings and sculptures, prints were exhibited for the first time (in Palais Bellevue), and, furthermore, there was a small special exhibition of tapestries in Museum Fridericianum.

Translation Burke Barrett

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