documenta III takes a cautious look at the present
Arnold Bode had a propensity to look far ahead. For example, in the documenta year 1959 he outlined what the exhibition could be like four years later. After having to abandon his suggestion of moving documenta II into the rebuilt Wilhelms-höhe Palace because the latter was still in ruins, he now strove with all his might to present documenta III in 1963 there. But time ran out on the planners once again. And when they were still thinking about the rebuilding plans in the spring of 1962, it became apparent that the main site of documenta III would again be the Fridericianum. But it was not only space and time factors that led to the first talk of a crisis of the documenta. Those responsible were also making only slow progress in establishing the content. Although Bode had announced the working title “Masterpieces of the Last 50 Years” early on, the exhibition machine still wasn’t up and running only thirteen months before the starting date. It was only in July 1962 that the organizers admitted they were behind schedule, leading to the first postponement of a documenta, to 1964. Many critics did not like the fact that documenta III again showed masterpieces from the first half of the century. And there was even more opposition to the selection principle, which Werner Haftmann described using the formula “Art is what important artists do.” This was interpreted as an escape to subjectivity. Perhaps documenta III would have been a failure and the chapter of large international exhibitions come to an end had Haftmann and Bode not established additional sections focusing on contemporary tendencies. The drawing section, which provided an in-comparable view of this intimate artistic medium since Cézanne, became the cornerstone of documenta III. The around 500 sheets spanning a period of 80 years that were shown in what was then the Alte Galerie (today’s Neue Galerie) were not just a selection of master-pieces, but reflected the transformation of art from Vincent van Gogh to Joseph Beuys. No less important for the exhibition’s success was the fact that with the sections “Aspects 1964” and “Light and Movement”, the fundamentally historically oriented show was opened to the present. Visitors became acquainted with Joseph Beuys, Peter Brüning and Konrad Klapheck as re-presentatives of the new generation of artists; and although documenta III did not present pop art as a movement, pop artists such as Jasper Johns, Allen Jones, Robert Rauschen-berg and Larry Rivers were represented. The section “Light and Movement”, which Bode was solely responsible for, was sensational, reflecting new tendencies such as kinetic and op art. The documenta always saw Bode as being in a field of tension with the museum. The slogan “Museum of 100 Days” that he coined in 1964 was meant to reflect an experi-men-tal spirit. He demonstrated this in an exemplary way in the section “Picture and Sculpture in Space” with works by painters such as Sam Francis, Emilio Vedova, Ernst Wilhelm Nay and Bernard Schultze that interact with space.
Translation: Burke Barrett