Modes of Making Art History

Looking Back at documenta 5 and documenta 6

Maria Bremer

As art history further questions its fundamentals, the exhibition format continues to lose its neutrality. In the preface to the second volume of his compendium, Biennials and Beyond – Exhibitions that made art history: 1962–2002, Bruce Altshuler leads the increasing interest by art historians for exhibitions back to the insight that “exhibitions bring together a range of characters, who, exercising varied intentions in diverse circumstances, generate so much of what comes down to us as art history.”[1] However, the academic rewriting of selected shows is itself subjected to norms which, given their canonizing effects, must be taken into consideration. This article does not intend to question the art historical study of exhibitions tout court. Rather, it criticizes the selection of case studies according to a logic of masterpieces while excluding exhibitions which are regarded as not having made art history. In fact, the different modes by which exhibitions can shape art history require further analysis, eventually casting new light on events which have not hitherto entered the canon of relevant shows.

The diverse impact exhibitions have had on art history shall be explored by comparing the historicization of two documenta editions: Harald Szeemann’s documenta 5 of 1972 and the following edition of 1977, curated by Manfred Schneckenburger and generally classified as its unimpressive successor. Szeemann’s edition became trendsetting, marking significant turning points as it established, firstly, a thematic exhibition format, and secondly, a fundamental change in curatorial self-understanding. In contrast, the subsequent 1977 edition has been considered a step backwards for the theoretical weakness of its “media concept” as well as its display, which resumed a media-based character.

Upon closer examination, however, the exhibition discourse of documenta 6 can be read as grounding a theoretical assumption that extends to the present, namely, underlying today’s efforts to define contemporary art. Rather than flagrantly innovating exhibition practices, the exhibition shaped art history by consolidating a specific artistic canon aligned with a normative notion of art still valid today. By elucidating this crucial point, which has not raised scholarly attention so far, this article will address blind spots of art history as exhibition history. What if, rather than limiting its focus to the modes of rupture and innovation, exhibition history started acknowledging the historiographical potential underlying inconspicuous, yet equally effective modes: those of repetition and consolidation? Stressing these modes allows us to understand how exhibitions not only provide variations in the canon of artworks, practices, and interpretations grounding art history, but also ensure canonical continuities.

Documenta 5’s “Inquiry into reality”

Looking at the historicization of Szeemann’s documenta edition, it appears that it accessed the canon of crucial shows from its very opening. Its unquestioned relevance is ascribed to a double rupture it produced with regard to both the history of documenta and the history of curating: firstly, it set an overall theme, breaking with the conventional trend- or style-based display of large-scale exhibitions;[2] secondly, it stressed curatorial agency in an unprecedented manner, initiating the transition from an artist- to a curator-based paradigm in the contemporary art field.[3] This double turning point credits Szeemann and his iconic edition with a long-term impact on how art is exhibited. In order to examine documenta 5’s mode of shaping art history through innovations, it is worthwhile to reconstruct the net of strategies grounding the exhibition. In the following, I will address the edition’s main concerns through a closer look at the thematic conception of the show and the curatorial agencies at stake.

In the summer of 1972, documenta 5 (June 26 – October 2) opened in Kassel under the title “Inquiry into reality – visual worlds today.” For the first time in the history of documenta, an overall theme was set, which—having established reality as what is visually perceived—explored the cognitive functions of artistic and non-artistic imageries. Innovative as it was to base a documenta edition on a theme, the question the title triggered followed up on numerous exhibitions which, from the 1960s onwards, reflected a progressive shift from postwar abstract art towards a range of object-oriented and realist practices, appropriating, quoting, or representing material and phenomenal reality. Drafts of exhibition concepts on realism by Jean Leering and Karl Ruhrberg conserved in the documenta archive bear witness to these influences.[4] In contrast, documenta 5’s “Inquiry into reality” promised to engage more broadly with contemporary “visual worlds,” signaling an analysis of reality conceived not only by means of realist art, but of all types of images. Yet it was neither the thematic arrangement of the show, nor the selection of artworks and non-art objects that would strike as a novelty. Historically unprecedented was the way Szeemann’s team sought to provide, along with the selected objects shown, interpretive conceptual constructs for their understanding.

The impact these constructs had on the reception of the show can, however, only be measured if put in relation with the expectations raised by the documenta 5 theme as it had been formulated in the concept paper of March 1971. Published in German, English, and French, this text was co-authored by Szeemann (whom Arnold Bode had appointed first General Secretary of documenta), museum director Jean-Christoph Ammann, and aesthetics professor Bazon Brock.[5] Its content was, moreover, divulgated through conferences, articles, and interviews, shaping the expectations of international criticism.[6]

Taking the large-scale transformations of the media apparatus at the time into account, Ammann, Brock, and Szeemann considered reality as being socially constructed. They argued in favor of a critical reading of mediatization as “second nature”: social practices had been reified, losing their subjective dimension and deeply affecting a no longer attainable “first nature.” Employing the notion of second nature, the authors adopted Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of ideology and their view of a double-structured reality: only reality’s constructed surface—the empirical appearances—could be perceived; in other words, all one could experience was, as the paper put it, “languages of image, of object, of the body and of signs”[7] produced in social and art practice. Against this backdrop, art was seen as an expression of, and a causal element in, the construction of second nature. Following Adorno, the authors understood art as being necessarily mediated by the status quo. To different degrees, however, art could develop an element of resistance towards its conditions of production. Questioning the varying critical potential of images in a thrust both enlightening and didactic, the documenta 5 concept paper further recurred to a semiotic model, arranging the objects to be shown into three “structural categories.” Images could either affirm the “reality of the image” or “the reality of what is portrayed”; or, alternatively, “the identity or non-identity of the image and what is portrayed.”[8] These categories recall linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s distinction between signifier (the actual, material word or image) and signified (the idea or concept that the word or image represents); they served to establish a universal classification of images, which the exhibition structure was subsequently supposed to reflect. The selection of artworks and images was conceived as a Bilderatlas, entertaining metonymical relations with all world images, held together by a rational grid.

As a meeting log reveals, it was Brock who developed the theoretical grid—the threefold division—wherein all art and non-art objects were to be arranged.[9] This universal endeavor responded to assumptions of the critique of the culture industry which Adorno and Horkheimer had already made in 1944, declaring that commodification was constantly expanding, covering society as a whole.[10] Furthermore, the paper was indebted to influential media theories of the late sixties and early seventies. Translated into German only in 1978, Situationist Guy Debord’s critique of the society of the spectacle had appeared in 1967, denouncing the manipulative replacement of social life through its representation.[11] In the Federal Republic of Germany, author Hans Magnus Enzensberger dealt with contemporary mediatized society in his essay Baukasten zu einer Theorie der Medien, published in 1970, fusing Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique with Bertolt Brecht’s radio theory. This theoretical background met with a wide segment of both leftist art criticism and West German cultural politics at the time. A few years later, journalist Georg Jappe revealed that the crucial precondition for documenta 5 to be publicly funded was proposing a socially relevant theme. Hessen State Minister of Cultural Affairs Ludwig von Friedeburg (SPD), who played a decisive role in this respect, had directed the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt from 1955 until 1969 together with Adorno—supposedly sharing the concerns that Adorno’s follower Brock was willing to tackle.[12]

Nevertheless, the translation of critical analysis into a vast thematic exhibition format as conceptualized through Brock’s lenses was unprecedented and groundbreaking with regard to curatorial practice. Thereby, from March 1971 onwards, Szeemann’s team heralded a substantial shift from the conventional purpose of large-scale exhibitions—to account for artistic innovation and achievements—towards curatorial mediation.

While the concept paper provoked ambivalent reactions, with gallery owner Rudolf Zwirner and journalist Willi Bongard pleading against the blending of art with discourse,[13] one could ask in how far the paper was actually binding for the final result. As I will show in the following, within the framework of the unifying theme of documenta’s “Inquiry into Reality,” Brock and Szeemann ended up occupying opposing positions, fostering a conceptual tension that remained unresolved in the exhibition itself. On the basis of this tension, symptomatic for a foregrounding of (conflicting) agencies, documenta 5 has further been credited for marking a far-reaching devolution of powers from the artist to the curator.[14]

Curatorial agencies: From “Inquiry into Reality” to “Individual Mythologies”

 Although Szeemann co-authored the concept paper of 1971 as the artistic director of documenta, the convergence of critical theory and semiotics was far beyond his interests. Quite unsurprisingly, he soon came to occupy an opposite position, putting forward the notion of “mythology” as a traditional alternative to “enlightenment.” In an interview with the magazine Der Spiegel in April 1971, Szeemann declared that the documenta team was composed of “rational and irrational forces.”[15] Implicitly relating to the Dialectic of Enlightenment, this terminology simplified complex field relations to binary battle lines—for the sake of positioning himself on the irrational side.

In the course of 1971, financial hardship and personal disagreements led to significant attrition. Brock, who had joined the working team (Szeemann, Bode, and Ammann) to help develop the exhibition draft, ended up working exclusively on the educational program, which he had already devised in the framework of the previous documenta edition in 1968. Ammann was charged with the Western realism exhibition section; the conceptual art (Idee + Idee/Licht) and the parallel visual worlds sections were delegated to assisting curators. Yet Szeemann’s influence further increased. He performed his curatorial empowerment by expanding and strategically positioning the initially marginal sections “Individual Mythologies” and “Self-Representation,” which Kaspar König had refused to curate.

According to a table draft classifying all the tendencies to be shown, the practices favored by Szeemann referred not to an objective reality—be it social or phenomenal—but to an inner reality.[16] While the exhibition concept of March 1971 had aimed at questioning reality within the philosophical tradition of the Enlightenment, Szeemann reactivated the romantic notion of interiority as a main reference for the sections he eventually boosted. By that time, the Swiss curator’s involvement with the individual was well-known: it could be traced back to his former exhibition practice, and resonated with his broader interest in the structures of creativity.

Szeemann’s disengagement from the provisional concept paper was made public in an interview published by Die Welt in March 1972, when Bongard asked about social relevance as a requirement for art to be shown at documenta. Young artists, according to the curator, refused any entanglement with the broader context, limiting themselves to operations in the art field only. When Bongard suggested describing this break as a return of an “art for art’s sake” attitude, Szeemann agreed. An art exhibition, he stated,

cannot contribute to build neither a socialist, nor a capitalist society, but can only take place in such a society. Art cannot directly change something, because its purposelessness is the only chance of its survival.[17]

Stressing the unavailability of art, Szeemann positioned himself against a post-autonomous notion, then emerging in critical artistic practice along with the expanding art market, which cast artists as producers within the institutions and within the economy in which their work circulated. In the curator’s view, this art was merely to be looked at as comment or information. In this vein, he declared the withdrawal from the social and political sphere as the permanent condition of art.

Defying a stylistic classification, he sited the artworks he favored close to those sections referring to his previous exhibitions. This modulation became evident in the exhibition plans: the “Individual Mythologies” were placed in both the Neue Galerie and the Fridericianum. In the Neue Galerie, they shared the same floor with “Religious Imageries” (recalling Szeemann’s Ex Voto exhibition of 1964) and with “Imageries of the Mentally Ill” (recalling the exhibition Insania pingens of 1963). In the Fridericianum, they were partly combined with concept and process art and thus with a number of artists shown in When Attitudes Become Form in 1969. In complement, “Self-Representation” occupied the ground floor of the Fridericianum.

A personal curatorial narrative was thereby prominently enacted, paving the way for a not yet defined canon of a “history of intensity in art” that was just as personal: “In their exterior appearance,” Szeemann explained at the closing of the exhibition, “Individual Mythologies are a phenomenon with no common denominator; they should be understood as part of a history of intensity in art, which is not oriented solely according to formal criteria, but first and foremost according to the perceptible identity of intention and expression.”[18] Examples he cited are Paul Thek, Christian Boltanksi, Etienne Martin, religious imagery and imagery of psychiatric patients, Auguste Herbin, the Viennese Actionists, Joseph Beuys, Vito Acconci, James Lee Byars, Edward Kienholz, and Mario Merz, all displayed at documenta 5. Maintaining, in the execution, the traces of invention, their works compounded “intention” and “expression” in Szeemann’s view, conveying the intensity he sought to trace back to its origins by appealing to the senses, as opposed to reason. In contrast to a history of styles, the “history of intensity” was to serve the curator in implementing his stance throughout the seventies. In the analytic configuration of the documenta 5 exhibition as a “school of vision” [Sehschule],[19] however, Szeemann’s eventual emphasis on artistic intention and expression produced an unresolved tension. How to align a sociopolitical orientation with a self-centered artist attitude?

Both conflicting dimensions persisted in the final result. Although the curator had consciously decided not to display the objects and performances according to their supposed focus on the “signifier” as opposed to the “signified,” nor on the “(non) identity” of both,[20] Brock’s audio-visual introduction to the show, centrally projected on the ground floor of the Fridericianum, translated the aesthetics professor’s concerns into the educational program.[21] In this introduction, also inserted into the catalog as an essay, the threefold structure Brock had developed for the concept paper reemerged, pre-framing the exhibition experience. In his view, pictures seen as fostering the “reality of the image” fell under suspicion of ideology: their function was to simply reaffirm the status quo. In the “new image wars” of mediatized society, he explained in the text of his audio-visual introduction, when the same reality degree is accorded to the image and to its external reference, the constructed surface of reality is staged as its true nature, blurring substantial boundaries:

In the daily reproduction of the world through photography and print, through television and film, staged reality and reproduction of actual events mix until complete inextricability; fragments are shown as the whole process or put into other contexts; photographs arise to evidence; perspectives are enforced, the single levels of reality overlap, they interpret each other; invisible becomes visible.[22]

Instead of this staging power, art and image practice should focus on the signified, acknowledging—albeit negatively—the persistence of an alternative reality beyond mediatized appearances. By reason of Brock’s introduction, numerous critics who were familiar with the concept paper of 1971, and susceptible to its downbeat in the actual result, considered the exhibition’s theoretical dimension prevailing over the objects on display. Art historian Harold Rosenberg noted:

In Documenta 5, individual creations have been made subsidiary to the picture world (Bilderwelt) as a whole.… It was decided to replace art as an independent realm of activity with selections of imagery classified in terms of the ‘ideologies’ reflected in it.… Documenta 5 has pioneered in providing a theoretical basis for the dependence of art on ideology: it consists in the belief that art in our time fails in meaning unless it is assisted by interpretation.[23]

Either criticizing or approving the critical inquiry on image-making and its relationship with reality, foreign reviewers like Rosenberg acknowledged its grip on the exhibition reception.[24] Observing the final result, West German critics instead noted the shift in the original curatorial conception.[25] Expanding and strategically placing the initially marginal sections “Individual Mythologies” and “Self-Representation,” Szeemann had produced a significant imbalance. In the face of his sections, the original concept’s claim of investigating “the importance of art in attempting to solve the problems of society” remained unfulfilled.[26] Among others, FAZ-journalist Georg Jappe traced “the true ideology of this supposedly critical documenta[27] back to American artist Paul Thek’s work Ark, Pyramid, positioned at the core of the “Individual mythologies,” which was read as articulating a self-focused attitude radically counteracting the original program of documenta 5. Generally, what emerges from a look at the reception of documenta 5 is a diagrammatical polarization of paradigms wherein the reviewers inscribed their comments, either focusing on the sociopolitical commitment of art and image practice or on its anti-rationalist withdrawal. And yet, the critics thereby responded more to the curatorial and philosophical interpretation than to the works themselves: Szeemann and Brock had put forward these very paradigms in their rhetorical strategies.

After retracing, although briefly, the roots of documenta 5’s conflicting reception, it becomes clear how normative curatorial and educational discourses have significantly, in a historically unprecedented manner, affected the experience of art. The crucial breaks which documenta 5 produced in both large-scale exhibition format and curatorial self-understanding rightly ensured its inscription into the canon of exhibitions which made art history. The shift towards overarching themes still grounds present-day interlacing of contemporary art and discourse, whereas the curatorial empowerment marked the end of an influential auratic device, replacing the cult of the artist,[28] and eventually helped acknowledging the multiple agencies involved in the presentation of art.

However, the art historical interest in documenta 5, legitimate as it might be, becomes dubious when it remains the exclusive focus. What is at stake in such a broad consensus? Could it be that scholarly attention to the edition of 1972 implicitly relies on a modern, progressive belief which still seems to haunt exhibition history: the evolutionary scheme of a history moving by steps of radical innovation? By focusing on the new and the controversial, an art history as exhibition history risks losing sight of equally crucial events, which at the time emphasized a different form: not one of significant breaks, but one of consolidation. Reconstructing the main concerns of documenta 5’s follower, documenta 6, might provide a way of beginning to inquire about an alternative, yet equally influential mode of shaping art history. As I will show in the following, rather than flagrantly innovating canonical exhibition practices, documenta 6 shaped art history by enduringly consolidating a specific artistic canon aligned to a notion of art still valid today. The exhibition discourse consecrated a canon that was then in the making by repeating—or rather restaging—it on a wide scale, thereby naturalizing assumptions still underlying a normative conception of contemporary art.

The end of avant-gardes: documenta 6

Under the artistic direction of Cologne Kunsthalle Director Manfred Schneckenburger and his team,[29] documenta 6 was shown in Kassel from June 24 to October 2, 1977. It unfolded as a broad and seemingly monumental selection of current art trends, structured according to a “media concept.” Press reviews highlighted it as largely audience-friendly and spectacular, mainly commenting on the extensive photography and drawing sections, on Walter de Maria’s controversial Earth Kilometer site sculpture, and (not least) on the first official contribution by artists from the German Democratic Republic (GDR). At the same time, however, the reports raised a subdued disappointment. The show would limit itself to register a stationary state of the art’s production; the nonbinding refusal of taking a clear stand was therefore interpreted as a speaking symptom of the deep crisis the art world supposedly entered with the “end of the avant-garde.”[30]

Discussions around documenta 6 unrolled on a neutral register, which is all the more striking, since they followed up on the passionate controversies around Szeemann’s previous edition.[31] Given this contrast, historicization tends to classify documenta 6 as a step backwards, emphasizing the theoretical weakness of its media concept as well as its display, which bore a media-based character. If it is indeed true that no breaks were produced on a curatorial level, further examination reveals, however, that both the edition theme and the selection and display of works helped to ground basic features of how art is seen today. To begin with, as I shall reconstruct in the following, the curatorial decision to barely reaffirm the status quo—the deflation of the avant-gardes—definitely consecrated the end of the modern and the beginning of the contemporary regime.

Comparing the different versions of the media concept and going through the session logs, one can witness how, over the course of the two-year planning period, the exhibition discourse increasingly discarded an evolutionary scheme of art. In June 1975, the modern(ist) and avant-gardist idea of progress could still be retrieved in the first, yet unpublished, draft of the exhibition, bearing the title “Artistic practice between image and reality.”[32] Along a “vertical,” progressive line marking a gradual emancipation of art from representation, authors Klaus Honnef (then head of the Westphalian Kunstverein Münster), Evelyn Weiss (chief curator at Wallraf-Richartz Museum and Museum Ludwig in Cologne), and Lothar Romain (media referee for the SPD party) classified the artworks to be shown according to a scale ranging from “reality-like” (wirklichkeitsähnlich) to “autonomous.” In the painting section, for instance, the “reality-like” category would collect several, varied artists, such as Francis Bacon, Georg Baselitz, Willi Sitte, Wolfgang Mattheuer, A.R. Penck, and Markus Lüpertz. Further ahead, one found “reality-adapting” painters such as Roy Lichtenstein, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, and Andy Warhol, whose works referred to an already mediated reality. At the peak of this progression towards autonomy, analytical painting marked the highest level of artistic media awareness, witnessing a “reflection of the media about their own requirements, conditions, and contexts.” Before I’ll further develop the analytical canon, it needs to be noted that this assumption of a “vertical” progression still appears strikingly indebted to an evolutionary idea of art. While presenting the draft, however, Honnef, Romain, and Weiss’s notion of reality as phenomenal appearance and their hierarchical view of art encountered critical voices. Gradually, both ideas were discarded in the exhibition draft.

What the final version of the concept paper, dated March 1976 and co-authored by Schneckenburger and Romain,[33] retained was a “horizontal” analysis, aiming at giving an overview of contemporary tendencies according to the different media—a term that had replaced the traditional art forms: painting, sculpture, performance, drawing, design, books, photography, film, and video. Leading criteria in the selection process were equality (all media had to be embraced) and timeliness: the focus was set on the latest productions. This conventional curatorial approach reproduced the then-ongoing art production, dominated by a conceptual and post-minimalist legacy in painting and site sculpture. Besides this leading trend, displayed under the headings “Painting as a matter of painting” and “Sculpture/environment,” performance, drawing, design, books, photography, film, and video titled further exhibition sections. Within the painting and the sculpture/environment branches, however, realist GDR painting and forensic inter-media installation were presented as exceptions and delimitated as separate convolutes, respectively titled “Realism” and “Subjective science/archeology of the human.”

Criticism acknowledged an overall tendency towards repetition and a disavowal of innovation, which went along with the increasing institutionalization of art. The exhibition discourse of documenta 6 thus stated, by expressing solidarity with the status quo of art production, a resistance of art to the “chronological trope of the avant,”[34] in favor of an alliance with the synchronic present—a feature which underlies today’s notion of contemporary art, as opposed to “the temporal dislocation characteristic of both modernism and the avant-garde.”[35] As Cuauhtémoc Medina states with reference to present-day art,

the way the art of the day constantly defied the notion of a synchronic present (not limited to the chronological trope of the avant, which encompasses any number of other historical folds, from the theme of primitivism to the negotiations with obsolescence and the ruin, the refusal of the chronology of industrial labor, and so forth) seems to have finally found some closure. In a compelling and scary form, modern capitalist society finally has an art that aligns with the audience, with the social elites that finance it, and with the academic industry that serves as its fellow traveller.[36]

Asserting the detachment of art from utopian thinking along with its institutional entanglement, documenta 6 thus contributed to shaping the discursive figure of the end of the modern, which remains highly relevant in today’s attempts to define the contemporary. Yet the discharge of a teleological determination of art triggered an increased questioning of its medial and contextual conditions. In the framework of documenta 6, Clement Greenberg’s pivotal criterion of medium-specificity, which was required for art to be modern, was implicitly resumed, but its essentialist premise rejected. As I will show in the following, focusing on a medium paradigmatic of modernist discourse, that of abstract painting, documenta 6 summed up and displayed a self-reflexive canon which had unfolded in painting from the 1960s onwards. The exhibition ultimately transferred this self-reflexive criterion to the meta-level of a conscious revision of modernism—and thus further grounded a crucial feature of contemporary art as a critical examination of modern art.

Consecrating the self-reflexive canon

It was under the pressure of the media society, so Schneckenburger and Romain, that art consistently questioned its resources: self-reflection arose to a prerequisite to normatively measure the timeliness of current practices. As the curator and the author already stated in their concept paper of March 1976, art increasingly bore witness to an awareness of “the instruments used and their grammar.”[37] Accordingly, in the sculpture and painting sections of the show, an analytical tendency outweighed which followed up on a conceptual and (post-) minimalist tradition engaging with the terms of art production and reception. The thesis of an increased self-consciousness of art seems to have come not from artistic uses of the so-called new media (video and film), but primarily from Honnef’s engagement with painting: both he and Weiss had provided input for the exhibition theme and ended up curating the painting and photography sections. Throughout the course of the 1970s, Honnef had followed the detachment of painting from illusionism and its embracing of an analytical process, meaning a “sober examination of the pictorial means: color, painting (canvas, paper, metal) and structure,”[38] which would aim at giving a “statement about [painting] itself.”[39]

In 1974, he exhibited this transnational trend, which ran parallel to French nouvelle peinture and which Douglas Crimp, Maurizio Fagiolo, and Germano Celant had then detected in the United States and in Italy as well, under the title Planned Painting in the Westphalian Kunstverein. The exhibition featured works by Winfred Gaul, Raimund Girke, Giorgio Griffa, Brice Marden, Carmen Gloria Morales, Robert Ryman, Gianfranco Zappettini, and Jerry Zeniuk. Their abstract-geometrical, mostly monochrome paintings made their way into the documenta selection. On the grounds of a conceptual tradition, the analytical tendency aimed at developing a theory of painting supposedly articulated and verifiable through painterly practice. It sealed the replacement of a referential definition of painting by a self-reflexive one: against illusionism—in terms of metaphor or content—painting would only serve the exploration of its own means.

The above-mentioned practices uncovered their production process. Working steps and employed materials were listed in the catalog; the pictorial dimensions and relations were grounded with recourse to mathematics and logic. Emphasizing the basic structures of painting (size, material, color, painting surface, canvas, hanging) and the possibilities of their use and combination, artists chased the anonymity of method, rejecting the individuality of style. This trend was not new. Critic Peter Iden noticed that “‘analytical painting’… whereupon Kassel was still building, was an already outmoded position.”[40] Yet along with the presentation of post-minimalist sculpture, it decisively affected the overall impression of the show, as critic Jürgen Paul, among others, affirms in his review: “At documenta 6, most space is assigned to the objects and actions of reduction and minimization of the visual, of the renouncement of medial comparability between reality and image.”[41]

It is precisely by recapitulating an already defined tendency, visually, through the selection of the artworks, and in discursive commentary, that self-reflection was consecrated and set to measure all art, called to witness its “instruments used and their grammar.”[42] Repetition, though, has canonizing power, as Katja Hoffmann states:

The discursive repetition of knowledge is the basis that maintains a canon available. Through repetition, patterns of affirmation do emerge, which ground the formation of an identity-building canon.[43]

By reaffirming the self-reflexive canon as it had developed from the late 1960s onwards, documenta 6 therefore strengthened an assumption of art as imperatively questioning its fundamentals. Beyond any essentialist premise, medial and material conditions had to be dissected in order to grasp their constructivist agency. Arguing along this line, a naive use of the medium could no longer occur in the realm of timeliness art. The requisite of self-reflection was thereby naturalized as lying at the core of all progressive art and is, as such, still undisputed today, when self-reflection is not replaced, but complemented by reflexivity. In the expanded field of the contemporary, the quality of art depends on its capacity to witness the medial and contextual conditions of artistic production, reception, and circulation. Accordingly, ignoring these conditions is, up until today, considered regressive within the discourse of art.

Documenta 6 helped in shaping this normative conception by contrasting the self-reflexive canon, as I will show to conclude, with the anomalous positions of GDR painting and a forensic trend of installation art, respectively labeled “Realism” and “Subjective science/archeology of the human.” Within the painting and the sculpture/environment branches, both convolutes were, as mentioned above, discursively and spatially confined, and thereby marked as exceptions to the self-reflexive norm. Although these trends were exhibited, the catalog essays classified them as reactionary movements. While analytical practices dealt with the definition of art itself, consciously, one could add, coming to terms with the history of modernism, no similar reflexive meta-level could be detected in GDR figurative painting. Looking at the works by Werner Tübke, Bernhard Heisig, Willi Sitte, and Wolfgang Mattheuer in the catalog, Honnef and Romain did not align them with the self-reflexive trend, and instead attempted to focus on their relation with history painting, highlighting a supposed distance from traditional forms. Yet GDR critic Lothar Lang insisted on their relation to social reality and on their commitment to the socialist project. Protests against their integration in the show further fostered their stigmatization as ideologically informed art; an aspect most West German critics noted, mainly retaining the persisting dimension of a social(ist) vision.[44]

In the same vein, the forensic appropriation of material fragments inscribed by time, testifying to past circumstances, recalled modern strategies of escape from the present. Under the title “Subjective science/archeology of the human,” art historian Günter Metken had exhibited installations by Jean-Marie Bertholin, Claudio Costa, Ugo Dossi, Jochen Gerz, Paul-Armand Gette, Nikolaus Lang, Anna Oppermann, Anne and Patrick Poirier, Charles Simonds, and Dorothee von Windheim. Metken understood them as part of a broader artistic tendency, which he had labeled “Forensics” (Spurensicherung) in 1974, implementing the paradigm of the trace to designate the integration of (field) research into artistic practice. These artists adapted methods, objects of investigation, and presentation forms from the humanities and natural sciences, generating complex installations visualizing archaeologies of the self.

Along with the realist trend of GDR painting, “Forensics” came to stand for the conceptually unbroken belief in an unmediated relation of art to the real—be it socio-historical or material. Both anachronistic categories of utopia (GDR painting) and nostalgia (“Forensics”), however, once grounding the negativity of avant-gardes, could no longer pertain to the present of the late 1970s—unless they were reflected in their constructed dimension.[45]

While much has been written on the canonizing power of documenta,[46] the single editions do not enjoy equal scholarly attention. In the shadow of documenta 5, documenta 6 has long lain unnoticed, historicized as a belated report on well-known tendencies, relying on a conventional display; it has been framed only vaguely from a conceptual point of view.[47] And yet, its effects on art history can be measured at a double level, since it summarized, reproduced, and engaged with a status quo still carrying present-day art. Firstly, the exhibition consecrated the end of the modern regime, taking leave of the avant-garde trope of art as an alternative to society, and acknowledging its institutional entanglement. Accordingly, it took a stand against practices seemingly pursuing the modern(ist) project in a naive manner (“Realism” and “Subjective science/archeology of the human”), favoring instead those engaging with it critically (“Painting as a matter of painting”), and questioning the necessary condition of art beyond teleological and essentialist premises. Despite none of documenta 6’s outcomes being unprecedented in 1977, the recapitulation of the self-reflexive canon through the (then) largest exhibition ever held in Germany led to its long-term consolidation, eventually ensuring its continuity. The simultaneous display of conflicting practices thus served to illustrate the self-reflexive norm by confronting it with its exceptions. In the long run, the authoritative language of the show, spoken through its spatial arrangements and its discursive commentary, helped shaping a normative notion of contemporary art:[48] an art which does, in Juliane Rebentisch’s words, reflexively deal “with the interpretive patterns available for the description of one’s own time.”[49]

In the face of this research, historical relevance of documenta 5 and documenta 6 balance each other. When inquiring on the modes through which, to speak with Altshuler, art history is generated, a look at those shows which have not thus far entered the canon of exhibitions that made art history can be revealing. As in the case of documenta 6, it could cast light on the canonizing power of repetition, helping, at the end of the day, to question the self-evidence of our own understanding and definitions of contemporary art.[50]