PRINT September 1977

A View of Kassel

DOCUMENTA 6 MAY BE SEEN as a circus, as a market venture, as a Saturnalia of permissiveness, as a political revitalization movement in Kassel. The catalogue, extensive and meditated, is perhaps scholastic in its categories, particularly in an age in which overlappings and dissolutions are so important (is Borges fiction or essay?). This Documenta is not truly international, but how much do we want a global show? American art here seems superior, but that statement may already reveal an encapsulated chauvinism and a passing epoch. What is best seems to be involved in a receptivity to a pluralistic art, a maximalism, but involved no doubt always in a dialogue with reduction.

In the painting section at Documenta there are few surprises; a sense of international mediocrity prevails despite occasional fine work. This was no doubt to be expected, but one is surprised at the curatorial carelessness, even in the hanging. For instance, Jennifer Bartlett’s important work is hemmed in in a tight corridor where the actual destruction of the work is a possibility amidst mobs of weekenders from Wiesbaden.

Works by latter-day masters are present, but they contribute little more than reiteration. Bacon has a colossal, but not too convincing, narrative. Two amazing de Koonings of a rich and watery complexity, and a laconic and equally superb Johns, are surrounded by vapid work of student quality. In another room, sculptures by Franz Erhard Walther on the floor preclude any diligent scrutiny of Stella and Warhol, since one is always within the Walther—interesting floor pieces but not meant to be a base for viewing. Stella’s work seems baroque and melodramatic in its diction. Warhol here is glamorous and vapid, and Malcolm Morley contributes a simply whimsical series. Generally painting seems to be imbricated in a monumental montage of fine incoherence. So despite the theoretical sequestrations of the catalogue, the overall impression is “tohu bohu,” now the name for boutiques in Paris but a possible title for the Documenta painting show.

Searching for other important new French painters at Documenta was a bit like looking for Pound in Rapallo still. Two most interesting new Parisians—Yves Bonnefoi and Jacques Martinez—were not represented, owing to their youth or others’ oversight. Louis Cane, represented by a piece inspired by Giotto, is very likely the most interesting synthesizer in France. He has modulated away from his most assiduous analyses of the support/surface days when he was preoccupied by the folding and cutting. His new works permit him much intuitive handling of color. He is capable of a very sombre palette and is most exciting in his polemic against Minimalism. (He showed me later in Paris many new works which are perhaps even more dashing than the Documenta inclusion.) Homages to Matisse, Rothko, and Newman abound in Cane’s work, and there is an attempt to involve at least an Oriental sense of perspective. In his own writing Cane proves to be an articulate spokesman for a painting of condensation and ambiguity, with traces of something other than amnesia and dogmatism.1

The German artists seem proposed, unfortunately, as precursors and originals, but they show insufficient verve and scope. Ulrich Erben, for example, is a good colorist but vapid in almost every other way. Raimund Girke’s works look like whimsical or loosely brushed Rymans. Kuno Gonschior’s contribution is a species of parody on Poons. Gotthard Graubner has a solid, monochromatic work that offers some luminosities and results finally in a decorative airiness.

The best painting here seems involved in a flight from reduction yet something more than an easy eclecticism. Lucio Pozzi took the chance to work with the orange rectangle remaining from Blinky Palermo’s last mural to initiate a complex homage. The tight space is used wittily, and several stairways involve one in different perceptions of the work—which itself is filled with color and shape. Certain dramatic triangles are deleted and transported drastically elsewhere—the whole thing juicily painted and yet as rational as a Newman, not an “enshrined fetish.”

Mainly the painting section has a horrid scent, which was conjured up by one spectator: “Alles ist déjà vu.” While the East German compositions seem to emerge from the generation of Wedekind or Georg Grosz, the West German painting and sculpture seem to derive from photographs in old Artforums. Even new, elegant work of such well-known Americans as Lichtenstein, Nancy Graves, and Michael Heizer cannot take the sting out of this general complaint.

If one were happy with the genre distinctions of the rather Aristotelian catalogue, there would be no doubt that sculpture was the happiest chapter in Documenta 6, and the real mastery was outdoors. While the town has been aptly described as a cross between Woolworth’s and Sing Sing, much of Kassel’s devastating vacuity is the result of Allied destruction toward the end of the war. The great park and gardens, however, as well as the facade of the Fridericianum itself, provide a difficult but dizzily inviting ground for work on a large scale. Such work, for many, was possibly the first and last defense of this Documenta and no doubt this “Arbeitsgruppe,” including Edward Fry, is to be congratulated for the most perspicuous selection.

Several noteworthy sculptures command the Platz in front of the museum. Stephen Antonakos contributed one of his best pieces ever in a 50-foot-high Incomplete Square of red neon that hangs jauntily from the side of the museum. Brighter and brighter in growing night, the piece heralds the central sense in the American Plastik of an antithetical attitude toward the surrounds. In no way, however, is this sculpture merely in conflict with the building; instead a conversation ensues, as it were, between neon and neoclassical architectural elements.

No doubt Walter de Maria’s The Vertical Earth Kilometer is the most problematic and provocative piece in Kassel. It became the talk of German television even before its unveiling, which has, at this writing, still to take place. What is happening is the lengthy drilling of a tapering hole some meters behind the Serra on the lawn in front of the Fridericianum. A brass rod will be inserted into the earth and a later a two-foot square of sandstone will cover the rod. The drilling was soundproofed after some protest concerning the acoustics, and the project also drew ecological fire from those who paid attention only to the drilling. Sponsored by the Dia Foundation, it is a work which seems an inverted Eiffel and an homage to invisibility and to the earth. Its polysemic character is underlined by de Maria, who was not at Kassel to interpret the work—in the manner of Beuys—and who has written about it but will presumably wait before he offers his own version.

The de Maria piece incited many for its enormous expense. On the other hand, the expense of the piece in architectural terms is not great, or, at least, not unusual. It is of course unusual in its propounding of the invisible. Somebody said of the Kilometer that its medium was thought, but the medium really does seem to be a very decided warm metal which is somehow matched with the earth. This work traffics in Conceptualism, and yet has all the permanence—and it may be given en permanence to the town (one can hardly imagine it uprooted)—of classic sculpture. The work (conceptually related to Piero Manzoni’s 1,000 meter line) also alludes to the Endless Column of Brancusi, as well as to certain relations between surface and depth—an inversion of de Maria’s Lightning Fields.

One writer, bemused, alluded to the possibility of putting only a few meters into the earth and cheating, as it were, in this homage to (negative) verticality. But of course the actual drilling and the actual provocation are vitally part of the piece. The problem here is whether the piece in that sense needs to be in this site, and so public. Hegel, it may be remembered, called Dante’s trip the plunging of the real into the unreal.2 Here number, weight and measure seem plunged into the real and to become flush with it. This invisible obelisk impressed even antagonistic sculptors present by its size. Still, the work is not yet complete; when it is, one will confront not a drilling site but a plaque and a possible idea.

Certain works at Documenta seem more spirited than valuable. Ferdinand Kriwet’s electronic band stretched across the architrave of the museum does not seem the Khlebnikov fit for the task of its content, while Ansgar Nierhoff’s battered work looks derivative and inflated in scale.

Richard Serra has a very important piece that resolutely solves many problems of architectonic scale in sculpture by revolving four trapezoids. This may be seen in a tradition of maximalism and of the most strenuous drive away from reduction. The simplicity of Serra’s work is always of the most fruitful kind. Here inside and outside are thoroughly ambiguous, and the piece appears to be leaning but is not, since it is tilted on its axis like a world. Olson on Melville’s American sense of big space might be the proper text for this work.3

There is much walking to be done on the way to the park from the building, and Dan Flavin has invigorated a rather pathetic underpass with subtle and sudden color. On the lawn in front of the newly refurbished Orangerie at the edge of the park, Richard Fleischner has a rather gentle piece of landscape gardening in the form of a turf square with elevated and bevelled edge that verges on the picturesque but remains rational.

Alice Aycock produced a fairly large complex of conceptual “architecture.” The low elements particularly, in relation to her more genial towers, have powerful manners. The whole is partly involved in the sense of ruins and vistas, made difficult in an already lush setting (and partly transposed in tone when children take over). But there is much investigatory virtue here. Aycock’s complex remains as a largely cerebral situation and does not falter too much into participationalism.

Robert Grosvenor’s mysterious wooden work of fortitude and fission seems wounded and doused with creosote. Richard Nonas punctuated his site with two long beams placed end to end which pulled at the pastoral surroundings. His proportions feel comprehensible, not mathematical; this divided work is a gripping analysis of line and object. Such extraordinary works function as a critique, too, of the meretricious window-mesh erected by Haus Rucker-Co, the mild Jiró Takamatsu or the long, uninteresting troughs of Hans Paul Isenrath.

Robert Morris worked out a very grand piece deep in the park. This complex is almost too ambiguous for me to decode completely, but in intention Morris’ stone gates and triangles form a species of complete closure and enclosure. Morris has such strength and facility that he must avoid the fluencies of the virtuoso, but, for example, the low sloping triangle of dirt and local stone is even by itself an intense form. The whole seems a bit too dedicated to a neo-Stonehenge experience that one might better calculate by a reading of European menhirs, but the desire for a high unity out of multiplicity resounds. If Documenta is known for anything, it will be for these fugues, these extrications from a blanker dogmatics seen in the commentary, not in the works.

Max Neuhaus dissolves conventional sculptural expectations by focusing clicking sounds from 16 speakers in a spiral on a tree in the park. Luckily for Documenta, which includes music in its cirque d’été only as a subcategory, this sound-zone is one of the most penetrating uses of the park site. Neuhaus, now working in Berlin (while apparently renouncing his past as a fine percussionist), has manipulated the tradition from Stockhausen to Cage in a refreshing scherzo.

Maria Nordman is one of the only younger sculptors who seems to create a new vocabulary that could compete with conventional diction. She chose a store away from the park in Kassel to create a little chapel in which one becomes attentive to the way she controls light and shadow. This is a Ronchamp in the Irwin sense of lit fixation. One feels that Nordman has painted shadows within and has worked some tension between the two entrance doors. Here, again, is a testing of genre distinctions.

Joseph Beuys no doubt remains the secret center of German poesis. His Free University is for him an earnest communality engaged in economic analysis. For the most part, the analysis is jejune and insipid, remaining at best a utopian sculpture in speech and at worst a disastrous escape from the task of individual execution. Beuys is involved in a most difficult. adventure. He has become a kind of Allen Ginsberg in Germany and, with his hat, as bien connu as Abzug’s, he represents a continual expiation.

Beuys also contributed a sculpture of a honey tube and a lot of butter churned up uselessly on the floor, and this, like many of his other works, had a charm and a force well beyond the vagaries of his dual cults of personality and communality. In interview he has presumably prescribed quasi-alchemical meanings to the honey and the butter (systems of will and vascularity), but what he seems to be involved in is a shattering of the centered system by a renewal through what the anthropologist Douglas has called impurity and danger.

Beuys is the largest figure among the Continental sculptors because he has indeed engulfed most systems and has also shown where reduction and dogmatism lead. He was seen in his University lectures bravely trying to assist in English translation. His sculpture, moreover, began and will end in the room dedicated to these conversations. While the butter grows more and more rancid (and for a fastidious few is too dirty), it is exactly through his by now well-known complex organic objects that Beuys throws a caveat against rigidity. Thus, he stands against the purity of the genre critic and makes a Rimbaudian dérèglement as he implicates and overlaps. Some might find him indeed a useful shaman in a dessicated Germany. His piece is certainly better than Horst H. Baumann’s pretty but finally vapid laser lines put forth in the Kassel sky at night. While the East German artists like Cremer are making Rodinesque gestures of heroic simulacra, Beuys has become his own Hunger Artist.

Still, there are some strong young sculptors indoors. Michael Gitlin put some stern demarcations on the wall. Nigel Hall has some rather balanced pieces in the tradition of drawing in metals. Noriyuki Haraguchi went beyond his Newman-inspired reduction, creating a rectangular pool of oil that is both an opacity and a well in the tradition of Zen imperturbabilities. This pool is particularly poignant because its presence hints at a more world-wide scope than the show had. Suddenly importing an East without demurral or shame, it is like a reversal of the famous Basho poem: New pond, nothing jumps in, no sound of water. Haraguchi’s piece is not an exploration of a single medium but a conjugation of new and different from any sort of Minimalism. There is intensity in his media and a dissolution of genre—like prose poetry.

Kirili may well be the most interesting new sculptor, introducing as he does an irrational into his work that produces a certain distance in hammered work, and qualities of forging from fire. Kirili has been living in New York intermittently for four years, but he has collaborated, and may be associated, with the best in the Tel Quel group. His work is a kind of sexual recit in spatial distribution: nothing is static, all participates, wall and floor.

Joel Shapiro contributes two of his small intense pieces that are witty and ambiguous. Each line of a raised house piece seems better thought out than whole kilometers elsewhere, and the material is always well considered and avoids encrusted rhetoric. Such clarity is also apparent in the fine work of George Trakas, whose extended outdoor piece is concerned with the meeting of steel and wood, exploring the possibilities of converging many systems, and the possibilities of exploding a system. His bridgelike piece seems filled with a fantastical charm that adds to its investigation of ordinary means. One walks his elaborated system with a constant sense of learning.

In Kassel I also saw a fine performance, truly an action, by Joan Jonas. It was autobiographical but had the proper impersonality, witty but never cheaply ironical. The piece was filled with the most difficult dances, all done in a sadly crowded space to an entranced audience. While I found some other performances, for example Bruce McLean’s, amusing and vaudevillean but little more, Jonas’ work seemed to remain as a sculpted narrative, though shattered. She found also a difficult unity in resolving the genres of drawing, dance, performance, and video.

The photography section is vast, inclusive, historically and thematically oriented, and while very impressive is perhaps unnecessarily wide in its scope, except that it stands in contrast to the ahistoricity of the other exhibitions. Of the new photographers, Ger Dekkers, Christian Boltanski, Bill Beckley, Barbara and Michael Leisgen, and Eve Sonneman are the most interesting in their transmutation of the banality of mimesis into something kinetic and strange. I was unable to see much of the film section, although it looks impressive in the catalogue. I found the video section, while professionally devised by Wulf Herzogenrath, drowned in the untransmuted banality of the love of the technical or the abuse by sentimental content.

The only video works that seemed to escape from sentimentality are the Vito Acconci, the Jonas installation, the Richard Kriesche and a few others. Acconci uses a tiny space to deliver a very expressionist but concise melodrama about Germany couched in Pirandelloesque terms. His black boxes fill the room with claustrophobic accounting and make as much sense sculpturally as anything. While Nam June Paik’s pieces and others become dissipated by an old Fluxus sense of vacuity, if charming, the Acconci is strange in its oscillations between campiness and stern malediction, Kriesche focuses on a girl reading Benjamin with her twin reading in another booth and two sets of replications of their images above them. We are involved, as are the Benjamin quotations themselves, in an analysis of reproduction and with the horror of an infinite regress. All this is done with tact and a Brechtian concision. Elsewhere, the video seems erotic or exotic but flimsy. Will no one rescue the genre from the technocrats or the narrators?

The drawing show, as falsely sublime in scale as the photography section, teaches one very little, despite the Aristotelian lucidities of the catalogue. Harold Cohen has a provocative computer at the entrance, which draws charming abstractions in the manner of certain American Indians, but without their zeal, intensity of composition, or balance. Still, it incites to thought. Balthus, Picasso, and others are represented more as grandfathers granting legitimacy than as parts of a genre analysis, but indeed the catalogue adduces them as parts of its categorical system: art about art, writing and code, landscape to cosmic system, idea of man, etc.

I do agree, however, with Jakobson in his maturest reformulation of Formalism that all drawing is about itself. Among those draftsmen in this vast anthology we, of course, find much that is interesting—less that was new and interesting. Eva Hesse, Dorothea Rockburne, Sol LeWitt, Robert Ryman and Blythe Bohnen have some very significant pieces. Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Brice Marden, and Robert Mangold are represented well but not strikingly or idiosyncratically. Again, the West German work seems unable to hold its own except that of Beuys. Ron Kitaj has some very interesting and ambitious work, and Jim Dine a whole new ferocious project of reinvestigating the figure and classic draftsmanship. Three pictures by the late Walter Murch have a clear reticence as beautiful as a paragraph in late James, a lesson of the master. Cy Twombly’s drawings have nothing to do with prettiness and are inspiring in color and tone. His repeated Narcissus and a fantasia in blue liplike shapes break through distinctions of hyperreality, reality and irreality. A good structuralist like Todorov would have here a hard job.

Documenta does include one very rigorously selected exhibition that was beautifully proposed and executed: the self-reflexive book. Under this rubric, of course, all books might have been selected, but the choice honed to a savagely charming narrow line and propounded a mostly positive tale of the German book. This is indeed a kind of nicely biased triumph of the Continent. Dieter Roth emerges as the triumphant precursor of the self-reflexive book, while Marcel Broodthaers, Ulrich Erben, Gotthard Graubner, Timm Ulrichs, and Wolf Vostell all have some interesting specimen texts.

Here is the book as sculpture, the book as bed, the book for burning, the book transformed, burnt, chained. Many of the books escape the simplicities of reflexiveness and are filled with an antithetical if subordinated imagery. Broodthaers deletes Mallarmé’s “Coup de dés” with black lines, contributing nonetheless to an unwitting historicism. The ghost of Mallarmé indeed broods over the exposition, with its eminently sensible underlining of the book. As all Documenta seems to culminate in a book (a three-volume catalogue), these books seem to indicate that the book remains but the words are gone, like old gods. Martin Schwarz deletes everything from a Heidegger note except the “nicht.” These strong “nichts,” elsewhere too whimsical, dominate the genre. With the book-as-sculpture Documenta has a certain success.

There are so many ways to make unsuccessful art. “Exquisite Form” is now in Germany an advertisement slogan for lingerie. Many of our best young artists no longer think hard about the tradition of their medium and yet unwittingly join a kind of tradition at the end of its tether. One feels often at Documenta (and elsewhere) the slow revelation of a geometric tableau mort.

David Shapiro, a poet, teaches contemporary literature at Columbia University.



1. See particularly Cane’s “L’heterogene sans gene,” in Peinture; Cahiers theoriques, No. 12. 45–51. Pleynet, Sollers, Devade also contribute some vigorous theoretical articles there and in 8/9 and 10/11.

2. Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael, San Francisco, 1967. See also Donald Allen, ed. Human Universe and Other Essays, New York, 1967.

3. Quoted from Hegel’s Aesthetics in Erich Auerbach, Mimesis, p. 191. De Maria’s plunge may be regarded as an unfamiliar form of realism.

4. Roman Jakobson, “Linguistics and Poetics,” in T. Sebeok, ed., Style in Language, New York, 1960, pp. 350–377, and S. Chatman and S.R. Levin, eds., Boston, 1967, pp. 296–322. Jakobson’s schema might, with some alteration, provide a suggestive frame for a dominantly nonreferential esthetics.