PRINT May 1997

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Selecting Documenta's director

AS EVERY VISITOR to Kassel knows, a beefcake Hercules, loins girded and club in hand, looms above the city from Wilhelmshöhe, the palace and grounds at the town’s edge. When the art world descends on this small German city this summer for Documenta X; will Hercules be in a belligerent mood, ready to ward off attacks on this year’s artistic director, Catherine David? or will he be at his most genial, presiding over a well-received bonanza?

Whatever the show’s reception, this Documenta has not lacked precipitate critics and hiccups in planning. Things began typically enough. As is customary, in the five fallow years between shows, a committee, headed by the mayor of Kassel and composed of a dozen representatives from local political organizations, businesses, and museums, met every few months to monitor progress and to confirm the jury (nominated by the Fridericianum’s administrator) that appoints Documenta’s artistic director. Those elected to serve for 1997 were art-world heavy-hitters such as Jean Christoph Ammann of Frankfurt’s Museum für Moderne Kunst, Nicolas Serota of London’s Tate Gallery, and Kathy Halbreich of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, as well as art historians Donald Kuspit and Günther Metken. The process of selecting these venerable decision-makers is always complex, dictated by a mix of local and international pressures. But it was the administrative director of the Fridericianum, who, in fulfilling the functions of his vital office, caused the biggest rumpus. Roman Soukup, appointed to succeed Alexander Fahrenholz (who has gone on to administer Hannover’s Expo 2000), planned to reward its sponsor Sony with a monopoly on buying works in the show. This led to an embarrassing, and rather public, clash. Soukup had to go and Bernd Leiseld assumed the position in January ’96.

As for the director’s position, all sorts of candidates thrust themselves on jury members, who were themselves busily soliciting likely contenders. Deliberately sidestepping those who had flooded the mayor’s office with applications, the jury went through countless dossiers and boiled the candidates down to two. Catherine David was the first woman, the first non-German speaker, and the first French national ever to be appointed. The choice of so unexpected a successor to previous directors was a triumph of diplomacy. More obvious past appointments include the Belgian Jan Hoet in 1992—remember his name emblazoned on T-shirts and cigarette packs?; the Dutch Rudi Fuchs in 1982—who can forget Beuys’ 7000 Oaks?; and Germany’s own Manfred Schneckenburger in 1977 and 1987, whose first effort is memorable for Walter De Maria’s Vertical Kilometer, his second for its binge of video and performance.

David has undoubtedly brought her own high-toned French approach to the task at hand. (Ominously, the lengthy press pack mentions not a single artist, only each of the 100 day’s culture-bites: theater, film, contextualizing publications, and a web page enhanced daily.) Greatly respected by young curators who worked with her at the Centre Georges Pompidou, she later gave the Jeu de Paume something of a new lease on life. But as Documenta’s director, David may have disappointed some early supporters. As Donald Kuspit remarked, “During the selection process, there was a lot of discussion about whether the time of the big blockbuster exhibition was over, whether it wouldn’t be better to do a few artists in depth. We thought David was going to do that. We don’t know what’s happened.” Some have chalked up the apparent shift toward greater inclusiveness to pressures exerted by everyone from dealers to government officials, but David is also notoriously mercurial. As one colleague puts it, “She is gifted, passionate, tremendously French, but also totally mad.” Hold your breath, Hercules!

Richard Shone