Art & Design

Documenta ’76: How an Avant-Garde Art Sensation Almost Happened in Philadelphia

January 26, 2022 | by Ella Comberg

Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park, the only surviving structure from the Centennial Exposition of 1876, in 1972. Documenta founder and managing director Arnold Bode selected the building as the site for the contemporary art exhibition during the 1976 Bicentennial. | Image courtesy of Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

On December 16, 1973, a Philadelphia Inquirer headline declared, “Cadillac of Art Shows May Come Here in ‘76.” The proverbial Cadillac in question referred to Documenta, the exhibition of modern and contemporary art founded in 1955 in the wake of World War II and hosted thereafter in Kassel, Germany every five years. Documenta’s organizers hoped to bring the sixth iteration of the expo to Philadelphia in 1976 for its first sojourn outside of West Germany, where it would have coincided with the city’s yearlong celebration of the Bicentennial of the American Revolution. Alongside the routine marching band parades, costumed reenactments, and speeches by politicians, Philadelphians and visitors to the Bicentennial alike would have the opportunity to experience the work of such inventive artists and practitioners as Joseph Beuys, Buckminster Fuller, and Christo & Jeanne-Claude. 

Over the course of the spring and summer of 1974, a peculiar, but mutually beneficial transatlantic partnership would form between Bicentennial planners in Philadelphia and a cadre of German statesmen and curators in Kassel. The prospect of including Doumenta in the Bicentennial’s overdetermined spectacle of American independence proved exciting for the West German exhibition organizers who were eager to associate the artistic avant-garde with Western, capitalist freedoms in a Cold War moment. For the Philadelphia organizers who hoped the Bicentennial could serve as a turning point for a city that was, by all accounts, in trouble, the opportunity to include an international exhibition promised much-needed cultural resurgence and a place on the world stage. Indeed, if the Bicentennial celebration was to bring 100 million visitors to Philadelphia that year, including two or three million from overseas, as the organizers optimistically predicted, an event of Documenta’s prominence would be needed to fulfill these gargantuan projections. 

Philadelphia city planner Edmund Bacon outlines some of his ambitious plans for the Bicentennial in this map from 1963. Presented here is a cable car route and boat system running along the Schuylkill River to transport visitors from the exhibition grounds in Fairmount Park to 30th Street Station and Center City. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

But by the summer of 1974, the plan to bring Documenta to the city began to falter. As President Richard Nixon resigned and President Gerald Ford took office in August, the Bicentennial was significantly downsized. Ultimately, only some two million people would visit the city for Bicentennial events in 1976. What had once been imagined as a World’s Fair-style exposition under the early auspices of esteemed urban planner Edmund Bacon—set to include monumental urban interventions including megastructures and public transportation infrastructure—became under President Ford, and Mayor Frank Rizzo, a more conventional, temporary, and, indeed, conservative event. The Germans, for their part, facing their own organizational challenges, postponed Documenta 6 to 1977, in turn surrendering the possibility that the exhibition would travel to the 1976 Bicentennial. 

Although Documenta’s Philadelphia component was scrapped, it continued as usual in Kassel where extensive planning documents for the event remain in the Documenta archive today. The archive offers an eye into what an American Documenta would have entailed and why the exhibition would have been so instrumental for two cities desperate for capital and cultural renewal. 

Best Laid Plans

A sign posted in 1974 in Cobbs Creek greets visitors to Philadelphia in anticipation of Bicentennial celebrations. | Image courtesy of Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

In 1966, a decade before Philadelphia would ultimately host the locus of the year-long Bicentennial celebration, President Lyndon Johnson formed the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission. On the occasion of its founding, he declared, “In planning this bicentennial celebration, we must remember that we are celebrating not only the birth of American ideals, but the birth of ideals that today encircle the globe. Ours was a true revolution of liberty. It was not a revolution of tyranny. It was not a revolution of aggression. It was a revolution for the greatest cause in the affairs of man—freedom and human dignity. Today, the Vietnamese people are fighting for their freedom in South Vietnam. We are carrying forward our great heritage by helping to sustain their efforts.”

In these and other remarks about the Bicentennial, federal officials meant to draw a straight line between the 1776 freedom struggle to the freedoms that would have been on the minds of Americans two hundred years later. A word by the late 1960s and early 1970s subsumed into the rhetorical drama of Cold War diplomacy, “freedom,” would, unsurprisingly, become the central thematic link between history and the present at the Bicentennial. 

These ideals—freedom in the face of repression—were foundational to Documenta. The first Documenta in 1955 was conceived as a direct response to the suppression of modern art during the Third Reich, when the Nazi regime outlawed all forms of abstraction, expressionism, and experimentation in favor of a figurative and realist national art—a policy infamously enacted through the 1937 Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition in Munich. “The first Doc­umenta,” writes art historian Walter Grasskamp,“ is to be understood as an answer to the trauma that resulted from that original anti-modernist smear campaign.” 

Arnold Bode, second from right, with Theodor Heuss, the president of West Germany, at the first Documenta in 1955. | Image courtesy of Documenta Archiv

In decided contrast to the Degenerate Art exhibition, the first Documenta looked back at the first half of the 20th century and valorized the very artists that Hitler’s regime had condemned. But in so doing, Documenta established its own revisionist history of modern art—one that understood the “formal freedom of modern art” (i.e., artists’ ability to experiment with representation and express their raw, individual inner life) as a uniquely capitalist phenomenon. For the Documenta organizers, modern art was only possible in the “Free World.” And no American host city could inscribe contemporary art’s place in the Free World more appropriately than Philadelphia, on the cusp of celebrating its role as the nation’s birthplace.

It was against this ideological backdrop that William Rafsky, executive director of Philadelphia ‘76 Inc. first wrote to Arnold Bode, founder and managing director of Documenta, in October 1973. According to Rafsky’s letter, Claire “Acey” Wolgin, a Philadelphia patron of the arts, had discussed with Bode the possibility of bringing Documenta 6 to the city. As Sid Sachs writes in his exhibition catalog, Invisible City: Philadelphia and the Vernacular Avant-garde, the connection between Wolgin and Bode was likely facilitated by a mutual friend, the prominent mononymous artist Christo. 

Two months later, Bode visited Philadelphia. “From Wednesday through Saturday,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “Professor Arnold Bode was in Philadelphia, checking out possible sites and conferring with members of Philadelphia 76, Inc., official planning group for the Bicentennial. Before departing Saturday, Prof. Bode spoke enthusiastically about the project and expressed the hope that ‘Documenta VI’ could be shown in Philadelphia. ‘It long has been my dream to bring the show to the United States, inasmuch as American artists have had such influence on contemporary art since the mid-1960s.’” 

Arnold Bode’s plan for converting Memorial Hall into a sprawling exhibition venue for Documenta 6. | Image courtesy of Documenta Archiv

After scouting locations, Bode settled on Fairmount Park’s Memorial Hall, the only remaining structure from the 1876 Centennial Exposition, as the site for Documenta’s American leg. The significance of the building was not lost on the Germans. The Beaux-Arts structure served as the model for the Reichstag in Berlin. Bode wrote enthusiastically about the location. “100 years later the same building outside! Inside–a total transformation is necessary. In 1876, this hall was the first exhibition building for art in the U.S.A. built by a Munich architect H. J. Schwarzmann.” Rafsky also noted the historical significance of the partnership, reminding Bode that “Philadelphia is a great center of German-American population and culture. In absolute terms, no area of America has so many persons of German extraction.” 

Bode’s intentions in seeking out an American venue were more than symbolic, however. In 1972, Documenta 5 had drummed up significant public controversy when Swiss curator Harald Szeemann went overbudget by 40 percent. (Documenta has long been supported in large part by public funding.) Szeemann’s blunder cast a shadow over the planning of Documenta 6 and increased the pressure for the exhibition to break even. The Bicentennial, persuasively advertised by Rafsky in an October 1973 letter to Bode as including “the greatest contemporary cultural experiences,” seemed the solution to Documenta’s financial shortfall. Most of all, the projected 20 million visitors to the Bicentennial would offer significant revenue from admission tickets and exhibition catalog sales. Bode estimated that with one million of the 20 million Bicentennial visitors coming to Documenta, the exhibition organizers could anticipate 80–100,000 catalog sales. As he wrote in one planning document, “the American participation results in the ideal material advantages for the financing of the project.” Later in the same document he remarked, “like last time – this time without debt!”

Upon returning to Kassel from Philadelphia, and with the promise of a Bicentennial partnership, Bode and his team began to plan the exhibition. The show in Kassel would go on as usual, but they hoped to travel to Philadelphia in November of 1976 as well.

Bode was clear that the proposed Philadelphia iteration would replicate the Kassel exhibition exactly. Memorial Hall would be broken up into different areas for the dozens of artists he planned to include. A preliminary, and somewhat vague, document suggests contributions from Szeemann (a work titled “The Museum of Obsession”), the artist pair Christo and Jeanne-Claude, famous for wrapping historical monuments, including the Reichstag, in fabric, and members of DAAD (an influential artists’ residency in Berlin). Had the Philadelphia portion of the exhibition gone forward, its most significant contribution to the cultural fabric of the city would likely have been conceptual artist Joseph Beuys’s Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research, a sprawling alternative educational community that would materialize at Documenta 6 in Kassel for the entire 100-day duration of the expo and in subsequent discrete iterations across Europe. Early exhibition plans indicate that the Free International University would have instituted programming at colleges in Philadelphia. 

A rendering from 1972 of the proposed Bicentennial expo center at 30th Street Station. A mini railway was planned to carry visitors around the exhibition area. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

The exhibition would have also included a component that the planners termed “Urbana,” a part-exhibition, part-“Kinderland” play area for children on the fairgrounds surrounding Memorial Hall.

They wrote, “This Documenta element bridges the gap between art and the acute problems of modern life. It has a threefold purpose: Documenta Urbana documents (in films, models, photos, slides) current grievances in the areas of living, the environment, leisure time, the world of work, children and youth.

Second, it makes practical suggestions for solving partial problems or documents such solutions, e.g. architecture. For example, a large playground for children where the youngest Documenta visitors try out gaming devices. They could possibly also build their own approach. New forms of housing and construction (Buckminster Fuller) are being made and exhibited, as models or built reality. 

Third, all of these activities should be combined into one large one symposium to give suggestions to the people and politicians to convey and encourage them about national competencies and to ignore bureaucratic limitations, to finally do what they have long neglected to do.”

Writing from Kassel, a city leveled during World War II bombings and in the process of rebuilding, the exhibition planners surely had their own urban perspective in mind when envisioning Documenta Urbana. Although these plans never materialized in Philadelphia, one wonders what visitors might have proposed in this interactive format. Indeed, the situation in Philadelphia in the late 1960s and early 1970s was not wholly distinct from that of Kassel. Like most American cities, Philadelphia had seen significant population decline and the loss of its tax base in the 1950s and 1960s, leaving the Department of Planning and Development desperate to bring suburbanites back downtown, while also struggling to meet the infrastructural, economic, and social needs of the remaining population. In turn, Philadelphians’ relationship to their built environment in this period was fraught and rapidly changing. Within the context of Bicentennial planning alone, confrontations erupted between planners like Bacon who hoped to use the event as an opportunity to enact more permanent and monumental redevelopment efforts–such as the Crosstown Expressway, a failed highway project that would have replaced South Street, or the pedestrianization of Chestnut Street–and dissidents who saw many of these plans as variously destructing or neglecting poor neighborhoods. 

An electronic sign was installed in the courtyard of City Hall counting down the days until July 4, 1976. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

The so-called “Young Professionals,” for example—a group of planners, business leaders, academics, and architects—offered a counterproposal to the City’s in 1967. In their vision, according to Drexel University historian Gabriel Scott Knowles, the 30th Street Station railway on the west bank of the Schuylkill River would be covered by a 4.5 square mile megastructure to be used both for the Bicentennial and as a bridge to opportunity for neighboring Mantua and Powelton Village. Bacon incorporated the idea into his vision for the celebration. Neighborhood residents, who had just seen their central business corridor on West Market Street razed to build a promenade of science and industry, opposed the plan. In response, the Bicentennial Corporation, led in the late 1960s by Bode’s interlocutor Bill Rafsky, appointed community organizer Catherine Sue Leslie to devise a more grassroots campaign. Leslie suggested that each city neighborhood plan their own community celebration based around its own ethnic makeup, which would attract tourists to neighborhoods outside of Center City. 

The city’s internal strife was largely for naught, however, as the federal Bicentennial planners chipped away at the budget and scale of the celebration over the following years, rendering any of the more ambitious plans impossible. The history of the Bicentennial is in many ways the history of unrealized visions for the city’s urban landscape, of which Documenta was only one. Had it panned out, could Documenta Philadelphia—especially with its Urbana and Free International University components—have been a forum for contending with the day’s urban development debates? 

A photograph from 1977 shows a rundown billboard welcoming visitors to the ’76 Bicentennial. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

In Kassel, Documenta 6 went on a year late, opening in 1977 with works by 623 of the most prominent artists of the day. Documenta Urbana was eventually realized in the 1980s as a permanent housing project in Kassel, where it is still inhabited today. The only enduring mark that the Philadelphia partnership left on Documenta seems to be that University of Pennsylvania art historian Edward Fry, who served as an advisor for the proposed Bicentennial project, would continue to work with Documenta 6 artistic director Manfred Schneckenburger to curate the sculpture section of the exhibition. Fry would later serve as co-director of Documenta 8 in 1987, the only American ever to do so. 

In Philadelphia, the already downsized Bicentennial celebrations were infamously overshadowed by Mayor Rizzo’s ominous warnings the night before July 4, 1976, when the city was slated to host the bulk of its festivities, that violent, mass counter-protests were planned. As Rizzo called in thousands of National Guardsmen to keep the peace, tense celebrations went on as planned on Independence Mall. Memorial Hall, the would-be site of Documenta, instead hosted a more patriotic, less avant-garde, and certainly less provocative installation. The central rotunda of the building housed the nation’s birthday cake, a five-story chocolate Sara Lee—the world’s largest sheet cake.



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About the Author

Ella Comberg writes on art, design, and urbanism. Her essays on these topics have been published in Philadelphia magazine, The Avery Review, Real Life magazine, and more. She is the editor of the forthcoming Slought Foundation publication, Rx/Museum: 52 Essays on Art and Reflection in Medicine.

3 Comments:

  1. James says:

    We have no plans to celebrate our 250th anniversary July 1, 2026. Nothing is underway.

    Your article may hopefully wake up the eyes of woke people

  2. Emily Betsch says:

    The mini rail from 30 st station to Belmont plateau, would be great. Extend it to Bartrum Garden and it would be fabulous. Add a new African American museum in the park and you would make the easily accessible tourist venues doubled. It would include: the garden, kaiaking on the river boardwalk, south street west, penn museum, Franklin field, sports venues at Penn, Penn’s new design center, skating rink, 30th street, art museum via spring garden st., the zoo, the Japanese garden, the horticultural center, Belmont sports grounds, please touch museum, and Belmont Mansion underground rail way museum, all more available for visitors. As well as Philadelphians.

  3. Jane says:

    See http://www.philadelphia250.us for a community centric vision of 2026 that is already being built. Great article. Thank you.

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