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Catalog and Archive: two Szeemann designs

For Craig Buckley’s fall workshop “Publication, Politics, and Print: Episodes from the Twentieth Century” each first and second-year student of the Yale Graphic Design MFA presented one or more publications from the special collections of either the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library or the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library. I picked the catalogue […]

For Craig Buckley’s fall workshop “Publication, Politics, and Print: Episodes from the Twentieth Century” each first and second-year student of the Yale Graphic Design MFA presented one or more publications from the special collections of either the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library or the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library.

I picked the catalogue of two exhibitions curated by the late Harald Szeemann, “Live In Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form” (1969) and “documenta 5: Questioning Reality – Image Worlds Today” (1972). A lot has been written about both exhibitions, and by more competent people[1] but when researching I found very little on the accompanying catalogues.

To quote from the introductory text of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s 1996 Artforum interview “Mind Over Matter”:

“…Harald Szeemann has defined himself as an Ausstellungsmacher, a maker of exhibitions. There is more at stake in adopting such a designation than semantics. Szeemann is more conjurer than curator—simultaneously archivist, conservator, art handler, press officer, accountant, and above all, accomplice of the artists.”

WABF (to keep it short), is often cited as the first show to bring together post-Minimalist and Conceptual artists from both the US and Western Europe in a European institution. In Szeemann’s words: “(…) The participating artists were in no way object-makers; (…) the forms of each work, the choices of materials and form were extensions of the artist’s gesture; (…) so the meaning of this art lies in the fact that an entire generation of artists has undertaken to give ‘form’ to the ‘nature of art and artists’ in terms of a natural process[2].

When browsing the WABF catalogue for the first time, I found in it not only a collection of traces of Szeemann’s working methods translated to rich design/editorial decisions but also a moment of great intensity and freedom, when artists could either produce a work or just imagine it, as Lawrence Weiner once said.

There are, so far, three versions of this catalogue. The first was meant for the Kunsthalle Bern show in 1969, where Harald Szeemann was the director, the second for the ICA showing (modified and supplemented by Charles Harrison) and the third was a facsimile edition in 2006 published on the occasion of the exhibition “Villa Jelmini – The Complex of Respect”. All the design comments below refer to the Kunsthalle Bern version, unless noted otherwise.


The book “Harald Szeemann: Individual Methodology”[3], a research project developed by the 16th Session of the International Curatorial Training Program of Le Magasin–Grenoble (published in 2007 by JRP|Ringier and elegantly designed by Corinne Zellweger) displays a number of pictures of Szeemann’s own archives/offices/workspaces over time. In each picture you see lots of bookshelves, binders, boxes, rolodexes and many other cataloging devices. Szeemann’s deep interest in the archive is the first key to reading both WABF and documenta 5’s catalogues.


WABF’s catalogue cover is one first and bold design gesture. When Szeemann, who designed and directed the catalogue himself, chooses to use his own handwriting to announce the title of the exhibition (presenting it in all the languages of the Swiss cantons as well as English), he determines the tone for the rest of the catalogue and, considering the funding situation [4], suggests that the show belongs to him rather than to Kunsthalle Bern’s programme.  The full exhibition title appears a second time on the cover page where it is set in Univers (of course).

After the presentation and curatorial statement texts in the beginning (set in Univers as well), there is a pink-paper spread with the front and back of one of Szeemann’s famous A4 (folded down to A7, probably to fit his pocket/wallet) phone lists[5] occupying one page each, right before the actual catalogue starts. This image gives us a huge clue on how personal the decisions involved in this catalogue were.


The first page of each artist set is placed always on the right-hand side to align with the index, here a phonebook-style set of dividers in alphabetical order distributed throughout the volume. With Szeemanns’ love of the archive in mind, it is not by coincidence that the WABF book is bound with single-sheets 2-hole punched, put together with metal paper fasteners. It almost seems like the curator himself manually put each WABF catalogue together.


The basic layout structure gives each artist a name, a face and biographical information, akin to a card in Szeemann’s personal files.  And because the show grew out of a number of workshops with the artists, the same gesture of giving room for each artist’s voice to modify Szeemann’s previously defined structure affects that basic layout allowing many transformations ranging between instructions on how a particular artist wants to be featured in the catalogue to instructions on how to build the exclusive work of art for the show.

documenta 5: Questioning Reality – Image Worlds Today” could be viewed as the most significant and most conceptually complex exhibition of the first years of Szeemann’s career. It was conceived as a vast collection of visual things from our visual world –“a concentrated version of life in the form of exhibition”. Szeemann adopted an encyclopedic approach, deciding to show objects that did not belong to the realm of art, creating a mixture of ordinary objects and fetish items that belonged to popular, political, or kitsch culture, as well as to religious art and outsider art.

My claim is that the documenta 5 catalogue editorial strategy is analogous to that of WABF, elevated to monumental scale. documenta’s catalogue design history so far was tied to the Bauhaus tradition through the practices of Arnold Bode (architect, designer and founder of documenta) and Prof. Karl-Oskar Blase, (who designed the identities for the 1968, 1977 and 1987 editions) but Szeemann seemed to believe that the universalist/geometric approach did not best represent his intentions, even considering the encyclopedic approach aforementioned.


Prof. Karl-Oskar Blase is found under the Grafik und Design section of the exhibition credit list, and it is understood that Prof. Blase is in charge of the complex system involved in an exhibition of documenta’s scale. Still, under the Katalog/Gestaltung section, Szeemann’s name is found one more time.

The personal inflection of WABF’s cover design finds its analog in the d5 catalogue. Departing from the geometric designs of the previous four editions, Szeemann used Ed Ruscha’s drawing of the number five made of small ants. This emblematic image was also used for the poster. Ruscha’s design thus defined the public image of documenta 5. Also, Szeemann’s decision of having Ruscha’s work instead of/as a “logo” suggests the almighty geometry-based approach had its limitations, while still being very helpful in the organizational realm.


The catalogue object is a red, industrial binder, and the print run is 20,000 copies. The pages are again two-hole punched but this time the dividers are not in alphabetical but numeric order, organizing the 25 nucleus of the exhibition in 757 pages.


The artist cards are still there, but now the categories to which they belong matters more than an in-context description of their attitudes, or the focus on the personal. The phenomenon represented at documenta 5 was a certain crisis of the art market.  The presence of non-art objects calls into question the relationship between image and imagery and, by extension, the various levels of reality within a work — a task highly dependant on the visitor’s knowledge or willingness to differentiate how the same work exists  in and out of the exhibition space.

The loop between an imagetic cover/public visual image and the rigid grid that organizes and frames a complex set of elements seems to actively participate in that discussion.  The final section of the catalogue, dedicated exclusively for the supporters’ (real) advertisements is now a rich set of images; time and history have shifted its function.

*thanks a lot to Paulina Pobocha and Linda Veiby for the kind notes.

[1] Rattemeyer, Christian (et al.). Exhibiting the New Art: ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ and ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ 1969. London: Afterall Books, 2010.

[2] Szeemann, Harald. “About the Exhibition.” When Attitudes Become Form. Bern: Kunsthalle Bern / Philip Morris Europe, 1969.

[3] Deriaux, Florence, ed. Harald Szeemann: Individual Methodology. Zürich: JRP|Ringier, 2007.

[4] Di Lecce, Claudia. “Avant-garde Marketing: ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ and Philip Morris’s Sponsorship.”Exhibiting the New Art: ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ and ‘When Attitudes Become Form’. London: Afterall Books, 2010.

[5] Very unfortunately omitted on the ICA edition of the same catalogue.

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