The book Shunk–Kender: Art Through the Eye of the Camera (1957–1983), published by Éditions Xavier Barral on the occasion of the exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, is a monument. It first introduces the fraught history of the preservation of the artists’ archives after the death of Harry Shunk in 2006. Secondly, it invites the reader to participate in the birth of a brand new genre: art documentation.
Between 1958 and 1973, Harry Shunk and his associate Jonas Kender, created thousands of photographs: over 250,000 documents were stacked floor to ceiling in Shunk’s Greenwich Village apartment in New York. As one turns the pages of this catalog, it becomes clear how difficult it must have been to narrow down the selection of photographs for publication among this vast archive. The images take us from the studios of Arman, Niki de Saint Phalle, Yayoi Kusama, Andy Warhol, and Robert Rauschenberg to their hotel rooms. We can observe the artists as they experiment, play, meditate, inaugurate shows…—and we smile back at them, hold back our surprise, or validate a fantasy. The intimacy enjoyed by the photographers comes to envelop those who view their images.
By the same token, these images make it possible to understand the artists and their work at a time when the ephemeral genre of performance was being defined. Supplementing the fifteen-year-long collaboration between Shunk and Kender with ten years of Shunk’s solo work, this catalog retraces the formation of an artistic vision—running from Niki de Saint Phalle shooting pictures; Yves Klein simulating a leap into the void from his window; Marta Minujin burning her works; to Christo wrapping women in plastic.
Sometimes, as in the case of an unmistakably phallic sculpture installed by Jean Tinguely in a church, Shunk–Kender’s photographs are the only remaining trace of the work: shocked, the pious Milan citizens quickly destroyed the provocative piece.
Beyond the document
That this artistic odyssey inspired the duo is indisputable. The book helps to emphasize the appropriation of artistic reflection by the photographers. Their documentation of performances by the choreographers and dancers Trisha Brown and Merce Cunningham is presented in a cinematic fashion, where the accumulation of images generates movement. In the case of Cunningham, blurred images open up to abstraction: it is impossible to deny a collaborative aspect to these aesthetic choices. Cunningham’s and the musician John Cage’s “experiments would give rise to a new form of artistic creation and break down boundaries between genres,” we are told in the note accompanying this series. It is a question of “emancipation,” which is exactly what Shrunk–Kender were doing!
Their photographs break free from the documentary style. The portraits of Leni Bogart, with the play of light, shadows, and lines, aim less at portraying the artist than at experimenting with the medium. Similarly, the photograph of Jacques Villeglé seen from behind shouldering a mass of rolled-up posters, which barely shows the outlines of his body, is a reverse echo of August Sander’s bricklayer balancing a stack of bricks which threaten to overwhelm his face. And when it comes to capturing a performance by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the duo reinvented themselves as landscape photographers.
By Laurence Cornet
Shunk–Kender, The Art Through the Eye of the Camera (1957–1983)
Xavier Barral Editions, 484 pages