Through August 5, the Centre Pompidou presents the first retrospective devoted to the photographers of postwar avant-garde movements, Harry Shunk (1924–2006) and János Kender (1937–2009). Their work is a testimony to a period in art history as much as to a perceptive and innovative documentary approach.
An invaluable record for the history of contemporary art
Between the 1950s and the 1980s, Shunk and Kender followed major figures in contemporary avant-gardes in France and abroad. Exhibition openings, performances, artists in their studios: the photographers kept their finger on the pulse of the cultural life of these decades filled with artistic innovation and experimentation.
The future partners first met in Paris in 1957. They gravitated toward the New Realists, and kept a record of the work and performances of such artists as Pierre Restany, Jean Tinguely, Jacques Villeglé, François Dufrêne, Arman, Martial Raysse, Niki de Saint Phalle (documenting her “shooting pictures” in 1961), Yves Klein (his “anthropometry” happenings), and Daniel Spoerri (his “dinners”).
Later on, Shunk and Kender relocated to New York, where they closely followed Andy Warhol and worked with Pop Art artists, such as Yayoi Kusama, Roy Lichtenstein, and Claes Oldenburg; conceptual artists, such as Dan Graham and Robert Rauschenberg; as well as the dancer Trisha Brown.
The works on display—selected among some thousand pieces from the collection of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation acquired by the Centre Pompidou in 2008—constitute an invaluable testimony to one of the watershed moments in art history. As the exhibition organizers point out, the importance of Shunk and Kender’s work further stems from the fact that, “after 1945, the world of art was hungry for images: it was a time of ephemeral creation and events—actions, performances, happenings, and other unique manifestations that have survived only thanks to this visual record.”
An innovative body of documentary work
The exhibition shows art as it’s being made, which is enough to make it fascinating. But it also affords us touching insights into the lives of some of the leading artists of the era. By placing themselves in the artists’ intimate surroundings (from studio shots to scenes from private life) and deploying all the tricks of the medium (framing, lighting, composition), Shunk and Kender have created something more “than a record of the arts”: they produced artworks in their own right.
By Sophie Puig
SHUNK-KENDER, L'art sous objectif (1957 - 1983)
From March 27 to August 5, 2019
Galerie de photographies, Centre Pompidou, Place Georges-Pompidou, 75004 Paris