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Benjamin Katz – Fifty years of avant-garde June 2008

CCNOA is pleased to present the exhibition BENJAMIN KATZ – FIFTY YEARS OF AVANT-GARDE from the early 1960s until today. The exhibition is curated by McBride Fine Art/Antwerp in the context of the Brussels Summer of Photography 2008 and comprises only a fraction of an archive of over three hundred thousand images dealing with the world of art since the 1960s. Five hundred names were drawn from the archive, just a handful of images that serve to exemplify the full breadth of this inventory.

Benjamin Katz was born of German and Hungarian parentage in Antwerp. His father, deported by the Belgian authorities to France, perished there in 1941, while mother and son survived the war by hiding in Brussels. Katz became involved in the arts as an artist and an art dealer (one of the first exhibitions shown in his gallery was that of Marcel Broodthaers), finally settling for artistic photography. Over a period of fifty years, Benjamin Katz created a panoptic view of the art world and its protagonists, who, as emphasized in the writing about him, were often his friends. Thus, their most poignant portraits are from his camera.

As Man Ray before him, Benjamin Katz focused on his artist friends and the context of their life as artists in their studios and at their exhibitions, at happenings, installations and the many dinner tables. You see the work. You see the faces of a lot of people whom you may have met, or wished to have met – had you known they existed at the time the image was taken. But this is not the archive of a bygone era. Katz continues to photograph. Recent images include those of Damien Hirst. Clearly though, Katz focused on certain individuals, who reappear over the years. You meet the artists, the collectors, the art dealers, conservators, and curators of the inner circles of the contemporary art world. You may recognize people early in their careers. You get a sense of who were the makers and who were the movers. In the fabric of this work, which covers a period of fifty years, they all seem like contemporaries: Broodthaers, Byars, Kelly, Trockel, Marden, etc., among the artists, or Castelli, Hoet, König, Szeemann among the movers, to randomly name just a few.

Documentation extends the privilege of making sense of things after the event – also of the art, which many an artist himself in the turmoil of his times may not have had the leisure to contemplate in all its implications. You get a sense of how things move along with cruel alacrity, as you witness the events unfolding. Is this then how it all fits together? The experience as lived at the time was certainly not about tying all the knots as we do with hindsight. The experience was in the flux of the moment – not necessarily even in the material remnant called the work of art. Often the photograph conveys more of its essence.

Certain institutions, such as the Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf in Germany, continue to augment their collections with images from this archive, which contains singular visual data. Our experience with the exhibition in the confines of McBride Fine Art in Antwerp in 2007 was that a younger generation could not identify most of the protagonists even of only a decade ago; many barely recognized the most iconic figures. This raises the question: does it really matter? Ours is a period of the proliferation of Modernism – a seed planted some time in the first decades of the last century. Ideas and strategies in the arts are now dispersed in a global network. Many art professionals harbor doubts concerning the efficacy or the quality of this translation and of the premature intervention by the so-called market, but presumably the phenomenon will continue to follow its own logic. Shawn McBride

(photo ccnoa)