Claudio Abate currently lives in Rome, Italy, where he was born in 1943. As early as his adolescent yeras, he showe an interest in the world of art and photography. His father was a painter and friend of De Chirico, and he grew up in a disorderly and in some ways eccentric artistic background. His portrait of Mario Schifano is from 1959, and the photographer had to come to terms with the artist at the beginning of his career, seeking to avoid a pompous rendering, searching instead for a dialogue between friends. He began working very early on, and at the age of sixteen he was already collaborating with the Press Service Agency.
From 1961 to 1963, he worked at Life Magazine as assistant to Eric Lessing, one of the founders of Magnum photographic agency. He collaborated with Play Man. In the same period he started to work for Sipario, and became the chronicler of Carmelo Bene’s avant-garde theatre. Some to the shots from 1963 were taken during a performance of Christo’63. The spectacle triggered the definitive closure of Teatro Laboratorio and led to Carmelo Bene being sentenced in absentia, because of a certain St.John the Apostle (played by Alberto Greco) who urinated on the head of the Argentine ambassador. Abate’s photos provided conclusive proof for charges to be dropped against Bene.
Working with artists is something that came naturally to him, and –naturally enough- Abate became the eye witness, as many have dubbed him, of the artistic ferment that characterized the years from the mid –Sixties through to the avant-gardes of the Seventies. He took an active part in the spirit of the times and his photos are not only a uniquely valuable record of events –becouse without them there would be no other trace left of those years- they are also emblematic of the period. He succeeded in capturing in a single image complex environmental works that would otherwise have been very difficult to pin down to one single viewpoint.
The photo of Kounelli’s Horses on display at the Attico in 1969, or the photo depicting Gino de Dominicis’s Lo Zodiaco on show at the Attico in 1970, are higly memorable. In the latter case, Abate managed to embrace in a single shot the ellipse marked out by the objects and individuals that made up the scene. As he recalls, “I had to produce a photo of Lo Zodiaco that took in the whole work, because almost always there only remains just one image of the work and it has to be definitive, the one the artist acknowledges and accepts as if it were his own work”. The photos thus do not become mere cold records of artistic avents, rather, as Achille Bonito Oliva might say, they are the emotive vision of the work in question.
After the so-called heady years in which Abate became the photographer and chronicler of contemporary avant-garde art, he went on the experiment with a language of his own, using different photographic techniques. Starting in 1972 with “Contatti con la superficie sensibile” (“Contacts with a sensitive surface”), Abate not only paid tribute to the many artist friends who had borne witness to and shared that experimental time with him, he also presented a number of black and white shots that he had produced from contact with light-sensitized surface. His Il Progetto per un monumento al cinema (“Project for a monument to cinema”) is not a photo as such. It is a complex work composed of a huge silhouette of Michelangelo Antonioni contact-printed on a surface made up of all the frame on of the director’s films.
In the 1980s Abate tackled colour for the first time. While still maintaining the intimate dialogue with the work and artists, he paid less heed to the faithful description of reality, which is one of the main characteristics of colour, and accentuated its mystery instead. In 1986 he executed a series of shots of the works of Joseph Beuys, conserved in the Landes Museum in Darmstadt. Beuys himself meticulously arranged and set up his works. The project was the brainchild of Eva Beuys, the German artist’s wife, and was carried out after her death. The result was published in 1990 in Jospeh Beuys. Block Beuys (Schirmer & Mosel). The photos were put on display for the first time in 2006, in Rome’s Galleria dell’Oca.
Abate continued his close association with artists and after moving his studio to the lively San Lorenzo district, he formed close ties with the members of what was defined in the 1980s as the New Roman School. From the Nineties onwards, he developed new lines of research, bringing artist friends to work with him in the dark room, and bringing out the peculiar qualities of each one, as well as placing them in direct contact with the photographer’s enquiry. That particular project led to an exhibition entitled Obscura in 2005.
Over the years, Abate’s photos have been displayed in a great many national and international show, such as his one-man show in the Italian Pavillon at the 1993 Venice Biennial; the retrospective show Vent’anni in Atelier (“Twenty years in the studio”) held in the autumn of 2001 at the French Academy in Rome’s Villa Medici, before going on the Museum of Belgrade in 2002; the photos on display that same year at Rome’s MACRO, at the Photography Biennial in Moscow in 2004, and at the Maison de la Photographie and the MART of Rovereto in 2006, in 2007 at the Villa Medici, Accademia di Francia in Rome, to cite but a few.
We can say that through his photographer’s gaze, Claudio Abate has transcribed the history of Italian and international art un the past forty years, making his own very personal contribution to that history.