Broadway and Union Square
Flatiron Building, Summer
Jackson Pollock, Springs, New York
by Valery Oisteanu
"Rudy Burckhardt: Selected Photographs," July 8-Sept. 14, 2004, at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10019 (The gallery is closed from Aug. 27-Sept. 6)
"Rudy was amused and in love with the haphazard look of things in America," the poet John Ashbery once wrote of Rudy Burckhardt, the Swiss-born photographer and filmmaker who committed suicide five years ago. A mini-retrospective of Burckhardts best-known photographs, New York cityscapes and portraits from the 1940s and 50s is currently on view at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in Manhattan. The exhibition coincides with the publication of Rudy Burckhardt (Harry N. Abrams, Inc.), a monograph with essays by Phillip Lopate and Vincent Katz.
Burckhardt was born in Basel, Switzerland, in 1914 to the family of the well-known European historian, Jacob Burckhardt. He received a classical education and began taking pictures as a teenager. By 1934, he had acquired a photographic style comparable to that of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Having dropped out of medical school to practice photography full time, Burckhardt arrived in New York in 1935 in the company of his friend and colleague, the American writer and dance critic Edwin Denby. They settled in Manhattan at 145 West 21st Street, next door to Willem de Kooning, and Burckhardt soon became the de facto photographer of the New York School.
The artistic collaboration between Denby and Burckhardt endured during Rudy's two marriages, to painters Edith Schloss and Yvonne Jacquette. Burckhardt wanted to be a painter and started on that path in the '40s, later studying with French painter Amde Ozenfant. Burckhardt eschewed abstraction for representation, and the subjects of his paintings include cityscapes, details of everyday life and close-ups of rural landscapes near his home in Searsmont, Maine. But his main artistic medium remained photography -- mysterious and fleeting details revealing New York scenes and architecture, urban decay and vistas of ceaseless vitality.
During this time Burckhardt was also making short, 16mm black-and-white documentary films. The first one, called 145 W. 21st (1936), was made with the participation of yet-to-be-famous writers and musicians such as Aaron Copland, Virgil Thompson, John Latouche, Paul Bowles and Denby.
In addition to his New York pictures, Burckhardt took photographs on his travels. In 1937 he moved to Haiti for nine months; there he took pictures and began making films. From 1941 to 1944 he served in the U. S. Army, even before his U. S. citizenship was finalized. In Trinidad, where he was stationed for almost two years, he photographed the local color. After the war he traveled to Mexico, where he documented folkloric and urban scenes. In one of his personal commentaries he said: "This is Mexico City 1946 Photo Wall inside someones home on the ground floor, the door was open and I just took a picture. Even if the people were there, they didnt mind to have their picture taken. Then they will hang pictures of themselves, their children, mother and father on the wall." His travel photographs of different cultures and people are not critical; he makes no judgments on the subjects he shoots.
Ashbery once called Burckhardt "practically a subterranean monument" and indeed he was just that. Moving between different art forms, he became accomplished in many. His artistic legacy consists of thousands of photographs of Manhattan, 95 short films and photography books. But his best artworks are the New York images from the '40s, strange angled photographs shot from the tops of skyscrapers, or movements in the streets of Manhattan taken from the knees down. His works are sometimes compared to his contemporaries, such as Berenice Abbott, Dorothea Lange, Weegee and Walker Evans. (Hilton Kramer recently wrote in the New York Observer: "Certain photographs of Manhattan in the 1940s and early 50s -- Flatiron Building, Summer (1947), Astor Place (1947), Herald Square (1947) and the two versions of A View from Brooklyn (1954, 1955) -- are right up there with the work of Walker Evans.") According to former MoMA curator Robert Storr, Burckhardt preferred chaotically terraced rooftops to the crowning skyscrapers. His photographs capture motion: people are walking, running, charging ahead. He didnt indulge in expressionist distortion, or depict grotesque sideshow freaks, but rather captured the melancholia of the metropolis. The pedestrians in his snapshots execute a hectic choreography in navigating New Yorks streets. It took the eye of a Swiss born New Yorker to sense the citys pulse and its dramatic flair.
His unusual talent inspired and influenced several generations of New York artists, among them Red Grooms and Alex Katz. (Katz was one of the artists Burckhardt photographed for ARTnews magazine in the 1950s; others included De Kooning, Larry Rivers, Jackson Pollock and Joan Mitchell.) Fairfield Porter was directly inspired by Burckhardt's photos to paint his own New York landscape. Edwin Denby wrote sonnets to accompany Burckhardt's photographs. Among his collaborations with other artists were four short films made with Joseph Cornell in the '50s with humorous titles such as What Mozart Saw on Mulberry Street. In 1962 he collaborated with Red Grooms on a comedy called Shoot the Moon. His collaborations continued in the '60s with poets Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, Paul Bowles, John Ashbery and artists Joseph Albers, Elaine de Kooning, Phillip Guston, Marisol, Larry Rivers and Jane Freilicher, who all became subjects of his photographs.
Rudy was also an accomplished painter. Landscapes and self-portraits from the last years of his life show his romantic side. He worked and died in his beloved home in Maine, leaving behind photographs of the streets of New York, paintings of nature and over a hundred short movies documenting his life in America. His suicide by drowning - on his 85th birthday he walked into the lake on his property -- was the last stage of his belief that an artist has to decide on the day of final departure.
VALERY OISTEANU is a New York artist and writer.