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LYRICAL NEW YORK
by Ilka Scobie
 
"Picturing New York: The Art of Yvonne Jacquette and Rudy Burckhardt," Feb. 1-Apr. 13/May 4, 2008, at the Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10029

As New York City undergoes cataclysmic changes -- 19th-century buildings razed to make room for ever more glass monoliths and luxury condos -- the city depicted in Yvonne Jacquette’s paintings and Rudy Burckhardt's photographs takes on special emotional and historical resonance. The couple met in 1961 and became an intimate part of the bohemian downtown scene, with artistic collaborators who included artists, poets, dancers and filmmakers. A dazzling and immediate love of New York illuminates both Jacquette's lofty panoramas and Burckhardt's intimate black-and-white images.

The artists complement each other, almost serendipitously. Burckhart’s photos are gritty, street-level, engaged in the human day-to-day. Jacquette’s city is glowing, glorious and seen from an angel’s-eye view. This perfectly sized exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, installed in the lovely galleries of the Colonial-style museum, a visionary couple and the city that has been integral to their work.

Yvonne Jacquette's 30 canvases, curated by the museum's curator of paintings and sculpture, Andrea Henderson Fahnestock, present an enhanced and compressed aerial portrait of nighttime New York. Jacquette found her signature perspective first in 1976, from the 17th-floor hospital room of her friend, the poet Edwin Denby. From pastel drawings she moved to large paintings, characterized by an energetic but contained brushstroke. Her method also includes paintings that are almost monochromatic. Pier A at Battery Park City 2007 and Above Times Square use the powerful simplicity of this abbreviated palette, a modern riff on 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints.

Works like George Washington Bridge Night II were made from small hired planes. Before 2001, she worked from the World Trade Center as well, which resulted in the stupendous From the World Trade Center, Mixed Heights. Georgia O'Keeffe, also part of an artistic duo with photographer Alfred Steiglitz, painted urban nightscapes of her own. O'Keeffe said, “One can't paint New York as it is, but rather as it is felt.” O’Keeffe made works like Night in the City (1926) and The Radiator Building at Night (1927), which were painted from the bird’s eye view of the Sheraton Hotel's 30th floor, where she lived with Steiglitz.

Jacquette’s urban images are angular and compressed. Her paintings clarify the nocturnal city. Her brushmarks vary and weave together into a dappled sea of electricity and architecture. The grandiose panorama of the Chrysler Building Composite at Dusk 1997 celebrates the towering glamour of this Deco spire, its windows incandescent. Fahnestock calls this painting “a marvelous urban jigsaw puzzle. The pieces have been thrown in the air by the artist, and when they land, though they fit back together seamlessly, they have fallen into an entirely new pattern than the one they occupy in reality.”

For Burckhardt, who died in 1999, reality is theater. Ninety black-and-white photographs, plus seven short and lyrical films, selected by poet, filmmaker and critic Vincent Katz, record the changing face of the city. His early work from the late ‘30s focuses on architectural details, imbuing prosaic cornices, tilework and fire hydrants with a classical gravity. The disembodied walkers -- all we see are feet and sidewalk -- in 1939’s Circles and Sidewalk IV immortalize the determined urban pace. “I was right there with the camera, in the crowd,” Burckhardt said.

Burckhardt also photographed people on the subway, populist portraits ranging from the disembodied commuters of Subway 1 to the graceful repose of a seated Asian woman against a tangle of scrawled graffiti, Subway 1985. His eye was an esthetic one, caught in the formalism of 20th-century modernism, favoring artistry over the historical record.

Exceptions can be found in his architectural photographs, such as the 1947 Astor Place, which shows an earlier incarnation of the intersection New Yorkers know so well. What might be called a lyrical priapism shadows several photos of the Flatiron Building, dating from 1947 through 1975. Shadows paint asphalt abstractions, the iconic Flatiron reflected with minimalist surety.

“He made himself one of the crowd, a quiet observer providing a service to the city,” wrote Katz, who collaborated with Burckhardt on two books of poetry. That may be why these photographs feel so contemporary, despite antique signage and vintage fashion details. Burckhardt's compassion shines as clearly as urban sunlight bouncing off concrete.


ILKA SCOBIE is a poet.