Rudy Burckhardt: New York Photographs
Curated by Vincent Katz
Tibor de Nagy Gallery
May 1 – June 6, 2003
Rudy Burckhardt’s Maine: An Exhibition of Photographs, Paintings, and Films
Curated by Vincent Katz
New York Studio School Gallery
May 8 – June 21, 2003
Rudy Burckhardt’s career dates from 1935 to 1999. Working in the mediums of photography, art films, and collaborative dance and theatre experiments while continuing his own, less well known realist painting, his work has found an important if underground niche in American 20th century modernism. The mix of disciplines was not a good gestalt in this era; by temperament he eluded definition; yet he became something of a cult figure during the heyday of the New York School. The value of his versatility and its relationship to cross-disciplinary practices by later artists remains to be measured more fully.
Recently, two concurrent shows provided new insight into Burckhardt’s versatile oeuvre. Together, these contrast, or reconcile, the Swiss-born expatriate’s public persona as a photographer with his more personal artistic expression up in Maine each summer from 1956 to 1999, the year of his death.
Rudy Burckhardt’s photographs of New York on ordinary days in the 1930s and 1940s still offer plenty to see, read, and observe in 2003. The selection of 36 vintage prints displayed at Tibor de Nagy, the largest of which was 13″ x 10″, had surfaces beautifully rich in silver that were as anachronistic as the details of dress and commercial graphic design. Curated from the artist’s estate by Vincent Katz, the group portrayed New York urban life as a dense environment of text, pedestrians, and visual rhythms. In a delightful catalogue published for the uptown show, Robert Storr’s essay comments that Burckhardt is “free of the grotesquerie of Baudelaire” and John Ashbery notes that the images are “splendidly wry and witty, but never patronizing, and in fact deeply empathic and humane.”
Burckhardt reputedly got more out of the live moments of shooting than darkroom work. Titles like Haircut 20 cents, Waffles, and Sidewalk IV convey a burlesque routine of eating, reading, walking, and riding not unlike life today except for the props. In these shots, a straightforward vantage point perpendicular to the flow of sidewalk traffic facilitates his deadpan sense of humor.
Pedestrians cut across arrays of storefront window signs like actors past painted flats during the opening vamp of a Broadway musical. Men often get caught in repeating patterns of graphics that bleat the price of a malted milk or list a litany of hot platters at a coffee shop. The status of retail management at a vacant storefront space mocks or lures them with economic opportunity, or the loss of it (Reopen Soon, 1939). Meanwhile, a woman’s knee-length ring patterned dress be-bops with ring patterns in the sidewalk expanse she’s crossing (Rings, 1940). Groups of men and women appear in unchoreographed modern dances set in sunlit public places. The sidewalk dance floor is the threshold between skyscraper heights and the subway’s rattling depths.
New York storefronts perpetually beckon absent customers in need of readymade solutions. The Eagle Barber Shop displays a poster for hair tonic that sings “There’s Romance in the Hair” to remedy the couple’s balding (his) and dandruff (hers) (Eagle Barbershop, c. 1938). A huge billboard sign on Astor Place, in a photo entitled Coca Cola Goddess (1947), urges the populace skittering below her to Have A Coke. At a newsstand thickly stocked with Spy and Detective magazines, the portrait of a tiny, bald headed man on the cover of Life Magazine might go unnoticed but for Burckhardt’s outing of him in the title, Mussolini (1940). A sharp needle in the cultural haystack if ever there was one.
High in the air, buildings carry on a life of their own. Flatiron Building, Summer (1947) catches the wedge-shaped landmark making an hourglass silhouette with its own shadow one endless afternoon while sunlight obliterates the flanking avenues. One skyscraper’s cracked cement caryatid, her hair pulled up in a corinthian plinth as if in curlers, casts her besooted gaze over the ratio of skyscraper to airspace like a guardian zoning official (Caryatid is the only image from the 1950s.)
Burckhardt has a way of suggesting that movement through the city can be a simple end in itself or, with a bit of reflection on cues within the chaos, it can mix with both deep and fanciful interpretations of life. Under the sidewalks of New York, his subway compositions are portentous without being grim. Dante-esque figures set in the inky black depths of subway cars clutch at white vertical poles, sit lost in thought under All-Bran signs, or engross themselves in newspapers as they speed through oblivion. Only one rider registers his objection to the camera. Burckhardt spars by giving him the title: Subway Hey! (1947). The mobility and speed of handheld cameras was still something new in the social environment of mid 1940s New York.
Little in the way of a didactic reading seems intended in Burckhardt’s work. Interviews suggest that he believed in the camera’s potential to record a live scene, like a documentary photographer; yet he clearly took pleasure in his creativity and selectivity as an interpreter. As street photography goes, Burckhardt is sometimes compared to Walker Evans or Berenice Abbott, though his approach is too informal to make a good fit. Robert Frank, a slightly younger, fellow Swiss-born contemporary, likewise trained in precision techniques and heir to European street photography, oriented his practice toward ethereal yet visionary images that best convey their message in groups. His sensibility seems far from Rudy’s as well.
Burckhardt stands alone by temperament, but also by virtue of his diverse practice in photography, film, collaborative projects over a long career. It’s tempting to attribute the light handed sophistication of his oeuvre, at least in part, to his lifelong friendship with the prolific dance critic and poet Edwin Denby. Burckhardt, Swiss by birth, and Denby, born in China to an American diplomat but educated at an elite private school in the US, met in Switzerland and migrated to New York together in 1935. Denby, after earning a degree in gymnastics in Austria in the 1920s, had applied his craft to experimental modernist dance performances in Germany as of 1929, and returned to New York already familiar with the extensive social milieu of transatlantic avant garde personalities at work in the city. He was well suited to critique both traditional dance and new forms emerging from artistic cross currents. His column for the Herald Tribune reveals in retrospect that he was as adept at reviewing Nijinsky as Balanchine/Stravinsky, African dance, or Martha Graham. Denby wrote an essay in 1954 for an audience of Julliard dance majors entitled “Dancers, Buildings, and People in the Streets” which has since become noted. In it he credits Burckhardt with teaching him to see the city. A sense of how mutual the inspiration between the two men really was comes through in Burckhardt’s photographs of buildings, figures and text adroitly caught on the fly in his street photography. Their friendship was woven so deeply into both lives that poem, photo and painting titles echo between works set in locales from urban capitals the world over to woodsy settings in Maine.
The ant ran up the white birch tree
where are you going?
How should I know
anywhere my feet will take me
higher and higher down again
but up is better you’ll agree
just follow me
-Rudy Burckhardt poem added to Ant
The Studio School displays a selection of 36 small scale paintings and photographs Burckhardt worked on during his summers in Maine from 1956 until the year of his death, 1999. This show, also curated by Vincent Katz, follows a broadly chronological sequence as it circles through the gallery’s rooms. Several of Burckhardt’s films were screened on the evening of June 12 to an audience packed into the gallery.
Rudy Burckhardt’s Maine starts off with Evening Sky, a quietly impressive, small sized but vastly scaled landscape photo taken one twilight in 1956. The time worn farmhouse nestled on the horizon is surely the family’s new summer home. A single wildflower photographed in 1999, sporting Ant Poem below it in the same mat, concludes the exhibition.
In between, the show rolls out paintings and photos of all sizes and formats made during the intervening decades. The Maine forest is primitive in botanical terms. Pines, ferns, birch trees, bays and marshes coexist in a delicate, symbiotic equilibrium. Five studies of tree bark and lichen, all dating from the 1990s, alternate painted and photographic close ups emphasizing organic formal patterns. Other close up views of ferns and plants, rendered in both media, range in time from the 1970s to the 1980s and 1990s. A number of works describe fallen trees; disruption in the woods is shown in Woods (silver print, 1971), Broken Tree V (oil on canvas, 1997), Framed Fall (silver print, 1990s), Tree Chaos Vertical (oil on linen, 1999), and Woods in Sunlight (silver print, 1999). A couple of photos stand alone for their special use of light and silver. Deer Isle Inlet II, 1955, is a horizon-free invitation into a meandering estuary of gleaming water and soft marsh grasses. Sky in Middle (1990s) emphasizes verticality in its composition of tree tops nearly closing over the road. A picture of rain filled puddles on a graded dirt road suggests that there was time to revel in lightfall and stony textures after a storm one day in Searsmount (1992).
The paintings’ palette of permanent green, earth mineral reds, ochres, browns, and cobalt-tints for the sky is realistic and expository. No tricks here, just applied observation and painterly depiction. But the effect of some paintings was highly sensory. A synthesis of color in fern fronds set against ochre tones of sunlight on the forest floor bounces to the viewer, warms the eye, and exudes dust, heat, and fragrance in Ferns 2, 1987. Pine, 1985, is an powerful study of the interior branches of one tree. Consistently sized brush marks paint the bark’s siennas and blacks in high contrast counterpoint with blue sky and pale masses of green birch leaves. It’s a busy yet fresh and clear vision. A photo of the tree silhouetted within its surroundings, dating from 1996, hangs nearby.
The Studio School show witnesses Burckhardt getting acquainted with one landscape deeply. In effect, a ritual or meditative quality comes through in the Maine paintings and photos that’s quite different from the city scenes. Painting as the slow flexing of thought is matched by photography as the quicksilver exercise of thought. The gallery’s screening of several Burckhardt color and black and white films on June 12 provided greater insight into this idea. Techniques of time lapse photography showing clouds billowing over a landscape, or animation techniques applied to roving packs of pine cones, add layers of complexity to the visual narrative while demonstrating what might be called mind over media. The speeds and colors of life, film, thoughts, and paint are calibrated without fussing over conventional notions of time.
Burckhardt’s vision shuttled consistently between the close-up and the long view or large scale. He kept it simple by sticking to up, down, and lateral views. Swooping changes in scale embrace the whole environment; cities as well as the woods present opportunities to reflect on ways to think about it. An ant’s physical size gives it a different relationship to gravity, as mobile as the camera. Ant Poem captures the idea nicely – a small but confident consciousness moving up, expanding its field of awareness toward a vast if not infinite amplitude. To get where you’re going, take the next step, and look around at the world.