"Mobile Homes: The Art of Rudy Burckhardt," Rudy Burckhardt, Institut d'Art Modern, Centre Julio González, Valencia, Spain,1998.
I. Introductory Remarks
Rudy Burckhardt's gift, as an artist and a person, has been always to maintain a balance between rebellion and tradition. His has been a quiet revolution that the world has noticed only gradually and with difficulty. This is because Burckhardt never set out great claims -- either for himself or in the eyes of the world. At the same time, he was never one to go with the flow for the sake of propriety, be it bourgeois social propriety or self-proclaimed "avant-garde" aesthetic propriety. Burckhardt was one of the first to doubt the validity of the idea of the "avant-garde," but he expressed his doubts silently -- in photographs and films -- not in manifestoes.
As time goes on, and we are able to look back on our century -- about which Frank O'Hara wrote "I am ashamed of my century/for being so entertaining/but I have to smile" -- Rudy Burckhardt will grow and grow in stature. The reason he is underknown at the moment is that he does not fit into any of the standard canons of photography. Though unerringly precise in form, his photographs are untendentious and thus cannot be grouped with formalists. Most often -- because he usually photographs out in the world, as opposed to in a studio -- critics and curators have attempted to group him with documentary photographers, making him a second-rate Berenice Abbott or Walker Evans. This is also a mistake. Attempts to liken him to fellow ex-patriate Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank -- both had connections with the Underground -- have also failed. For all their well-intended efforts, finding no suitable label for him, critics have relegated Burckhardt to a position of little significance, a footnote in photography's heroic history.
Our suspicion should be roused, however, by the support Burckhardt's work has received from a certain few voices. Writings by New York School poet John Ashbery, poet and dance critic Edwin Denby, former Artnews magazine editor Thomas Hess, painter Alex Katz, art critic Lucy Lippard, poet Ron Padgett, and collaborations with many more, demonstrate a consistent connection to New York's intellectual world. That Burckhardt was friends with these writers is partially a function of the scale of the artworld at the time and partially the result of his own nature. Perhaps that is a good place to start a discussion of Burckhardt. The idea of friendship is little thought of, less written about, in our era, when theorizing about theorizing has strait-jacketed our thinking. If we look back, though -- as Burckhardt, through temperament and training, always has -- we see that friendship plays a significant role in many arts.
Sappho's poems should be seen not as cris de coeur echoing on the empty sand, but as literary offerings to be shared and prized by the poet's circle of friends, most of whom were probably also poets and musicians. Likewise, the references to contemporaries in the poetry of Catullus, Horace, Propertius, and other Roman poets are not affectations but precursors of what O'Hara in his famous "manifesto" dubbed -- seriously, though he would not admit it -- Personism. Most poetry is created for the appreciation of those close enough to hear -- the intimate friends of the poet -- whether or not this be expressly indicated within the poetry itself.
We can perhaps begin to understand Burckhardt's art -- his photography and films -- as poetry. The idea of community has been made explicit in his film work, which -- although made on the strictly economic scale of 16-millimeter film, and therefore requiring little or no assistance -- has frequently availed itself of collaboration. Burckhardt has worked on films with a host of creative figures in his adopted homes in New York and Maine -- with critics, poets, painters, artists of all kinds. They include John Ashbery, Paul Bowles, Joe Brainard, Elliot Carter, Yoshiko Chuma, Aaron Copland, Joseph Cornell, Joseph Cotton, Edwin Denby, Douglas Dunn, Jane Freilicher, Red Grooms, Alex Katz, Kenneth Koch, Philip Lopate, Taylor Mead, Alice Notley, O'Hara, Ron Padgett, Fairfield Porter, Dana Reitz, Larry Rivers, Peter Schjeldahl, David Shapiro, Charles Simmonds, Paul Taylor, Virgil Thomson, Anne Waldman, Arnold Weinstein, and Neil Welliver. This is not to mention his immediate family -- his wives, painters Yvonne Jacquette and Edith Schloss, and sons, Jacob, a filmmaker, and Tom, an artist.
Burckhardt likes to open his films to the ideas of others -- the poetry, the dances, the paintings -- but he does so in a curiously controlled manner. He may edit the poetry he incorporates into a film "score," using only certain sections of a poem, or dance footage, utilizing only certain sequences. In the case of filming, he is editing as soon as he starts shooting. Since he relies on his one camera, he is automatically presenting one viewpoint, far from the illusion of omniscience that most filmmakers like to create via multiple viewpoints.
In his photographs, as well, he presents a viewpoint, that of a straying boulavardier, of a man who knows not only the pleasure but the value of fl‰nerie. Strolling down a boulevard takes one out of oneself, as one becomes part of a stream, a steady flow of humanity, not unlike the flow of humanity through the ages: both are passing through time. One notices the thousands of other lives besides one's own, becoming aware of what Alice Notley calls, in her poem "Phoebe Light,"
The great cosmetic
Strangeness of the normal deep person.
Rudy Burckhardt is a photographer and filmmaker. He has made 101 16-millimeter films and countless photographs. His paintings shed light on themes and attitudes that concern Burckhardt as a totality. He also makes funny, often erotic, collages, sometimes over his own photographs, sometimes on postcards. Rudy Burckhardt is a complete person; that is why it is such a pleasure to see all his work, to see where he has come from and how he sees the world. To see through Rudy Burckhardt's eyes is a transformative experience.
Primarily, this change has to do with people. His attitude is similar whether he is collaborating with a friend on a film or photographing strangers he encounters on the street. His appreciation of people, the beauty he seems to see in them all, exemplifies an open, Whitmanesque, embrace of diversity. As viewers of his work, we are enabled to view the world with greater tolerance, and greater pleasure. It is not only people, though, that Burckhardt allows us to see anew. Billboards, sides of buildings, bits of refuse, storefronts all become worthy objects of contemplation in front of Burckhardt's lens, the more so because encountered casually, at a random but nontheless optimum moment in the day's passage.
This vision extends as well to nature untramelled by the human hand, where, in his photographs and paintings, Burckhardt can be gentle as ferns or grass, as unblinking as the limbs of a stalwart pine. He is attracted by scenes of apparent randomness, and one senses in his pictures an equivalency between the chaos of city rooftops and fallen trees in a forest. His nature scenes are not heroic; often, they are views down to vegetation covering the ground. This modesty helps explain his openness to collaboration, as well as the style of his films, whose virtuosity is embedded in their unconventional techniques and small scale, which he never sought to expand. It may turn out, though, that his modesty is in fact a resolve to keep doing what he enjoys, unrocked by trends or common ambitions.
Rudy Burckhardt was born in 1914 in Basel, Switzerland, and grew up there, in the comfortable surroundings of a family which included such luminaries as his grandfather Isaac Iselin -- a general and a judge who was against outlawing the Communist Party -- and, further back, the art historian Jacob Burckhardt, author of The Civilization of the Italian Renaissance. His father, also Rudolf Burckhardt, was a ribbon manufacturer, who died when Rudy was 14; his mother, Esther Iselin, lived to be 99.
Rudy's youth was one of relative ease and high culture. The wide-ranging knowledge of the arts instilled in him at an early age provided the basis for his aesthetic outlook the rest of his life. His was a classical education, meaning he was able to read ancient Greek and Latin poetry, history, and philosophy in the original languages. Regarding his schooling, Burckhardt makes the following observation: "I had good grades, except for drawing and singing, so when I wanted to make pictures of what I saw around me, I turned to photography, where the lens of the camera does the drawing for you, instead of your own clumsy hand."
In 1933, at the age of 19, he went to London, having arranged to study medicine there. After attending a few lectures, he realized medicine was not for him and never went back. He did remain in London for a while, however, wandering the streets and taking photographs with a 9 x 12 centimeter German camera. This was the first of what were to become many city series Burckhardt would make. These series are each unified by formal patterns. Such concerns are also expressed in the films he would begin to make a few years later, in which he will present a series of cornices or a series of long shots of cityscapes.
His next series was done in Paris, which he visited the following year. There, using the Leica 35 millimeter camera, which had just come out, he began including people in his photographs as subjects -- people he would encounter at a street fair or simply walking or standing still. Although he has an interest in billboards and other advertising signs, it is from an aesthetic, not an historical, point of view. Burckhardt spent little time analyzing the social significance of the people and signs he photographed. He observed the way they appeared, without any ulterior motive of hoping to change society by what he displayed in his photographs.
Only one year after his trip to Paris, he made a huge, permanent, leap. He had already begun to feel dissatisfaction with what he sensed was the provincialism of Switzerland. In 1934, at age 20, he met Edwin Denby, an American who had studied Grotesktanz ("Eccentric Dancing" or modern dance) in Vienna and was passing through Basel. Denby had formed a dance company which toured Germany for five years, and he went on to become one of the premier dance critics of the century. Denby, who was eleven years Burckhardt's elder, would be quietly influential to many New York artists through the years, particularly Burckhardt. The two were to spend much of the next fifty years together.
Denby was from a powerful American family (his uncle had been implicated in the Teapot Dome Scandal of 1924), had traveled widely, and had met pivotal figures of European and American modernism -- Jean Cocteau, Aaron Copland, Lotte Lenya, Virgil Thomson, and Kurt Weil. He told Burckhardt about New York -- its sense of ferment with artists being drawn together there -- and Burckhardt listened. "In Switzerland," he says, "when somebody wanted to be an artist, they went to Paris, which was about four hours away by train. I went to Paris, and I liked it alot, but I didn't want to live there. It seemed not far enough away from Basel." Finally, here was a place that seemed far enough away.
In 1935 -- two years after visiting London, and one year after Paris -- Burckhardt completed his troika and sailed from Le Havre on the S.S. President Roosevelt for New York. From that date on, though his peregrinations around the world were just beginning, Burckhardt would be based in New York. He describes how New York affected his photography: "New York was different. Arriving here in 1935, at age 21, I was overwhelmed by its grandeur and ceaseless energy. I felt this was the place where I wanted to stay. The tremendous difference in scale between the soaring buildings and people moving against them in the street astonished me, and it took a couple of years before I felt ready to photograph."
Burckhardt made his first two films shortly after arriving in New York, using an American "Victor" 16- millimeter camera with a one-inch lens. These films were tongue-in-cheek stories with star-studded casts composed of the personalities with whom he now became familiar, partly through Denby's introductions. His later films would live up to this initial sense of ebullient camaraderie. 145 West 21 (1936) features composer Aaron Copland and Denby, with Paul Bowles and Virgil Thomson in cameo roles. Bowles composed music for the film, but it was not transferred to the film and has been lost. Seeing the World-- Part One: A Visit to New York (1937) is a mock travelogue, in which Joseph Cotton, Denby, and Virginia Welles (Orson's wife) are seen at touristic spots, as well as on the Bowery and Park Avenue. These films are mini-features, ten minutes each, "made up as they went along," without a script. They were not conceived as exercises for something greater but were works in themselves that have the air of improvisation of a children's play. As Burckhardt's filmography reveals, he never wanted to "move beyond" this type of filmmaking, into either commercial features or documentaries, or into museum-style film or video installation. His features would get a little longer, their stories more elaborate, but they always maintained the freshness of recent invention.
In 1938, Burckhardt and Denby took a trip to Haiti. After a month, Denby returned to New York, but Burckhardt stayed on. In Haiti, he found a perfect antidote to Basel. Instead of "lonely and empty and proper and clean" Basel, he found Port-au-Prince lively, crowded, irreverent, and sexy. He stayed for nine months, living with a beautiful woman named Germaine, whom he photographed. He also made a 15- minute film in Haiti, which he set to Erik Satie's alternately melancholy and animated Gymnopˇdies.
Upon his return to New York in 1938, Burckhardt began photographing New York in earnest. This is the lifelong project which would most frequently occupy him, an ongoing study of people relating to each other within the artificial boundaries of the man-made city. His first photographs of New York remain among the most memorable ever taken of the city. Focused as they are on fragments -- legs, feet, torsoes, and their accompanying shoes, stockings, coats, and gloves -- they give an impression of multitudes rushing by too fast to be caught completely. He photographs on crowded sidewalks, capturing their surging energy, and he photographs in the subway, where the travelers seem suspended against a sea of black. He also goes to the tops of tall buildings to take photographs that begin to capture the scale of the entire city, from its peaks to the shadows below.
He had found a contemporary version of the ancient Rome familiar to him from literature. The people bustling through New York's streets composed tableaux that, to Burckhardt's eyes, were every bit as vital and salacious as the plays of Plautus or Tacitus' accounts of the rule of Nero. Part of Burckhardt's legacy from the Classics was the desire to be part of a metropolis -- not just passing through, but as an inhabitant, someone who witnessed the mundanities which often clothe passions equivalent to Rome's plights, intrigues, and ecstasies. For the rest of his life, Burckhardt would make images of New York as ancient democracy. Like Denby, Burckhardt would record contemporary chaos in stabilizing, Classical, terms. One is reminded of the lines from Denby's sonnet "Ciampino -- Envoi," from Mediterranean Cities. It was written about Rome but it applies equally to New York: "For with regret I leave the lovely world men made/Despite their bad character, their art is mild." "Mild" in this case means not "ineffectual," but rather "casual, suave."
During these pre-war days, Burckhardt made another friendship which was to have a lasting impact. One day, during a furious thundershower, a drenched kitten appeared on the fire-escape of the loft Burckhardt and Denby shared at 145 West 21st Street. They took it in, dried it off, gave it some milk. The next day, an attractive man with an accent came knocking on their door, asking for his kitten. It was Willem de Kooning, and the three soon became friends, spending long nights in conversation. Burckhardt and Denby bought some of de Kooning's early paintings, and de Kooning painted Burckhardt's portrait. He also gave Burckhardt a painting lesson.
In this early period, ten years before de Kooning's first solo exhibition at a New York gallery, the artworld was a private place. There was little money involved, only the intensity of the work itself. Perhaps unknown to the participants, they were part of the shifting of the international art center from Paris to New York. They had all decided to move to New York, perhaps not knowing it would become the center, but sensing its stimulating, as yet undeveloped, social and cultural potentials. Burckhardt in his photographs has shown New York in all its periods, from province to capital. His photographs taken in Laurel Hill, Queens, in 1940, show New York as a vacant backwater, no more cosmopolitan than the Alabama towns he photographed a few years later. After the war, in his photographs of Times Square, Herald Square, and Madison Square, he portrays the energy of a big-time city flexing its muscles.
Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1941, Burckhardt, who had already served in the Swiss army and had not enjoyed the experience, turned his photographic skill into an avenue to avoid actual conflict. He got himself stationed on the island of Trinidad, where he was to photograph troop maneuvers and military events. He spent almost two years on the island, during which time he not only fulfilled his military obligations but also made his own photographs and a film of Trinidadians at work and rest.
After the war, Burckhardt continued his travels, photographing in Mexico and back in Europe, where, in 1947 he married the German painter Edith Schloss. Their son, Jacob, was born in 1949. In 1948, Burckhardt studied painting with Amadˇe Ozenfant in New York. His interest in painting was sporadic. Although he has painted regularly in the years after the war, it has not been until recently that he has devoted consistent effort to it. Earlier, it seemed a pleasant activity, a sideline to his photography, which was not only an art but a trade.
Starting in 1950 and continuing through 1964, Burckhardt photographed for ARTnews magazine, then under the editorship of Thomas Hess. Burckhardt contributed to a regular series of feature articles, which focused each month on an individual artist working on a particular piece in the studio. Burckhardt would accompany a writer to the artist's studio, and the two would document the process, as the artist worked. Often, the writers were poets -- Frank O'Hara on Fairfield Porter or James Schuyler on Alex Katz. Elaine de Kooning, a painter and the wife of Willem, also wrote many of these features. Burckhardt fit the bill perfectly, because the ethos of the articles was one in which artists covered other artists. His photographs of artists are among the most penetrating ones made of their subjects because they do not avail themselves of the LIFE magazine type hackneyed reportage style. Rather, they plainly show the details of art-making, details with which Burckhardt was familiar on a daily basis. Even someone like Hans Namuth, who took marvelous photographs of Pollock, does not have Burckhardt's casual air, which allows him to insinuate himself into a situation, rather than simply observing it, enabling him to make images like the one of Paul Georges, taken from behind the nude model, with the artist out of focus in the background.
By 1950, fifteen years after his arrival in New York, Burckhardt had established himself as a figure within New York's artistic milieu, though already, by adopting a role of self-effacing documenter, he was arguably placing himself out of the limelight. That year, he undertook a significant trip, which advanced his vision of New York by reviving his sense of an older Europe. Taking advantage of the G.I. Bill he received as a result of his wartime service, Burckhardt decided to study painting in Naples. "It was a good deal, the G.I. Bill," Burckhardt explains. "You could study anything, anywhere in the world, and they would pay your tuition and give you some money to live on besides." Denby accompanied Burckhardt, and it seems their ambitions were not entirely academic. "We had a little house [in Ischia] for about six months in 1950. I was supposed to be studying painting at the Academy of Naples, but it was a moth- eaten place. Professore Notte was an old-fashioned, academic, teacher. I didn't have to go very often. I'd take a boat from Ischia...usually once a week."
What Burckhardt did do in Naples was to rediscover Europe. In Naples, he found a city as vibrant, as chaotic, and as full of pleasure as New York. "Naples was great because people loved to have their picture taken," Burckhardt explains, "and then they'd say, 'Would you send me a photograph?' At that time, you didn't develop them overnight. So I said, 'Sure I will,' and I intended to. I wrote down their address maybe. But then I never did, and I'm sure they forgot too, the next day. It was just part of the whole show that you put on." Burckhardt loved that show, the bursts of expression so different from the cool reserve with which he had grown up. His Naples photographs are on a par with his New York photographs as a portrait of a city, reacting to the spontaneous emotion which is central to the Neapolitan character.
In the mid-1950s, Burckhardt began spending summers in Maine -- first at Deer Isle, on an isolated coast which has since become a popular tourist stop, and later inland near the farmhouse he bought in Searsmont in 1965. His first essays in photographing the countryside date from these days, and nature's varied wealth has occupied him ever since. His photographic and film treatments of woods, lakes, coastlines, and fields would later propel him into surprising discoveries in painting.
The 1960s represented an ever-burgeoning world -- not just for Burckhardt but for the New York artworld as a whole, which was expanding at an astronomical rate. More and more artists were coming to New York, being shown, and making money. While he saw less of old friends like de Kooning, Burckhardt was always befriending and being befriended by succeeding generations. In the 1950s, it had been the New York School of poets -- John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, and James Schuyler -- along with painters Jane Freilicher, Alex Katz, and Larry Rivers. Now, Burckhardt made films with Red Grooms and Mimi Gross (then husband and wife), and with Andy Warhol superstar Taylor Mead. He also had an instant rapport with the next generation of poets -- particularly Ron Padgett and Anne Waldman. In the 1960s, Burckhardt's films, which had had an oblique relationship with experimental trends of the 1950s, suddenly made perfect sense. As Burckhardt himself explains, "Then came the hippie, anti- Hollywood, pro-sex, revolution, of which I became a fellow traveler and beneficiary. My films were shown more often."
By 1961, he had separated from Edith, and, as he puts it, "I turned fifty, was divorced, married Yvonne Jacquette from Pittsburgh, Pa., Thomas was born -- all this within one month in 1964." While he did not photograph so often in the 1960s, his film production continued to soar, with 13 films in the 1960s, 22 films in the 1970s, 21 films in the 1980s, and 11 so far in the 1990s. He also picked up his photographic output in the 1970s and has been prolific since that time.
Burckhardt shared his friend Edwin Denby's love of dance, particularly the choreographies of George Balanchine, which Denby, in his role as dance critic for The New York Herald Tribune, consistently championed. The pair became avid followers of new developments in dance, as they were of all the arts. Burckhardt has often collaborated with dancers in his films, among them Yoshiko Chuma, Douglas Dunn, Dana Reitz, and Paul Taylor.
Burckhardt's friends were more in the worlds of painting, poetry, and dance, than they were in photography or film, and his work shows those influences. Instead of exhibiting the pyrotechnics or loaded formalism most often associated with art photography, he has chosen to make evocative, multiple- layered, images. He has collaborated with poets in books and films, including Mediterranean Cities, with sonnets by Denby, which came out in 1956. Ashbery has called Burckhardt "a subterranean monument." In recent years, Burckhardt has started to receive recognition beyond his inner circle of creative associates. The new attention has focused largely on an unexpected area, his painting. As we have seen, he always had an interest in painting. Indeed, he exhibited paintings frequently in the 1970s and 1980s. It wasn't until the 1990s, however, at the age of 80, that he suddenly made a breakthrough, surprising even his longtime supporters with the freshness of his vision.
In the 1990s, Burckhardt has risen to inspiring heights, providing a model of how an artist can continue to change and grow. Today, in his mid-eighties, he produces photographs, films, paintings, and collages, always as though he is seeing something for the first time. His most recent film, Remembering Edwin Denby is an homage to his great friend, who died in 1983. Burckhardt works assiduously, as part of a daily practice. He is constantly alert to new possibilities. His attitude towards creativity is one of liberation from rules and established patterns of behavior, while at the same time it is not dismissive or iconoclastic of traditions. He is as open to the brand new as he is to the ancient. Burckhardt's primary tendency is to Classicism, where visual proportion is symbolic of a world in balance. Burckhardt has proved that art is a daily enterprise. It has little to do with what one has done before. Burckhardt once modified the adage "Ars longa, vita brevis" to read "Ars brevis, vita longa." Perhaps we could add to that "Ars longa, vita longa."
From his earliest photographs, Rudolph Burckhardt (as he credited himself in some early films) presents images of formal grace and tranquil invention. His 1934 photographs from Basel and his early photos in France show Burckhardt acquiring with remarkable facility the gifts that would last a lifetime. Gazebo(Basel, 1934) invites the viewer in. One is charmed into this garden of calm delight: that place that Burckhardt, with his classical education, would know as a spot sacred to Faunus. The curved barrier of the walk, like a sidewalk, brings humans into a nature scene of trees. By contrast, Grille (Basel, 1934) is a vertical, cut in two by a building's improbable edge. It juts into one's vision just as legs and feet would in his New York photographs four or five years later (even later, in a film, he used a similar shot of a New York building's edge with clouds streaming by behind it). There is also a dramatic element, subtly revealing its author to be steeped in the classics of literature and painting. This is in the garden, hidden by a wall, bringing many images to mind, from Eden to Pyramus and Thisbe to the Unicorn. At the same time, there seems to be clear evidence that this 20-year-old is aware of (or has an innate feel for) classical tenets of proportion. The rectilinear division and the rhythm between the verticals and horizontals are already perfect. This oddly fragmentary view -- of an edge of a building, a wall, and a tree beyond, with its base of road and sidewalk lip -- has such a pleasing relation in its proportions that it can bring to mind the delicate balances of Mondrian's compartmental paintings. Belfort (Belfort, France, 1935) is another example of erudite formal skill blended with personal charm.
In his first essays with people -- his 1934 photographs from Paris -- Burckhardt adds the remaining element to his formulation: the scattered, jumbled, yet precise, accident that occurs when people are out walking in the street of a city. Street Fair (Paris, 1934) shows Burckhardt notching up his acumen by stepping into a formalized social scene, insinuating himself into local patterns of behavior, in a situation far from any that could be considered "touristic." This again would become a staple of Burckhardt's modus operandi, a way of penetrating a culture that he would repeat again and again, and which would significantly not impose upon or in any way trivialize the culture it was experiencing. The acceptance of randomness, and even more, the desire to enter among the people (as well as to look down from above in other photographs) provides an element that counters his classicism, ensuring his work will be contemporary, not drily formal. This element, that of the strolling intellectual, the fl‰neur, mentioned earlier, is romantic, and the interaction of these romantic and classic elements, combined with his acute sensitivity to contemporary style -- to what matters to people -- together form the nexus of Burckhardt's creativity.
His photographs of different cultures and peoples are acritical. He makes no judgement on the people he photographs. Even though he rarely asks his subjects if he may photograph them (rather, having estimated the correct focus, he steps up to his subjects, whips his camera into place, and shoots), he does not violate their privacy. On the contrary, he makes them an offering. In a constantly increasing sequence of travel photographs, taken in Ischia, Mexico, Morocco, Spain, and Trinidad, structure echoes and elevates the harmonic resonance of his relationships with people. The formal harmony he seems easily to grasp reflects a vision of social harmony which is a combination of the ideal inside Burckhardt's mind and propitious social circumstances that he would find readily in New York and Naples, but that he seems to be able to find almost anywhere that people congregate.
It is most obvious in the constantly reforming pyramids, diamonds, and cones of Neapolitan children. It is also to be found in a remarkable photograph, Photo Wall (Mexico City, 1946). Burckhardt says of the photograph, "This is Mexico City...inside someone's home on the ground floor. Sometimes the door was open, and I'd just take a picture. Sometimes the people were there, and they didn't mind to have their picture taken. They'd hang photographs of themselves, their children, mother and father, on the wall." A random sight one might glimpse while casually walking through a city is seized upon by Burckhardt as a subject for a photograph. It is potentially invasive; he does not ask permission, impulsively penetrating into private space. Yet, he does so in a manner that disarms the subject, relaxing him into the realization that this -- art -- is simply a normal part of everyday life. Unlike the studio photographer, whose variables are highly controlled and whose work is largely cerebral, culminating in the click of the shutter, Burckhardt works like a dancer, maneuvering in and out, predicting the optimum interaction of a group of people in real time, then moving in, framing, and shooting in the split second before it dissolves again into ordinariness.
Of particular interest is the finesse with which he frames people within spatial, architectural, settings. The two smiling girls of Water Fountain (Spain, 1951) are relaxed in their daily setting, but they cannot see what Burckhardt sees -- the vanishing point perspective behind them, drawn by the sweeping, converging, angles of buildings, which, as often in Burckhardt's work, lead the eye to other scenes of people in the distance. By his spontaneous use of depth of field, he is continually ramifying his subjects, presenting their context as fully as he can, in this case by implying that the human drama at the opposite end of his image is of equal interest and beauty to the one we patently see before us. Of Gateway (Spain, 1951), he observes, "I think this photograph shows the influence of Cartier-Bresson -- people moving in the street against some architecture." Cartier-Bresson, who was six years Burckhardt's senior, was a pre-eminent composer of images, and that is part of their affinity. Cartier-Bresson was once quoted as saying, "My vision sweeps across life perpetually. I feel very close to Proust when he says that, 'life, real life finally rediscovered, is literature.' For me, it was photography."
What distinguishes Burckhardt is the lack in his photographs of any sense of typicality. Often, photography has believed itself capable of providing documentary evidence, not admitting that each photographer photographs only what his sensibility allows. Doisneau's shots of Parisians tend to be of types -- the poor drunkard, the dancing girl -- and this is a pitfall few street photographers seem capable of avoiding. Brassai, for all the behind-the-scenes machination of which we know he was capable, actually creates portraits that are less stereotypical. Part of Burckhardt's solution is to emphasize architecture, as in Houses (Ischia, 1951), allowing figures elegantly to insinuate themselves, almost invisibly, into the curves and lines of the buildings around them.
A further refinement in Burckhardt's treatment of the urban scene -- the long-shot attempt at an overall picture -- is perfected in New York. 1947 saw him shooting the timeless Flatiron Building, Summer (New York, 1947) -- whose shadow swoops down across the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Broadway filled with pedestrians and cars. As in Times Building (New York, 1947), of the same year, he was able to take in a contemporary monument, scale it in size to the people walking beneath it, and encapsulate the whole city in a single image. In 1951, in the photograph Piazetta San Marco and San Giorgio (Venice, 1951), he applies the same treatment to an ancient European city. This shot, taken from the Campanile of St. Marco, is tantamount to a snapshot. Many a tourist has taken one from exactly Burckhardt's position. He is throwing a glib challenge to academic -- and modernist -- criticism, daring them to say this "tourist shot" is not art. The instant one actually looks at this photograph, however, the difference is obvious. One is charmed by the proportion between the heights of the two columns below and the tower on the island opposite and seduced by the drama in the afternoon light on water separating the two land masses. The expanse of water, which takes up the majority of the image, echoes Monet and even de Kooning, in his aplomb with regard to materials and subject. Its emphasis on light on water as the subject (revisited in the 1994 photograph Glitter, a reflection on Lowry Pond in Searsmont, Maine) gradually brings one to recognize how Burckhardt underpins his scenes with abstraction. Again, the romanticism of the dying light, the gondolas waiting to depart on unknown adventures, is present, but its effect is minimized by the grandeur of the overview. Depending on the moment, Burckhardt can take the point of view of the smallest being present, empathizing with its individuality, or he can take an almost omniscient point of view.
Such visual poetry can be found in Playing Ball (Morelia, Mexico, 1946), where the girl's arms rise up toward the ball, which floats, permanently out of reach, as in Tantalus' eternal torment; and in the image's aloofness -- her back forever turned to us, the purpose of her game forever unknown. In A Venetian Cat (Venice, 1951), the cat's central position is clarified by a man at a distant edge of the photograph, pushing a wheelbarrow. The point of view is low to the ground, a cat's eye perspective. The strip of buildings which runs horizontally through the image is a miniaturization of the central sights of Venice, in deference to the cat. This horizontal stabilizes the image, as does a strip of shops going across Astor Place II, huddling under the visual burst of the Coca Cola Goddess.
A certain dramatic irony is registered in Astor Place I and Astor Place II, as the people walking in the intersection are unaware of the effect of the great image hovering over them. Dramatic irony is a classical virtue, outlined in Aristotle's treatise On Poetry, and so is wit, that particular brand of humor familiar from Mozart's operas and the poetry of Pope, and which we readily find in Burckhardt's photographs, for instance those of a group of smiling prostitutes taken in Algeciras, Spain, in 1955. We are able to look at these women as beautiful, harmoniously composed in their setting, while at the same time receiving Burckhardt's knowing wink, which implies that we all know what this is. Other times, the wit is more subtle, as in Gateway (Spain, 1951), where the boy posing in the foreground does not realize that Burckhardt is focusing on the elaborate Moorish forms of the building behind him, or in Madonna and Pants (Naples, 1950), where the day's laundry shares a wall with a smiling Madonna. This image is a good example of the layering in Burckhardt's work. At first glance, we may smile at the incongruity of the two elements. A second later, we may be taken aback, as we recall a poem by Horace, which recounts the poet's hanging up clothing wet from a shipwreck in thanks to the god for saving him (the shipwreck being a metaphor for a destroyed love affair).
The classic New York photographs of 1938 and '39 fall into two major series: the Sidewalk series -- where there is always a bit of sidewalk visible, a planar counterpart to the picture plane -- and the "storefront" series, taken from a distinct position, standing near the curb facing shops and people walking by in front of them. In the latter group, signs dance before our eyes, proclaiming, "Ham Omelet," "Reopen Soon," "Many Tasty Combinations." Unlike the photography of Abbott and Evans, the signs are not present to provide evidence of a certain social situation, but rather as evidence of a certain fact of existence.
As has been suggested, Burckhardt shares certain features with the recognized photographic masters of his period, such as Cartier-Bresson. A comparison with photographers closer to him in subject and approach will help to isolate his distinctive features. Two who seem closest to Burckhardt, in their ability
to render the vitality of New York's streets, are Helen Levitt and Gary Winogrand. Levitt was born in Brooklyn in 1913, a year before Burckhardt, and began photographing children playing in the streets of Harlem in 1936, using a Leica. Strangely, though, while the photographs she took in Mexico City in 1941 have a Burckhardtian casualness, her images of New York seem like those of an outsider. We never have the feeling of entering into the lives of her New York kids. Levitt seems intent on showing their poverty and despair, a social interpretation she imposes on her subjects, subtly altering what she sees. Even her photographs that are less pre-judged, such as Broken Mirror, in which she seems to have been taken almost by surprise, do not have the formal depth and invention of a photographs like Burckhardt's Boys Playing (Chioggia, Italy, 1951), where the two boats form ancillary planes to the water's, and he actively groups the figures with the complexity of great boat paintings like Gericault's Raft of the Medusa.
Gary Winogrand, who was born in New York in 1928, studied with Alexey Brodovitch and went on to photograph for Harper's Bazaar. His early 1960s street photography, while taking in a bigger view through the use of a wide-angle lens, has some of Burckhardt's sensation of being there at the right time. It is a rare Winogrand image, however, (one example might be one photograph from 1965 of a blond woman crossing the picture frame, stepping below its bottom border, in front of two out-of-focus men) that attains the formal development Burckhardt regularly achieves. More often, Winogrand frames his women in traditional -- or conspicuously untraditional -- manners.
The wide-angle prevents Winogrand's pictures from true empathy with their subjects. Ultimately, in his photographs and in the mental space they project, he is a distant observer, and one gets the feeling there is a judgement taking place. A sense of irony or slight superiority toward the people he is photographing pervades Winogrand's pictures, even though physically he may have been as close to his subjects as Burckhardt was to his. It is partially a formal fear as well -- the need to include the whole subject, rather than a fragment of it -- that limits Winogrand's pictures, making them at once more easily graspable and less profound.
Why do Winogrand's people -- and those of other street photographers, such as Levitt or William Klein -- look dated, whereas Burckhardt's people from the same years look natural, casually disposed? It is because Burckhardt is seeing individuals rather than at their cultural trappings. A similar discrepancy can be observed when comparing Burckhardt's portraits of artists to those of other photographers. Richard Avedon's famous photograph of Ezra Pound, for example, is a sensational shot with a manipulated personality. Instead of being a poet, Pound becomes a type -- the epic sufferer of popular myth. Even a highly dramatic image, like Burckhardt's Jack Tworkov II (New York, 1951) -- the figure lit by skylight while the studio around remains immersed in shadows -- gains its power from the look of concentration on the painter's face and the tools of trade in his hands. This is a portrait of a man engaged in his work, not a commercialized fantasy of artistic inspiration. Burckhardt's photographs of artists always connect on this level, first because he knows that art-making is a way of life, a craft, and second, because his subjects, even if they struck a pose while taking a momentary break from working, were confident that Burckhardt would portray them as they looked, without pretension.
Burckhardt's position as an artist-photographer affects formal aspects of his photographs, as well as his relation to his subject matter. His compositions come from a richer background than those of many American photographers. Instead of relying on journalistic graphic impact, Burckhardt's thought comes from the tradition of European painting. Patterns and rhythms of figure groups come to Burckhardt through a long lineage he absorbed from an early age. In particular, we should look to quatro cento painters to find similar relationships. Massacio's fresco The Tribute Money (c. 1427) in Florence is an example of the kind of group portrait that would have affected Burckhardt's vision. Another is Perugino's Christ Delivering the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter , a fresco from 1481-83 in the Sistine Chapel. In the latter, the foreground group combines a variety of gestures, while in the middle ground figures disport themselves on a vast piazza, and further back architectural monuments are visible. This is not to say that Burckhardt would model photographs on specific paintings. Rather, he had internalized their vision of harmony between figures and their environment, as well as the classical mechanics of relating figures to one another, so that when he went out to photograph, he had this store of aesthetics and philosophy to draw on.
When he shifts from artificial, urban, environments, to uninterrupted rural settings, Burckhardt brings along his accustomed savoir-faire and alarmingly dedicated observance of the everyday world. Burckhardt takes what passes for mundane and shows it to be anything but that. In Glitter (Searsmont, 1994), he proves his eye remains fresh and even surpasses previous seeing in precision and glamor. Again, his work is not Romantic. It is too involved in the moment; hence, its subliminal resonance with the Beat poetry movement. It threatens the idea of an avant-garde, because it is meaningless -- insignificant -- yet it is palpably possessed of great artistry.
In that, it shares something with Paul Taylor's choreographies, which are able to reference previous artists without being arch or ironic. In 1961, for example, Taylor, who had danced with Martha Graham and was known for minimalist choreographies, decided to use a score by J.S. Bach for a new piece, called Junction. As Alex Katz, who designed the set and costumes for the dance, recalls, Taylor used the music unexpectedly, not illustrating it but rather paralleling its ceaseless energy: "He [Taylor] was moving, the energy was exploding, and the dance had a great line. I also wanted a line that exploded in energy. I put bright colors on the leotards, so when the dancers spun, the colors rotated and energy would come off the bodies." Burckhardt, who was an admirer of Taylor and made a film of the piece Junction, often makes similarly shocking combinations of music and imagery in his films, for example in Mobile Homes, when he combines a soundtrack of Percy Sledge singing "When A Man Loves A Woman" with footage of poet Harris Schiff doing a reading.
Burckhardt is a bohemian, adhering to a time-honored laxity of personal and cultural behavior. His nudes represent not only an essay into organic form but also an unashamedly tawdry look up-close at sex. The women are never only abstract forms; their individual physicality is asserted, and, as with people on the street, is not judged, but rather praised, regardless of its relationship to ideal standards. Robert Frank's photographs, by contrast, for all their remarkable beauty, always have a social message -- the London bankers are bad, the poor Americans in busses are good.
The artists Burckhardt depicts are bohemian as well, catching a breather or else engaged in the act of creation. Bill and Elaine de Kooning (New York, 1950) is a study of their relationship. In a session which, typically for Burckhardt, he exposed only a single roll of 12 shots, a vision of this famous couple emerges. Elaine stares with daunting intensity at Bill, who muses introspectively, staring down at his hand on the table. Edwin Denby on Twenty First Street (New York, 1937) is a classic portrait, orchestrated but not posed -- Denby slumping in de rigeur decadence, while the bustle of urban life steams on behind him. The organism of contemporary life makes our own despair seem pointless ("Tuesday, dying seems a fuss" as Denby writes in "The Climate").
While Burckhardt's early paintings are formal, they are not abstract; rather, they present reality as form. This is somewhat surprising, given his early friendship with de Kooning, and that painter's widespread charismatic influence. The cityscapes are views, actual locations in various urban settings. He equates New York, Florence, and Los Angeles (all cities with roofs), enamored of the great, haphazard, accumulation of rectangles, diagonals, volumes, and cones, always covered by dour grey sky. Photographers like this sky best, as it minimizes contrast. An overall haze unifies Chrysler Building
(1947), and the V-shaped progression from top left to bottom center to top right creates a momentum countered by the distant and hazily-painted Chrysler Building. Rhythmically and tonally, the subject strikes reverses to the current of the painting, arresting the eye, and perhaps bringing a smile to the lips.
Certain paintings allow insight into concerns in the photographs. Parking Lot (1970), Dusk (1971), and Wrapper (1964) all show similarities to photographs taken around the same time. The photograph A View From Astoria, (New York, 1940) presents an odd, distant, view of Manhattan's skyline, a vision taken up ten years later, at almost exactly the same spot, in the painting Manhattan Skyline from Queens (1950). There is a series of photographs, taken over a number of years, of the "canyon" view of a city street or avenue, with a jagged section of sky forcing down to a point on the horizon (see Chelsea Evening I, NY, 1960). These views automatically have built-in classical forms: the X structure of two complementary diagonals, crossing at a low point, a low-slung X. They also carry the allure of dying city light, accentuated in the painting (Dusk ) by the out-of-focus sequence of lights, which forms a syncopated rhythm across the bottom of the painting. Wrapper , which was based, as are many of Burckhardt's New York street paintings, on a Kodachrome, has the same formal interest in juxtaposing planes, with fragments of figures passing by, as in his Sidewalk series of photographs.
Themes run through the paintings as they do through the photographs and films -- nudes, buildings, Maine forest, still lifes. Burckhardt doesn't question these genres; he finds individual ways to use them. His painted nudes, as with his photographs, concentrate on the sitter's personality, rather than any supposed purity of form. Occasionally light hits a body in a singular way, but mainly our attention is taken by the characters, that is the faces, the positions, the body language. We feel ourselves in the room with these women, and we delight in the sophisticated framework of a green couch. Its familiarity reduces the tension of confrontation.
Occasionally, the acuteness of Burckhardt's photographic vision makes itself felt in his paintings, as in My Roots (1972), where the exact formations of roots and bark are carefully noted. More often, he goes for an overall effect, with an emphasis on the found formalities amidst the chaos of the Maine woods or a New York gutter. Most striking are the paintings, like Fluorescents (1973), in which a distinct vision makes itself felt. A specific fragment of a building facade with an air conditioner exposed and fluorescent lighting visible within combines gradations of linear motifs, slightly askew from the angles of the canvas, and leaves us marveling at the appositeness of the image. It gives a real impression of looking up and noticing something.
A signal breakthrough in Burckhardt's painting occurred in the mid-nineties, when he was in his early eighties. He had often painted the woods, ferns, trees, bodies of water. The close-ups he began painting in 1995, though, are entirely different. They are often "full-bleed" details of trees with no other ground to help define them in space. He developed the requisite technique for this new vision: soft handling of detailed information that can suddenly seem abstract. Informed by years of looking closely in photograph and especially in film, Burckhardt seized a way to "photograph" a painting. These works contribute to our century's discourse on the influence of photography on painting. They do so in an ineffable way, almost as an afterthought, based on an internalized, logical, system.
"I still like stills" RB
Describing the use of music as structure in films, Burckhardt has written, "The best kind of structure for a non-dramatic film seems to me a musical one. It can be any kind of music, from the steady forward movement of a keyboard fugue by Bach...to the sparse sounds and (to me) unpredictable intervals of Schoenberg or Messiaen." He agreed with Stan Brakhage that "a film should set up its own rhythm," in other words be silent, "but I didn't want to give up certain passages when image and music, though separate...most of the time, come together to carry you along for a blissful minute or so. It mustn't last long; returning to silence can be another event, more sober again, followed by maybe a poem or music again, as long is it stays a surprise."
His 101 films to date -- made from 1936 to 1997 -- range from childlike, tongue-in-cheek, comedies, to inside art documentaries, to distinct awareness of each fact of existence: flower, face, stomach, cloud. Early on, he made films (Up and Down the Waterfront , The Climate of New York ,Under the Brooklyn Bridge ), which document specific visual worlds. They are not, however, documentaries, as there is no omniscient point of view (most commonly implemented in standard documentaries by text, though it can be done non-verbally). Burckhardt makes no comment on the workers he observes on Manhattan's waterfront, the men drinking beer in bars or having lunch, pitching pennies during a break, the women walking home from work, or the children playing in the dirt. All of this material could easily be maudlin, pulling on the heartstrings, but Burckhardt sets it up as part of a visual experience.
He establishes the primacy of the visual through his stationary shots of buildings, then architectural details, then stationary shots through which people pass. He forces the viewer to look seriously at a specific ornament as at a specific person. His framing is always considered and strictly limited, even when it is a long shot. His choices in editing impose a certain significance on each image, as well as creating a cumulative flow of visual information. Burckhardt has said he prefers movies to still photography because in film he determines exactly how long the viewer will look at each image.
He arranges his images in series, though he often plays with subverting these formal groupings. In some films, such as The Climate of New York and Verona (1955), actual titles name the sections; normally, it is done without titles. He applies this formal vision to all his films. In Haiti (1938), for instance, he moves back and forth between shots of people walking in an open square; views of arcaded buildings; details of facades; medium shots of people walking at the port; progressive, uninterrupted, pans; details of exteriors of homes; and close-ups of people looking at the camera. Within this seemingly desultory framework, Burckhardt inserts an autonomous scene: people dancing to a band at a bar, which he sets to an authentic soundtrack. This is a structural procedure he often applies. In Mobile Homes (1979), in the midst of an apparently disconnected flow of images and vignettes, he inserts a self-sufficient, fully staged and acted episode of Wonder Woman. More subtle is the constant interweaving of motifs, imagery, and feelings. He connects a vast array of pictures and sound, leaving one with a sense of beauty whose source one is hard- pressed to define.
What is constant is the element of surprise Burckhardt mentions, and what is most often surprising is the way he allows us to see the commonplace, that which is disregarded or denigrated, as something worthy of attention, valid, capable of provoking strong emotion. Often, this slighted thing is not society's refuse -- though he has striking footage of garbage -- but things even less noticeable, like a normal-looking person walking down the street. They are all captured in a light which does not even allow the refuge of nostalgia.
Burckhardt's comedies often show life more or less as it was lived by the actors who play in them, with an optimism they may or may not have shared. His first film, 145 W. 21 (1936), named after the address of the loft he shared with Denby, and shot there, tells a glib tale of a couple, played by Denby and Paula Miller, having their place painted. The painters, one of whom is played by Aaron Copland, steal money from the apartment and go out on the town, eating and taking in a movie, where fellow moviegoers include Paul Bowles and Virgil Thomson.
In 1950, having come into contact with a younger generation of poets and painters, Burckhardt made Mounting Tension, with John Ashbery, Jane Freilicher, and Larry Rivers, all in their mid-twenties. Burckhardt often celebrated new friendships with a collaboration in film. A little later, Burckhardt met Red and Mimi Grooms, embarking on another collaborative friendship. Their first joint effort was Shoot The Moon (1962), a take-off on Georges Mˇli¸s' Voyage `a La Lune. A more cohesive effort was Lurk (1964), which at 36 minutes is "feature-length" for Burckhardt. The text by Denby was meant to evoke Mary Shelley's original novel, not parody the Hollywood film: "Serene in the purity of science, in the purity of my lovely daughter's undivided love, I watched hope ripening to the brink of success. Not my hope. I am an old man with no emotion -- it was your hope, it was mankind's." With music selected by Frank O'Hara, the film alternates between the black humor of Dr. Borealis (played by Denby) throwing his victim's brain into the garbage, then fishing it out and eating it, to the pathos of the monster roaming through Maine's wilderness, to true terror. All these moods are enhanced by the distancing and heightening effect of the black and white textures.
Other "features" include Money (1968), with a text by Joe Brainard, and Tarzam (1969), starring Taylor Mead as a naive artist, with a text by him as well. Money, like Lurk, has a sizeable cast, including Ashbery, Denby, Katz, and John Bernard Myers. Denby plays the delightfully devious Hemlock Stinge, richest man in the world. Burckhardt, in a cameo role, explains the ways of the world to his son Jacob in Brainard's words: "Son, let me tell you about money... Money is what you buy things with. It means many different things to many different people..."
These films were leading up to a masterpiece in the comedy genre, 1971's Inside Dope. A mock- documentary on the gamut of psycho-tropic, mood-altering, substances, the film maintains a positive view of humanity that is profound. This time the text is by Burckhardt himself, and he proves himself the equal of Brainard and Denby. Inside Dope is on the opposite end of the spectrum from social commentary. It does not skirt the issue of drug-taking, with episodes on heroin, LSD, and every other drug one can name. Rather, it becomes part of Burckhardt's lifelong essay on the human comedy, his most Fellini-esque effort in that sense. Apart from poverty and war, there is little we moan about that cannot be laughed at, if examined in the light of centuries' experience. This is his classical wit again, his Mozartian wink and escape from pretense. This sophistication is also present in the writings of William Burroughs and Jim Carroll. In Burckhardt's case, it derives not from first-hand experience of drugs but from long experience of the world.
In a scene featuring Peter Schjeldahl, which starts with him devouring two large candies laced with LSD, a voice-over based on a text by Timothy Leary informs us:
"This man is going on a trip. His ticket is our new technology which provides him with chemical synthetics of those ancient and venerable concoctions such as the Peyote Cactus, the divine mushroom of Mexico, and the Soma of ancient Vedic, pre-Hindu, philosophers, mind-opening substances called Psychedelics that have been shrouded in misunderstanding and controversy because they produce that most sought-after and yet most dread experience, ecstasy, and reveal the existence of undreamed phenomenological galaxies within."
In the end, all is resolved, as the film changes from black-and-white to color, the barbituate-taker is reconciled with his speedfreak girlfriend, and the sinister, white-haired, pusher (played, of course, by Denby, with perfect scowl) joins the hippies in a free-form love-in.
The colors in Burckhardt's films are stunning -- interestingly, since he has rarely made color photographs. His early travel films established Burckhardt's gift for patient looking and seeing. By keeping his camera still, he allows the viewer to witness the movement of ordinary life. Utilizing classic techniques like slow and fast motion, reverse motion, animation, and time lapse -- learned from such masters as Dziga Vertov and Renˇ Clair -- steadied by hand-held stills, Burckhardt molds odd paeans to invention. An example is to be found in this passage from my log of Burckhardt's Ostensibly (1989): "(Music lower, Kia Heath reads John Ashbery's poem 'Ostensibly' as voice-over); fast-motion trees/clouds; Maine Blueberry Queen; shadows on tree trunk; tomatoes; animated pine cones, apples/nudes; fast-motion path to pond; quick shots of spruce, maple, pine; zoom out from pines; time-lapse pond; shirtless man running country road; traffic divider at Flatiron Building, wet pavement, car lights; man running toward camera edited so as to be successively further away; water skier; logs in flame; building edge with clouds moving right to left."
Recently, Burckhardt has concentrated on making collage films, which derive their structure from poetic, musical, patterns, combined with visual acuity. The collage films are based on the twin acts of seeing and showing. Daisy (1966) is a film that looks forward to the many collage films Burckhardt has made in the last two decades. Shot in Maine in black and white, it demonstrates Burckhardt's ability to take seemingly slight subjects -- flowers, fields, a pond -- and invest them with consequence by the simple act of looking. Instead of thinking about a daisy, compiling a list of its literary references, and planning a rise-and-fall drama based on a mental construct, Burckhardt simply sets out with his camera and films. As he shoots, he goes closer and closer to his chosen subject, putting the viewer into a trance, intoxicated by textures of petals, the myriad-flowered center, the unchoreographed dance the daisy makes on a breezy day.
As time went on, Burckhardt was able to add complexity to this basic aesthetic gambit. He has made startling juxtapositions of city and country, black-and-white and color, clothing and nudity, night and day, winter and summer, rain and sun. The soundtracks he chooses give these films their propulsive forward energy, and the eye leads the mind into ever deeper canyons and heights of reverie. It is hard to get an idea of one of these films without actually seeing one. Here is the final section of Mobile Homes (1979): "Ice floating in water; pink flower; (tenor aria, flutes, oboe); water dripping off porch, focus shift to trees across road; tracking shot of day lilies; fast-motion clouds passing behind skyline silhouette with water tower, tilt down city 'canyon' view; tight close-up of yellow maple leaves still on tree; churning water; tight close-up pansy; pan of snow-covered nearby rooftop skylights, tilt to gothic gable roof clock; long shot of same building, red in dying sunlight, fast-motion clouds behind different silhouettes of rooftops/watertowers, sudden shift to normal speed. Credits over night scene shot from above, NY car lights going down screen."
As Richard Bartone notes, in a cogent piece of film criticism on Burckhardt, it is his editing which forces a certain reaction, or chain of reactions, in the viewer. In Night Fantasies, a collaboration with Yvonne Jacquette, set to a piano piece of the same name by Elliott Carter, a meditation on night goes through variations which are, by implication, endless. As in his early films, Burckhardt works in sequences. Quickly edited close-up shots of objects covered by snow are followed by a long shot that gives an overview of all these details. After an interlude, this process is repeated on a different snow scene. A constant tension of equivalencies is tested. As in Burckhardt's preferred musical form, the fugue, ideas which seem simple enough on their own are layered in a way which rapidly precludes their distinction.
In Night Fantasies, this principle is applied strictly to night scenes. There are equivalencies between New York and Hong Kong, city and country, winter and summer -- all within the somber palette of the nocturne. One thinks of Whistler's bays and the influence of Jaquette's own paintings, that frequently take night views of city lights as their subject. The lights of the city coming on, filmed so as to appear in fast motion, take on the beauty of a natural phenomenon.
The films about and including artists allow the camera to linger on their subjects, supplementing them with minute visual detail. For Alex Katz Painting (1978), an interview of Katz by Henry Geldzahler was filmed, and it appears briefly. Katz' responses to Geldzahler's questions are used throughout as voice over, but we never hear Geldzahler. The films Burckhardt made with Joseph Cornell are textures all to themselves, with Burckhardt's signature looking at the street (in What Mozart Saw On Mulberry Street), birds, and trees (in the Nymphlight trilogy) buoying Cornell's calculated limitations. Cornell would suggest things to shoot and did not believe in editing. He was often disappointed with the day's rushes. As Burckhardt says, though, things arose simply because these two were there to see them -- for instance, a group of boys that goes bounding over a fence onto a lawn, where they roughhouse and tumble, until, as though at a signal, they all get up and run away again.
Burckhardt's films of the dance are artworks as well as being documents. Paul Taylor: Junction contains footage of Taylor dancing about a year before he stopped. Scenes of Yoshiko Chuma, Douglas Dunn, and Dana Reitz (with and without their companies), shot either in New York studios, on a huge heap of rubble in Long Island City, or in a Maine forest, are unique choreographies preserved in film. The way in which Burckhardt combines different musics within a single film is highly eclectic. The sources for Mobile Homes are Elliott Carter, Blondie, Franz Liszt, Gabby Pahihui, James P. Johnson, Cecil Taylor, Domenico Scarlatti, Percy Sledge, Musique, and Lauritz Melchior. Probably someone played him the Blondie song; possibly it was his son Tom, who is seen skateboarding while the song plays. It was Burckhardt who realized that, harmonically, the song would fit at that exact position.
In his films, more starkly than in his photographs, we see why Burckhardt has been uncategorizable in the history of recent art. To make such films -- light, childlike, comedies, and ephemeral, poetic, studies -- central to one's oeuvre is curious. While his films are all distinct, each from the rest, they constitute a consistent esthetic, dating from his earliest productions. He still makes films 10 to 30 minutes long, and he still makes travel films, often combining material from several different sources. He has not made any narrative comedies in recent years, preferring to shoot on his own, much as he photographs, not in function of a story line. He never attempted the large-scale forms of Warhol's lengthy investigations, nor did he care to experiment with new media -- deconstructing film by making it part of an environment. The evanescence of his recent films and the modest radicalness of all his film work make it hard to classify his films and so accept them as part of the standard canon of ambitious, great, art. Burckhardt's art comes at us from a different angle. It catches us by surprise, giving us a start of recognition.
Rudy Burckhardt is at home in the 20th-century technique of collage, as he is in the 15th-century compositions of the Italians. His worktable in New York is a mass of images -- postcards from friends, a sexy comic book Jacob brought back from Cuba, images of women from lingerie ads, baseball players, poems, his own photographs. Outside, there are views on three sides of Chelsea, the neighborhood Burckhardt has inhabited for sixty years. Looking out, one sees countless images from films, photographs, and paintings -- the watertower he filmed during its construction, the courtyard with its fire- escapes and views into other people's lives, the rooftops which stretch out in the haphazard pattern he has often happily noted.
Ultimately, it is not the randomness of existence that is Burckhardt's subject, but rather the significance of it all, as in the James Schuyler lines, "I can't get over/ how it all works in together." The things we see out our window everyday may be arbitrary, but they are the textures that surround us. Rudy Burckhardt's art celebrates these textures, leading us inside them, to see them with a detail and in a light we never imagined possible. In this way, he achieves his low-key revolution, by transforming the way we look at the world. At the same time, he does something else. He helps us to look at people differently, with appreciation, respect, and delight.