Katz, Vincent. "Rudy Burckhardt : Art’s Friendship," Lopate, Phillip. Rudy Burckhardt. New York: Abrams, 2004.
Rudy Burckhardt became a quietly integral figure of the New York art scene as it was transitioning from interesting outpost to outspoken center. In the 1930s, sharing a Chelsea loft with critic and poet Edwin Denby, Burckhardt’s experience of the art world was largely the experience of seeing friends. There were few galleries showing contemporary art and less money to pay for it, but living was cheap. Burckhardt remembered hearing Stravinsky coming from de Kooning’s next-door record player (at a time when record players were scarce). The painter offered to give Burckhardt a lesson, telling him to paint a crumpled piece of paper in sunlight. Burckhardt demurred, saying he had no interest in crumpled paper. An odd willfulness: he was inexorably attracted to the human -- or to its non-human counterpart, nature.
In New York, Burckhardt found his ideal setting -- a city where people looked good, dressed sharp, and moved fast midtown, or dragged their feet, more down at the heels, in places like Astoria, Queens. He liked to find the unusual perspective -- whether of Times Square or an anonymous borough overpass -- and he worked for those views. A newcomer in Manhattan, he was thrilled by the hurtling buildings’ angles and by the characteristic shadows that engulfed pedestrians in their concomitant canyons, especially on warm spring days, when one could linger there in shirtsleeves. His eye could not take it all in. It took years before he could combine people and tall buildings in the same image. He began instead by focusing on details of bodies and clothing, and specifically not integral details but fragmentary ones, evoking the experience of incessant movement that New York implies. Whether one is walking or at rest, one’s visual experience there tends to be fractured. Depending on one’s mood, this fracturing can be stimulating or it can drive one to the madhouse. Burckhardt’s moods ranged from reflective to buoyant. His photographs are filled with the optimism that light and fresh vision entail. This is so as much at the end of his career as at the beginning, and it applies equally to his city and his nature photography. The social meanings and psychological implications of clothing or expression were not his concern. Burckhardt’s best images retain their ability to surprise us; their seemingly casual genesis is belied by complex composition that strikes us as true to life’s visceral touches.
In the 1940s, he discovered a method for photographing the city that suited his temperament. He would enter a high office building, call the elevator, and ask the elevator operator for the top floor, acting as though he had some business there. Once arrived, he would find the stairway and, usually, be able to ascend to the roof. From such unusual vantages, he took some of his most memorable images, New York’s historic buildings and skyline seen from on high, and also such details as a fractured caryatid surveying the city. He took few shots; there was time spent in waiting for the right situation, then two or three shots, and the moment would pass. In New York, in particular, he took fewer exposures than on some of his European promenades.
Part of Burckhardt’s outlook, which colors his photographic imagery, stems from his belief in the essential good nature of humanity. Not that he was naive, or immune to suffering. He lived through two World Wars and was well aware of man’s ability to do harm. Rather, he seemed to think, while a few people with a lot of power are capable of radical wrongdoing, the majority of the population does possess an essential component of goodness that allows it to understand and be understood. At least, that is what he unerringly expresses in his photographs. People always look their best, and if you compare Burckhardt’s people to those of other artists throughout time, you begin to realize how hard that is to achieve. Partly, it is because he usually chose to photograph outdoors on those days of prime good-feeling -- times when the temperature and atmosphere are at their apex. Partly, it comes from an open way of looking at people, with appreciation, without flattery. How he translated that looking into photography remains somewhat mysterious. Unlike Gary Winogrand, Burckhardt does not usually photograph the incongruous. Even when Burckhardt photographs beautiful women, one senses they are beautiful partly because of their harmoniousness with their urban surroundings. Burckhardt should be accurately called not a street photographer but a city photographer, as his view is more encompassing.
Burckhardt took great photographs of people -- simultaneously allowing them their natural habit and exalting that daily experience, in a manner not unlike that of poets he admired, such as Frank O’Hara and Ted Berrigan. Burckhardt enjoyed rapport with artists from the beginning of his life in New York. As a staff photographer for the seminal journal ARTnews, Burckhardt photographed artists in their studios. His images of Jane Freilicher, Alex Katz, Willem de Kooning, Hans Hoffman, Marisol, Joan Mitchell, Jackson Pollock, Larry Rivers, Mark Rothko and many others reflect an intimacy that few photographs of artists share. Burckhardt was a colleague, an artist, and as such, when visiting an artist’s studio, whether he was talking or taking photographs made little difference to his contemporaries. That fact that he usually took few photos per visit helped. On the street and in the studio, he knew how to blend, how to fit the scene.
Burckhardt’s casual air, his chosen informality, should not be confused with lack of formal acuity. His photographic accuracy, care of composition, and precision with light and atmosphere can be seen in his first photographs, taken in Basel in 1933. It was after he moved to New York, however, with its right angles and solid planes, that a modernist formalism first made itself felt in his work. Burckhardt was an admirer of Mondrian in the 1930s and spoke of emulating the Dutch-born artist’s geometric harmonies, which also took the city as their frame of reference. In a series of studies in Astoria, Queens, Burckhardt found aspects of his new city that were not well known to foreigners or to artists, who tended to paint and photograph such eminences as the Brooklyn Bridge or the Woolworth building, or, as in Georgia O’Keefe’s case, the propulsive energy of Manhattan’s highrises, or genre scenes of neighborhoods. In his Astoria pictures, Burckhardt, with few distractions from pedestrians or traffic, was able to find a formal beauty in nondescript circumstances.
This careful formalism, combined with empathy for the normal, would hold him in good stead when he returned to Europe. His photographs of Tuscan fields, or of the great Greek temple at Segesta seen from afar, emanate a quality of being there. As with all Burckhardt’s best work, he evades the frequently-encountered lack of connection, in which a cliché of what a thing should look like unfortunately precedes the actual picture, confining it to a weak afterimage. In 1956, Burckhardt and Denby published Mediterranean Cities, their meditation on being in those places -- some ancient, some modern, many a combination of both -- that entranced them with human warmth. Denby’s sonnets and Burckhardt’s photographs were not composed together; sometimes they do not take precisely the same places as subjects; yet they share a sense of being in the right place at the right time.
Winter’s green bare mountains; over towns, bays
And Sicilian sea, I sit in the ghost stones
Of a theatre; a man’s voice and a boy’s
Sing in turn among the sheepbells’ xylophone;
From a distant slope sounded before a reed pipe
Sweet; a goatherd, yellow eyes and auburn down
Smelling of milk, offers from a goatskin scrip
Greek coppers, speaks smiling of a lamb new born;
Doric tongue, sweet for me as to Theocritus
The boy’s mistrust and trust, the same sky-still air
As then; so slowly desire turns her grace
Across the years, and eases the grief we bear
And its madness to merely a powerful song;
As the munching boy’s trust beside me is strong
Burckhardt’s art should be seen in its totality to appreciate his full achievement. He was not a photographer who did other things on the side. His 100-plus films represent a masterful and unique opus in the history of 20th-century underground filmmaking that is only slightly known. Despite a 1987 film retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and frequent screenings for small, loyal, audiences, even his most ardent admirers are hard pressed to differentiate his later films. This is partly due with the fact that he gradually left behind the narrative, collective-effort comedies of his early and middle years for a more contemplative and complex type of filmmaking -- film-collage one might call it -- in which diverse visual elements were edited together and combined with an equally diverse aural array to form something that uncannily gives the feeling of a stream-of-consciousness experience. Much of the visual effect was achieved, as Burckhardt put it, “in the camera.” He had become so sensitive to how his filming would translate to the screen that he was able to shoot -- by feel, without a stopwatch -- scenes of such duration that they would later fit together with little or no editing. These are tour-de-force pieces which do share a common nature, yet have distinctly individual flavors that deserve to be better savored and discussed.
Burckhardt long maintained an uncanny ability to appreciate the new -- like Denby, he refused to be tied to any particular era, once it had entered history. Burckhardt was intensely sensitive to the vibration of a day or an epoch, and he remained open to the discoveries of those younger than himself, which kept him fresh as an artist. Times Square was a key locus for Burckhardt, as was the spot at 23rd Street where Fifth Avenue and Broadway intersect, creating a wide open space, extended in effect by trim Madison Square Park and presided over by the narrow, angled Flatiron Building. Times Square was the site of one of the first photographs in which Burckhardt was able to show the interaction in scale between pedestrians and skyscrapers. It was also a place to which he returned in succeeding years, in films as well as photographs; he also made paintings of the locale. One of his best films, often quoted by other filmmakers to give a taste of the times, was his 1967 color short Square Times, in which brightly colored clothing, movie marquees and neon lights dance beneath a dusk sky. Burckhardt had the ability to renew his faith in Times Square, no matter how many facelifts it underwent. One wonders how he would view it now that, like most of America’s inhabited landscape, it has been dominated by corporate uniformity. He might have been able to find some unexpected perspective, allowing us to see even that commercial eyesore with fresh eyes.
In Charles Baudelaire’s description, the flâneur is someone always ready for a new experience, who can keep going when others have long ago retreated to the safety of their homes. It has more to do with an attitude than with the physical action of walking through the city -- not everyone who goes for a stroll is a flâneur. While primarily an urban activity, we can imagine an extended definition of flânerie that would include interested wandering in a variety of locales. Burckhardt extended his wanderings beyond the urban environment. His photographs in the American south, taken in the 1940s, are almost diametrically opposed to Robert Frank’s project “The Americans,” embarked upon some ten years later, with the help of a Guggenheim grant. Frank, another ex-Swiss transplant, had an idea about America -- that it was unfair, that it was vulgar, that it was absurd -- that he set out to illustrate. Burckhardt, by contrast, set out enthusiastically to find what he would see. His photographs of rural settings are open -- they show empty spaces, industrial architecture, and people going about the public parts of their lives. Photographing on the street takes a lot of nerve, especially if the photographer intends to shoot point-blank at his subjects from close range, as Burckhardt did, without breaking the atmosphere by asking permission or waiting for someone to pose, and without the benefit of a hidden camera. (Walker Evans’ photos in the subway preceded Burckhardt’s, but Evans’ use of hidden camera led to more muted results, beside the fact that Evans, like Frank, was often out to illustrate a social theme.) In addition to nerve, to take good photographs in a crowd requires a dancer’s sense of timing. The dance-like quality of Burckhardt’s photographs is no accident when one considers that Denby, one of the greatest critics of his time, was primarily a critic of dance, and the two attended and discussed countless performances. It is also no accident that the choreographer Merce Cunningham, sometime after Burckhardt’s photographs of people passing each other on the street, claimed he wanted to choreograph in the manner of people’s chance urban movements. These movements were based on the premise of getting somewhere fast; the interaction between people can be accurately described, as Burckhardt has described it, as simply avoiding collision. In fact, the goal of much of Burckhardt’s art, as of Cunningham’s, was to wrest the art free from narrative. Where Burckhardt differed from Cunningham and his colleague, the seminal mid-century aesthetician John Cage, was that Burckhardt was passionately involved in people, and their emotions, as much as they chose to show.
In New York, people tend not to show much emotion, and Burckhardt respected that. After mastering city photography in New York, Burckhardt was able to take his expertise to other cities, and for each place he visited, his intentionally passive approach allowed him to bring out the character that existed there. At the same time as he was beginning to photograph New Yorkers, in the late 1930s, Burckhardt left on a trip to Haiti with Denby. When Denby returned to New York, Burckhardt stayed on, nine months in total, eventually living with a beautiful Haitian woman, Germaine, whom he photographed. He also made his first travel film there. His photographs of the outdoor market at Port-au-Prince were taken with an insider’s point of view. As he would be with New York’s artists, so too with the locally known and unheralded multitude in this Caribbean city, Burckhardt was taken for granted. Passing through more or less unnoticed -- because of his body language, his way of talking to people -- he was able to photograph from inside the milieu. Burckhardt’s Haiti photographs are remarkable for their formal, abstract qualities -- the balance of lights and darks and shapes he achieves in a split-second -- and for the social information they reveal. On his travels, as well as in New York, Burckhardt was an avid admirer of fashion and style, and his photographs are endlessly rich with telling detail.
Burckhardt photographed extensively on his travels -- in Trinidad, Mexico, Greece, Spain, Morocco. In Mexico, he did a series which evidences his interest in people, how they live, while simultaneously taking a self-referential step back. He took these photographs either through open ground floor windows, or sometimes by entering through an open door. They are photographs of photographs -- family portraits arrayed on walls that convey the delicacy and care of a family gathering, or images of religious figures. A theme that runs through Burckhardt’s photographs is the street life of children. Often smiling, engaged in the wild dance of public childhood, these children too had a momentary bond with Burckhardt. Maybe they smiled because they found him odd; they certainly found him unthreatening, and probably he knew what to say to make them feel comfortable with him, enabling the photographic opportunity.
Besides New York, the other city that most attracted Burckhardt as a photographer was Naples, where he took a splendid series in the early 1950s. Edwin Denby wrote that each city has its own luxury, and Naples chose for itself the most delicious, that of children. Burckhardt said that Naples was the one place where people actually asked to have their picture taken. Unlike cultures that believed a photograph stole part of the soul, Neapolitans believed the photographer was giving them a gift. They would ask Burckhardt to wait, while they went to gather children, babies, parents. The resulting photographs, far from being posed, are electric with the energy of the city. They have a dreamlike quality possessed by Burckhardt’s best photographs, whether in the subway, on the street, or in a broad field. The experience was essential to Burckhardt -- he both waited for it and created it.
With the decades, New York changed and Burckhardt’s photographs, embracing that change, intuitively and subtly changed as well. There is something beside the subject that is different, though it is hard to pin down. There is a greater freedom with focus -- the feeling of the instant prevails, and since that instant passes quickly or rattles, as in the subway, then it should not be encased in utter clarity. There is an amazing sense of closeness to people’s faces, even more than in the early photographs, which were often taken of feet and legs. Continuous throughout Burckhardt’s work is a sense of poetry in daily life. This can be a dreamlike, almost surreal poetry, or it can be a plainspoken poetry, that reminds one of the poetry of James Schuyler, in which intense observation of whatever situation one finds oneself in, no matter how apparently mundane, yields an unimagined richness thus appreciated. Burckhardt’s later New York photographs are full of this quality, as in a photograph in which two young people sit on skateboards on the sidewalk talking, while three men approach and three others load or unload sheets of material from (or to) a car’s rear hatch to (or from) a hand truck. The whole scene is marvelous, almost miraculously framed, and every action in it is completely casual. It is the attention paid to a scene that most people would have given only a passing glance that creates an atmosphere of great emotional focus. Within that focus, and staged, as it were, with various distances and depths of field between the actors, and informed by background elements such as taxis, busses, buildings, a metal sign post, subway grating, and sidewalk slab divisions, the main action takes place in the foreground. It is a conversation between the two young people, one a child of perhaps eight or nine, the other a young women of 12 or 13. Their conversation is calm, casual too, but serious -- they are not joking but rather the girl is imparting some information to her younger friend, and he is paying attention to what she is saying. The girl is on the verge of womanhood: she is pretty, and soon she will be beautiful. She will no longer sit on skateboards on the sidewalk, but will rise to enter the adult life of the city around her. The transitoriness of this scene is lightly stressed, and there is an allegorical element to the image as well. The boy, of European origin, is listening intently to the young woman, of African origin, and we can see for a second an image of the photographer himself, who left his strict European environment for the fluidity of New York and was always attracted to peoples of the African diaspora (in the south, he consistently chose to photograph “on the wrong side of the tracks” and was accosted by a policeman because of it). There could be a lesson here, not just for the photographer, but for all of us: to listen to the African story, in all its variants, and to listen to beauty.
As the years went on, Burckhardt became less enamored of New York. New York had changed drastically from the 1930s and ‘40s, when de Kooning went for two decades before his first New York solo gallery exhibition. It was then a small world of artists, and the artists could infiltrate New York’s midtown energy with a feeling of discovery. As the art world swelled, in the 1950s, and then exploded with the possibility of real money in the 1960s, Burckhardt was always near the center -- close friend to leading figures, documenter of key faces, and also earning his living by photographing thousands of artworks for Leo Castelli and other gallerists. He liked seeing his friends succeed and often spoke admiringly of a work of art as being “big time.” One imagined, when he said it, that he meant it stacked up against Veronese, Rubens, Velazquez. Somehow city life itself became tiresome, with its demand for constant strain.
Burckhardt sought nature’s calm, and at the end of life, that became a bed for him, an antithesis to city’s manufactured rushing -- rushing, it must be admitted, that he cherished for the greater part of his time. In the 1950s and ‘60s, Burckhardt went to Maine in the summer -- as artists, and others, have traditionally sought inspiration in tranquillity -- in order to return to New York with renewed fervor. Later, he claimed to have found painting more satisfying, more consuming, than photography. A photograph is taken in a second; a painting takes time to develop. In particular, he grew attached to painting in Maine, where he would leave his easel set up in the woods, covering painting and easel with a sheet of plastic each night, returning the next day to continue work. Having zeroed in on several woodland images that captivated him -- close-up views of tree trunks, groups of fern leaves -- he painted more in the 1980s and ‘90s than he had earlier in his life, and he improved as a painter. It may be that he achieved his painterly vision through photography; certainly many of the images are paralleled in the two media. What is certain is that, late in life, continually evolving as an artist, he found the imagery and technique to attain a new level in his painting, and he was gratified by the critical attention those paintings, as well as his photographs, achieved. It is also certain the Burckhardt’s work -- his photography in particular -- has not yet achieved its appropriate position in the canon (he is still rarely included in anthologies). Now, with a glut of derivative, pointless images threatening to numb us into insensitivity, Burckhardt’s wry poetic wit, with its compass and appreciation of humanity’s range, stands out in ever greater contrast.