"Remembering Rudy Burckhardt," Art on Paper, Vol 4, #2, Nov/December 1999.
Rudy Burckhardt was a kind man, a gentle man, a funny man, and also a man with a clear and definite vision for his art. He began photographing in 1934 in his native Basel and also took photographs that year in London and Paris. From the beginning, his photographs had a sophisticated style, and his main subject matter -- cities and their people -- was in place. Even the European capitals felt too constraining, though, to Burckhardt, who came from an prominent family and longed to be free from their social expectations. The following year, poet and dance critic Edwin Denby wandered into Burckhardt’s atelier, and a lifelong friendship began. Burckhardt followed Denby to New York, which from then on remained his home.
The vast majority of his photographs take a given scene as their subject matter -- whether it is the streets of New York, Tangier, or Naples or the woods of Maine. We know that any two photographers can take vastly different views of the same subject, and Burckhardt’s always touch us by their formal acuity and human grace. He makes people look beautiful, which is no easy task. He shows them at their best, and he does the same for trees and ferns.
Burckhardt deserves to be known as one of the great street photographers of the century, along with Cartier-Bresson, Frank, and Winogrand. That he is not yet is due partly to decisions he made about how to live his life and partly to a natural propensity. He came from the classical painting tradition, which he always embraced, even while moving away from European constraints and towards American freedom in his personal life. Burckhardt was versed in Greek and Latin, coming from the family which a century earlier had produced the distinguished historian of the Renaissance, Jacob Burckhardt.
As a result of this background, Burckhardt was more attracted to artists than to commercial work. His friends were painters, poets, dancers -- few were photographers or filmmakers. While on assignment for ARTnews in the 1950s and '60s, he did take marvelous portraits of Josef Albers, Jean Dubuffet, Al Held, Hans Hoffman, Marisol, Joan Mitchell, Jackson Pollock, Fairfield Porter, Larry Rivers, and Jack Tworkov, but he chose to let his journalistic career go, contrary to what most photographers would do. In the world of independent film, his films were often considered not serious or avant-garde enough. He found a champion in Jonas Mekas, who wrote a column for the Village Voice, extolling films which were uninhibited, as Burckhardt's frequently were. In 1987, after fifty years of filmmaking, the Museum of Modern Art put on a program of his films, curated by Philip Lopate. Burckhardt ultimately made over 90 16-millimeter films.
Certainly, he was widely appreciated by poets, who used his images on book and magazine covers, by painters such as Willem de Kooning, Alex Katz, and Red Grooms, who all did portraits of him, and by the many artists, including Joe Brainard, Joseph Cornell, and Charles Simmonds, who collaborated with Burckhardt on his films. For all his openness to others' art, though, Burckhardt retained a firm grip on authorship. At the end of the day, he alone decided what went into his films, and his choices were unerring.
Painting began as more of a diversion than an occupation for Burckhardt. Later in life, though, he said he had begun to prefer it to photography because it took longer and was more engaging. Bolstered by a life of looking and framing, he began, in his 80s, painting striking images, mainly close-up views of the Maine woods, which achieved acclaim. Burckhardt was not only a filmmaker, photographer, and painter. He also wrote fascinating journals of his travels to Haiti, Trinidad, Morocco, and Peru, as well as several autobiographical pieces. His account of a Greyhound bus terminal in Boston in 1975 presents a picture as vivid as one of his photographs:
A small plump black-haired woman sat watching four or five exquisite little girls who jumped up and down or leaned against each other resting just like kittens. A timid derelict, sober, asking for a handout from prospects he hoped wouldn't rebuff him too rudely. An elderly blonde crazy woman in a long flowered house dress, with traces of prettiness in a thin delicate face, pushing a shopping cart piled high with colorful junk talking softly to a tall very black woman in a gleaming white pant suit holding a well scrubbed little girl by the hand. Unmoving like a statue she was looking over the head of the crazy lady.
Every eulogy for an artist ends the same way: "They have died, but their art lives on." This is true, but in Burckhardt's case there is more than that. He leaves behind him, in his art and in his biography, a model of how to live a life: to make sure to do what one wants, what one has always wanted, to take the time to climb to the top of the hill, or skyscraper, to see what the view is like. Burckhardt influenced many, many people, particularly younger artists, but earlier even many who weren't aware of it. (The several thousand photographs of artworks he took for Leo Castelli and other galleries were omnipresent). In a curious way, he was the invisible center of the artworld, the one who was always around and always understood and appreciated a new idea.
Burckhardt claimed to have a philosophy that was "distinctly pessimistic, existential, negative thinking." He added, "I can only think well of myself when I think others are thinking well of me and I seldom know what others are thinking, but I know I don't often think well of others -- there is little occasion to think well of myself." These statements, though, were written somewhat tongue in cheek and were belied by others. He took a philosophical attitude towards life, allowing himself neither the extremes of soaring elation, especially when combined with pride, nor the depths of despair from self-doubt. He kept an even keel, and he knew others thought highly of him and his work. In his memoir, he captured the moment when life takes over from meaninglessness:
Every morning, as I wake up from the dark of the night, a tiny speck in the void, I have to begin all over -- there is little to continue from the day before. Then to my surprise, things fall into place: Yvonne gives me a hug, Thomas cracks a joke, there's a check in the mail, my health's good, I can work on a film or a painting or my memoirs; I'm a success if no one puts me down nor envy rears its ugly head... And who knows, maybe today a marvelous stranger will smile at me on the subway --
When Rudy Burckhardt took his own life this summer at the age of 85, it was produced a shock which reverberated in the artworld. I’ll miss going over to Rudy’s tiny, light-filled studio. I'll think of him when I'm walking on a quiet backstreet in Chelsea and suddenly I look up and see a building standing there, glorious though ignored, its cornice wildly ornate in the late afternoon sun.
In 1998, Vincent Katz curated the first Burckhardt retrospective at IVAM in Valencia, Spain. In May 2000, the Grey Art Gallery at NYU will put on Rudy Burckhardt and Friends: New York Artists of the 1950s and 1960s, portraits by Burckhardt with works by the artists portrayed, co-curated by Lynn Gumpert, Director of the Grey, and Mr. Katz.