"Alex Katz Meets Rudy Burckhardt," Alex Katz: New York/Maine, Hirmer, Munich, 2013.
Alex Katz met Rudy Burckhardt (1914-1999) in the late 1950s, when he saw his films at the Club. The Club was a nomadic intellectual space with a loose but highly stimulating governance that put on panel discussions, poetry readings, concerts, and film screenings. John Cage might be there one night, speaking about his latest compositions, Frank O'Hara the next, reading his poetry. Discussions were often heated. The only rubric was "We agree to disagree." There is a lot of significance packed into that short phrase, as there is into another, this time from Alex Katz, who described the mode of discourse at the Club as "coffee house dialectics." It was a decidedly non-academic environment.
The art critic Irving Sandler, who organized programs at the Club from 1956 to near its closing in 1962, has written about the period in general, “The main activity at any social occasion was art-talk, ceaseless art-talk.” 10th Street between Third and Fourth Avenues was the locus for galleries such as the Tanager and the Brata (both artist-run cooperatives). Katz was a member of the Tanager, and Burckhardt had a one-man show there. Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning and Milton Resnick had their studios on the block. Not far away was the Cedar Tavern, where artists went nightly to drink and talk. Jackson Pollock was banned from the Cedar after he tore the door off the bathroom, but the owner relented, when he saw him outside, looking in, bereft.
At the Club, Burckhardt and Katz might also have encountered critic Nicolas Calas, painters Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Ad Reinhardt, Joan Mitchell, Fairfield Porter, and Larry Rivers, poets John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, and James Schuyler, and others debating current aesthetics. “It was a small world, that world,” says Katz, “It was completely fugitive. The art world, the painting world, was fugitive, the poetry world was fugitive, because it wasn’t connected to the official poetry world, the dance world was fugitive, and contemporary music was fugitive. The jazz world bordered on it, parts were connected and parts weren’t.”
It is worth quoting in full Katz’s account of his early meetings with Burckhardt, which took place shortly after he saw Burckhardt’s films at the Club. It was Burckhardt who introduced Katz to the poet and critic Edwin Denby, who was to be a seminal influence on Katz’s thinking, as he had been on Burckhardt’s:
Rudy was walking his dog, and I ran into him on the street. “Would you like to come up and look at my paintings?” I asked. And he said sure. So he came up, and he said, “You’re a real colorist, there aren’t any these days. I really like your paintings a lot, if you ever need any photographs, I’d be really happy to photograph your paintings, and you give me a little painting now and then.” So he became my photographer for 20 years, and he got some nice paintings, and I got photos when I didn’t have any money at all. Then I said, “I’m going dancing at the Palladium, do you want to come along?” And he said okay. So I went to the Palladium, where Afro-Cuban music was really taking off at that point, and Rudy came with this white-haired, elderly man. Neither one of them danced, they just looked, and I went, “What the hell is going on?” Then the white-haired guy started asking me questions about the dancers, and I was telling him what the different rhythms were, and how people danced to them, and the inability of blacks or whites to get with the Afro-Cuban mambo, because the good Latino dancers sort of slip through the beat. And musicians invented the Cha-Cha-Cha and the Merengue so North American people could dance to it. I asked the white-haired man what he did, and he said, “Oh, I write some poetry.” He passed himself off as a half-assed poet. And he said, “Well, why don’t you come over to our place?” I went over, and Rudy had a little room there where he made photos, and Edwin had this white place with nothing in it. I think there was a campaign-type bed, an iron lamp, a desk that Bill de Kooning had made, and a bookcase that was 5 feet by 3 feet. That fit all Edwin’s books, there was nothing else. I was very impressed by that. We just hit it off. I had a difficult time during a lot of my life because people couldn’t understand what I was saying. With Rudy and Edwin, they could understand everything I was saying. And our cultural backgrounds were so different that we had a lot of good exchanges.
Katz was living on 28th Street, and Burckhardt and Denby shared a loft on 21st Street, where their neighbor in the 1930s and ‘40s had been Willem de Kooning. Burckhardt and Denby had a little money, and they would help de Kooning out during the more than 10 years before his first gallery exhibition. In return, he would occasionally give them a work of art. It was a world in which wider approbation and financial reward were lacking, and mutual respect was of the utmost importance. Denby, writing in the 1950s about the 1930s, remembered it as a time of intimate awareness of the potential of New York City as a locus for international-scale art-making. In an essay entitled “The Thirties,” he wrote:
I remember walking at night in Chelsea with Bill during the Depression, and his pointing out to me on the pavement the dispersed compositions — spots and cracks and bits of wrappers and reflections of neon-light… and I remember the scale in the compositions was too big for me to see it. Luckily I could imagine it. At the time Rudy Burckhardt was taking photographs of New York that keep open the moment its transient buildings spread their unknown and unequaled harmonies of scale. I could watch that scale like a magnanimous motion on these undistorted photographs; but in everyday looking about, it kept spreading beyond the field of sight. At the time we all talked a great deal about scale in New York, and about the difference of instinctive scale in signs, painted color, clothes, gestures, everyday expressions between Europe And America. We were happy to be in a city the beauty of which was unknown, uncozy, and not small scale.
Katz, who had wanted to make art films, decided that he would not need to, as Burckhardt was making the kind of films he would want to make. “I liked the way he put the camera on a window and just let you look at it for a while,” Katz explains, “and didn’t move it around. There wasn’t very much motion. I remember he had a shot of snow on a railing that I thought was really great. It just seemed a great lyric image.” It turned out that a desire for lyricism, in an age that valued epic ideological clashes on a mythic scale, was something the two artists had in common. Katz has cited jazz saxophonist and cool stylist Stan Getz as a lyric voice of the time, and he observes of his own work, “I was interested in making big lyric paintings, and it seemed natural for me. People said you couldn’t make them large, lyricism has got to be small, but I couldn’t see any reason why you couldn’t make a large lyric painting.”
Both Burckhardt and Katz, in the 1950s, were interested in seeing, and in particular, in seeing the visible world around them. In Burckhardt’s case, this meant largely people on the street and buildings, though he also did photographs of his studio. For Katz, it meant evolving a subject matter that could be considered mundane, in the literal sense of involving such daily matters as one’s home and studio environment, and one’s friends and family. All these concerns were antithetical to the main avant-garde tendencies of the time.
Once, de Kooning offered to give Burckhardt a painting lesson, crumpling up a piece of paper and putting it on a window sill, where it picked up the light, turning into light and dark shapes. He wanted Burckhardt to try to paint it, but Burckhardt refused, saying he could not paint a crumpled piece of paper. He had to paint something he was interested in. Later, he regretted that rare missed opportunity, but Burckhardt also had a clear idea of who he was as a painter. He thought of himself as a naïve painter. A naïve painter, he explained, is someone who has a very clear idea how a painting will turn out before he begins, has some rudimentary skill, and works to complete his pre-conceived idea, without leaving room for intuition or experimentation with the paint itself. Katz, by contrast, was trained as a painter per se, having studied both at The Cooper Union (1946-49) and the Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture in Maine (1949-50). It was at Skowhegan that Katz discovered plein-air painting, and he began in 1954 spending summers at a farmhouse in Maine. Burckhardt joined him not long after, finding a similar house not far away, and their contact was maintained throughout the year from that point on.
The images in Burckhardt’s paintings, from early in his career to the end, have something to do with his way of seeing through photography. Photography for Burckhardt revealed a way to be in the environment and to capture in a split-second an evolving, disappearing, scene. The spaces in which his early paintings and photographs come together most clearly are cityscape views over rooftops, taken from high vantage points, and his interiors, with or without still life or nude elements. His paintings often have roughly the scale of photographs, and they are painted in a way that seems to want to impart a photographic, captured, quality to the scene depicted.
Photography, for Burckhardt, born in Basel, Switzerland, to an illustrious family, represented the speed of the new world. He moved permanently to New York in 1935, at the age of 21, to live with Denby, and was attracted, as were de Kooning and other European émigré artists, by the “newness” of everything. Part of that newness was the high velocity at which everything moved. The young Burckhardt fit naturally into that. Although laconic when not working, once the camera was in his hand, he moved quickly, becoming expert at moving within walking crowds, sensing the ideal time and place at which to take a photograph.
Burckhardt and Katz have in common an element of speed in how they depict people. Both work quickly — Katz when he is making his sketches, Burckhardt when photographing crowds of people moving on an avenue. They share a common goal as well, which is to capture fleeting impressions. In different ways, both artists express an aspiration to sophisticated urbanity, and both focus on details of clothing and comportment that exhibit this contemporary elegance. One way to put it is that they make the people they depict look their best, which is not as easy as it may sound.
This shared aesthetic has interesting origins. On the one hand, it comes from a conception of classicism both artists were introduced to by Edwin Denby, who may have adapted it partially from the choreographer George Balanchine. As a prominent dance critic in New York in the 1940s and ‘50s, Denby was one of Balanchine’s greatest champions. On the other hand, Katz and Burckhardt also owe a debt to the optimism of American popular post-war culture, in particular, movies, television, and advertising images.
Denby wrote the following, in an essay on Balanchine’s conception of Classicism:
Pretty people, pretty clothes, pretty lights, music, pictures, all of it in motion with surprises and feats and all those unbelievable changes of speed and place and figure and weight and a grand continuous rhythm and a tumultuous sweep of imaginary space opening up further and forever, glorious and grand.
It is not difficult to imagine Denby’s words as a description of Burckhardt’s photographs of people moving through the streets or of one of Katz’s paintings of glamorous intellectuals and their friends at a New York cocktail party. What is most important to this sense of classicism is an elegant style that binds all the details and disparate, modulating, elements into a coherent, forceful, whole. Burckhardt and Katz added to this conception their interest in the look of everyday things.
Katz became so enamored of Burckhardt's work that he wrote an article on Burckhardt for the art magazine ARTnews. Under the editorship of critic Thomas B. Hess, ARTnews was the leading critical journal of its time and place. The key to its success was the hybrid nature of the reportage Hess encouraged. He tended not to hire art historians to write, preferring to enlist visual artists and poets. Hess put a premium on artistic practice in the studio and therefore featured a series in the format "X paints a painting" or "makes a sculpture, etc." This series was groundbreaking in its focus on the working process, taking emphasis away from historical and theoretical issues. Burckhardt took many of the photos that accompanied these pieces.
ARTnews published Katz’s article, "Rudolph Burckhardt: Multiple Fugitive," in the December, 1963, issue. Katz wrote, "The city, its people and its urban thought, in a larger sense, is the subject matter that runs through Rudolph Burckhardt's many art forms — painting, photography, collage, film-making, drawing, writing, etc. … Burckhardt accepts anything that exists as a possibility for art." Katz's description of Burckhardt's film Under The Brooklyn Bridge shows him seeing it through the eyes of someone interested in visual phenomena as opposed to social commentary:
It showed men wrecking buildings, buildings in states of demolition, workers eating lunch, children swimming in the river, people leaving factories and empty buildings at night. The film records these things as physical facts. They are interesting and beautiful and mysterious because they exist. There is no attempt to explain what they mean or what they symbolize or to distort them for the sake of "exciting photography."
The film, as its very title announces, is a document of a neighborhood in New York, but like Burckhardt’s “travelogue” films, made in Haiti, Trinidad, Siena, and elsewhere, there is a sense of universality the filmmaker is able to impart to carefully observed specifics. This derives partially from Burckhardt’s classical European education. Steeped in classical literature and Renaissance painting, Burckhardt pursued culturally universal, formally balanced, images culled from his daily experience.
What does it mean to take New York as a subject for art, and what does it mean to be a New York artist? In 1977, Art In America magazine published a feature entitled “New York Today: Some Artists Comment,” in which both Rudy Burckhardt and Alex Katz — among a group that included Vito Acconci, Louise Bourgeois, Lee Krasner, Roy Lichtenstein, and many others — spoke about how New York had changed as place for art from the ‘40s to the ‘70s. Burckhardt explained that, although he was born and raised in Basel, he felt himself to be a New York, not a European, artist. What kept him attached to New York, he explained, was its vitality. “As long as new people come to it this will continue. As long as the city changes it will remain vital. The street life is a sign of this vitality — you can walk anywhere in New York. So much takes place in the streets, not just in homes and cars, as in small towns. You can watch all this — you don’t feel you’re intruding anywhere in New York.” Burckhardt noted New York’s system of natural selection, which he found to be harmonious and not destructive.
Katz had a more rhetorical take on the problem:
There are artists in New York with more charm than talent, but rarely artists with more talent than charm. Charm helps you more in New York than talent. Talent you take for granted. It’s like openers. Both show in the work. Charm becomes good urban manners and explains why some people go farther than other people.
He went to explain a distinction between high-style and low-style painting. “Low-style artists are very often offended by the vulgarity of the large gesture. It has no modesty. Modesty isn’t considered a virtue in high-style painting.” He probably was not thinking of his friend, Burckhardt, when he said this, as he was highlighting a difference between international and provincial art at the time, but it could be argued that, for all their points in common, one begins to find the elements that separate Burckhardt and Katz in the vulgarity of the large gesture. As Katz went on to make clear, “[New York] can contain anyone’s ambition. So people with large ambitions still come here. This is where you compete. You can be really aggressive about ambitions here.” This holds true today as much as it did in the 1940s or the 1970s.
Although his own approach to art and self-presentation can be considered to have modesty as one of its values, as an observer Burckhardt consistently valued art that was, in his phrase, “big time.” He never wavered in his support of Katz’s work. “Rudy was one of those guys who had complete faith in my paintings,” Katz recalls. “There were a handful I felt that thought I was something really special. I remember when I had my first show at the Stable, Rudy said, ‘You know you paint as well as anyone painting.’ And then when I got successful, Rudy said, ‘Your work is amazing, I don’t know how you can do it, the light.’ So Rudy was one of the few people, I felt, who believed in me as an artist all the way through.”
In his last decade, Burckhardt’s paintings began to evolve. While he continued to make 16-millimeter experimental films, he painted more, and as he repeated motifs, especially close-ups of tree trunks and other Maine images, his interest was as much in the pleasures of technique as in the subjects he was depicting. Burckhardt had become tired of the very quality that had attracted him to photography in the first place — its instantaneousness — and he longed for a more lasting, satisfying, experience, which, in his last years, he found in painting. While in Maine, Burckhardt would leave his canvas, easel and supplies set up in the middle of the woods, returning to them each to day to work and think in quiet isolation. Like his friend, Alex Katz, Rudy Burckhardt continued to draw inspiration from images of the natural world.
Irving Sandler, A Sweeper-Up After Artists: A Memoir (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003), p. 12.
All quotations of Alex Katz, unless otherwise noted, are from an interview with the author, conducted on January 11, 2013.
Edwin Denby, “The Thirties,” reprinted in Dance Writings And Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), p. 2.
Edwin Denby, “Some Thoughts About Classicism And George Balanchine,” first published in Dance Magazine, February 1953, reprinted in Dance Writings And Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), p. 242.
Alex Katz, "Rudolph Burckhardt: Multiple Fugitive," ARTnews, Volume 62, Number 8, pages 38-41, December, 1963.
Rudy Burckhardt in “New York Today: Some Artists Comment,” Art In America, September/October, 1977, pp. 79 ff.
Alex Katz, ibid.