"Rudy Burckhardt: An Appreciation," ARTnews, October 1999.
Rudy Burckhardt, who died this summer at 85, left behind a fascinating body of work. In the late 1930s, when Burckhardt moved to New York from his native Basel at the instigation of poet and dance critic Edwin Denby, he began photographing his adopted city. First, he limited himself to small details of sidewalks or buildings. By 1938, he began photographing people walking in the streets of midtown, where he captured unchoreographed dance of the type Merce Cunningham has said he aspired to in the 1950s.
Many first saw Burckhardt’s work in the 1950s in the pages of ARTnews. Under the editorship of Thomas B. Hess, ARTnews became the premiere journal for new art. Part of the interest was generated by Hess’s decision to open up critical space to poets like Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler and painters like Elaine de Kooning, and to hire Burckhardt as a photographer. The writer and photographer would visit an artist, observe and document his or her working process and present a vivid, personal, account in time for their exhibition. In this series, Burckhardt photographed Josef Albers, Nell Blaine, Jean Dubuffet, Jane Freilicher, Al Held, Hans Hoffman, Alex Katz, Willem de Kooning, Marisol, Joan Mitchell, Jackson Pollock, Fairfield Porter, Larry Rivers, and Jack Tworkov, among others. He also photographed Red Grooms, Philip Guston, Lester Johnson, Mark Rothko, and Tony Smith, not to mention his wife, Yvonne Jacquette.
Burckhardt was essentially a street photographer, who rarely worked in a studio.
His photographs of artists have two qualities that no other photographs of artists from the period have -- the informality that characterizes all his work and an atmosphere of complicity with the artists. These two qualities come from Burckhardt’s character, which was paradoxically unprepossessing and assertive. His esthetic was so cool it was easy to miss it, and many photographers and some critics did. His main concern was the person and the moment he was photographing. He rarely intervened, reacting instead instantaneously, often catching somebody on the move. This is especially evident in his street photographs, whether it be Naples, where people loved to be photographed, Trinidad, or Morocco. Today, the rough glamor of some of Burckhardt’s photographs seems prescient.
He also made over 90 16-millimeter films, oil paintings, watercolors, and collages. His collaborators in film are as impressive as the list of artists he photographed. He made several short films with Joseph Cornell in the 1950s, but it was with his close friends -- artists, poets, and dancers -- that Burckhardt loved to collaborate, sometimes making wry comedies, other times poetic collages of imagery and sound.
In 1998, Vincent Katz curated the first complete 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.