Mobile Homes: The Art of Rudy Burckhardt
by Vincent Katz
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 flânerie. 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.