Obituary: Rudy Burckhardt

THE SWISS-born New York City-based photographer, film-maker, painter, collagiste, poet and writer, Rudy Burckhardt, died at his summer home in Maine on Sunday 1 August, bidding adieu to his loved ones and walking into the adjacent lake he affectionately called "our pond". He was 85 years old.

"A jack of all trades and master of several", as his friend the poet John Ashbery once put it, an artists' artist, "a subterranean monument", Burckhardt had for over half a century been quietly and unostentatiously making a major and exemplary contribution to post-war American art.

It is for his black-and-white photographs that he is currently best known - striking iconic images, most famously of "dancers, buildings and people in the streets", in the memorable phrase of Edwin Denby, the poet, dance critic and Burckhardt's lifelong friend.

Burckhardt was born in Basel in 1914 to a prominent, well-to-do family (his father was a silk-ribbon merchant). He experienced a sheltered Lutheran upbringing, followed by a futile attempt at studying medicine in both Geneva and London. A timely legacy of $20,000 made it easy to move to New York in 1935.

In New York he fell in love with the teeming energy (such a contrast to Basel), the anarchy of the architecture, the vulgarity, the exuberance. Though he travelled - extensively - and made a record of wherever he travelled, and though he spent most of the summers in later years with his wife, the painter Yvonne Jacquette, in their property up in Searsmont, Maine, it was to Manhattan that he would always return.

His images of that city, for example the classic one of the Flatiron Building, are among the most fundamental and enduring taken this century. His position in the pantheon of its most distinguished celebrants seems assured.

In 1987 he was feted with three simultaneous New York exhibitions: a show of photographs, a show of paintings, and a film retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art of more than 60 short films - his final tally was more than 90. In 1997, he was the subject of a full retrospective, drawing from all media, at the IVAM (Institut Valencia d'Art Modern) in Valencia, Spain.

His works are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the Getty Museum, as well as in numerous other public and private collections. Since 1992 he (and now his estate) has been represented, enthusiastically, by the prestigious Tibor de Nagy Gallery in Manhattan.

Burckhardt's response to his towering achievement was always, characteristically, indifferent - or so it seemed - matter-of-fact, remarkably clear of vanity. "I am enough of an amateur existentialist and Buddhist," he once wrote, "to believe that we actually just mess around, because we're alive and awake - working, playing, scheming, falling apart, getting it together again, but never in control". The construct of a life, then, is just that - a construct. "The ideas of development, career, achievement, history are superimposed with hindsight by ourselves and others . . . in a desperate attempt to bring continuity and purpose . . ."

Burckhardt's humility and old-fashioned gentleness were at the heart of his achievement. He was a genial and crucial presence in the New York art world, a vital link spanning, remarkably, three generations. If the art world had a conscience, it was he, poet and patient witness of unpretentiousness, eschewing the glitz, in as much as it was offered, for a dogged commitment to the quotidian, to the everyday.

Friendship formed the basis of Burckhardt's aesthetic. He loved to collaborate. His list of collaborators, particular in that most democratic of mediums, film, reads in retrospect like a Who's Who of the post-war New York avant- garde.

A partial - but only partial - list would have to include among painters: Willem de Kooning, Fairfield Porter, Neil Welliver, Alex Katz, Larry Rivers, Jane Freilicher, Yvonne Jacquette and Red Grooms; among dancers: pre-eminently Edwin Denby, Paul Taylor, Douglas Dunn, Yoshiko Chuma, Dana Reitz and Grazia Della Terza; among musicians: Paul Bowles, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thompson and Elliott Carter (he loved the aleatory nature of Carter's music and gleefully purloined it to use as sound-track); among poets: John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Ron Padgett, Alice Notley, David Shapiro, and Vincent Katz.

In the mid-Fifties he made four exquisite films with the great Surrealist loner Joseph Cornell: The Aviary, Nymphlight, A Fable For Fountains, and What Mozart Saw On Mulberry Street were their titles. Throughout that decade, and into the Sixties, he was staff photographer on the magazine that truly captured the Zeitgeist of the period, Tom Hess's ARTnews, taking on assignment thousands of photographs, of artists and their art works in the galleries and in the intimacy of their studios. Burckhardt's great series of photos of Jackson Pollock (May 1951) was an ARTnews assignment.

Among highlights of his film oeuvre one might randomly single out a fleeting appearance by Joseph Cotton in Seeing The World Part One: a visit to New York (1937) - Orson Welles was going to be in it too but he didn't show up. Up and Down The Waterfront (1936) and Under the Brooklyn Bridge (1953) are two elegaic masterpieces, while the two films he made with Red Grooms in the early Sixties, Shoot The Moon (1962), an hommage to the film magician Georges Melies, and Lurk (1964), their version of the Frankenstein myth, are both marvellous, elaborate inventions. His films ranged from comedies, such as Lurk (using as actors his family and friends), to travelogues, to artist documentaries, to quick-paced collage diary films.

From 1967 to 1975 he taught classes in cinematography and also in painting at the University of Pennsylvania. He received painting lessons in the Forties from the legendary Parisian-in-exile Amadee Ozenfant - and once refused an offer of free lessons from de Kooning, which he rued forever after, although he did get to have his portrait painted by him. He, Edwin Denby and de Kooning were famously next-door neighbours in their loft on "downtown" West 21st Street.

In Public In Private, with poems by Edwin Denby, photographs by Rudy Burckhardt and a frontispiece by Willem de Kooning, appeared in 1946, published by the Dekker Press, New York. A decade later Georg Wittenborn published Mediterranean Cities, Burckhardt and Denby's other book-length collaboration.

Denby died in 1983, De Kooning in 1997. Now Rudy Burckhardt, the last of that trio of geniuses, steps out.

Simon Pettet

Rudolph Burckhardt, photographer, film-maker, painter, poet and writer: born Basel, Switzerland 6 April 1914; married 1946 Edith Schloss (one son; marriage dissolved 1960), 1964 Yvonne Jacquette (one son); died Searsmont, Maine 1 August 1999.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor