Obituary: Rudy Burckhardt

Simon Pettet
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:48

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.

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