Rudy Burckhardt: New York, N. Why? 1937–1940


“The joke of art in this sense is a magnanimity more steady than one notices in everyday life, and no better justified”

—Edwin Denby, pulled from Bill Berkson’s essay, “Poetry and Painting.

Rudy Burckhardt (American, born Switzerland, 1914-1999) [Checkerboard Tiled Wall Detail with Ice Cream Advertisements, New York City] 1938 Gelatin silver print 16.5 × 25.2 cm (6 1/2 × 9 15/16 in.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Florance Waterbury Bequest, 1972 (1972.585.19) é Estate of Rudy Burckhardt

In 1934 two young men, one Swiss, the other born in Shanghai then raised in Vienna and schooled in America, meet in Basel, Switzerland. Their business: Edwin Denby, a dance critic and poet, needs a photographer for a passport picture. In his search he encounters the Swiss-born filmmaker and photographer Rudolf Burckhardt. The next year finds them as roommates on W. 21st Street in New York. As it goes with all friendships, the duo comes together by the operations of chance and circumstance. But something else seems to have been at play: perhaps an openness to spring upon opportunity when it presents itself. This may be what Burckhardt meant when he said he was “dancing in daily life.”

The collaboration between photographer Rudy Burckhardt and Edwin Denby on display at the Metropolitan Museum takes the form of a photo album. Some of the photographs or groups of photographs are coupled with poems on the opposite page. Some of the poems are ekphrastic—commentaries on another art form. Some pass in casual reference to the photographs. Some do neither, though are intensely related.

The album’s title, New York, N. Why?, which is at once a place, a pun, a joke, and a question, is utterly appropriate to what the book must have meant to the two artists at the time. It is a sort of readymade, as is any pun. It plays on the false connection found between a sound and the unrelated meanings associated with it. An aura of the aleatoric surrounds this title/question. It is a succinct statement of purpose that manages to be both profound and almost intolerably goofy. It’s a charmingly bad joke. “New York, N. Why?” Like you’re about to set sail, but toward what? The “what” appears in the poems and pictures in the form of particulars, anchored right where they are. Look at how he gets at the solidity of the hydrants he photographs. They are so where they are they cease to be hydrants; they become shaped masses which simply exist.

New York, and why? Because I was tired of Switzerland, so I got my friend to come with me on a journey. Here’s what I found. This is a one-shot deal, take it or leave it.

Rudy Burckhardt, [Pedestrians, New York City] 1939 Gelatin silver print 13 × 19.5 cm (5 1/8 × 7 11/16 in.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Florance Waterbury Bequest, 1972 (1972.585.40) é Estate of Rudy Burckhardt

One thing I noticed in every picture was how they seem hinged on a fluctuating center. Each photo doesn’t exactly find an element to center itself on; the pictures capture the moment of homing in on the centering detail. “And when it’s once pointed out you’ve practically seen it” Denby writes. There’s a sense that dynamism and motion are illusory; the moving people in the photos become figures suspended. When Burckhardt photographs a grid there is a myriad of ephemera—newspapers, weekly lunchtime specials, etc.—scattered across it. Public material is like weather, or, as Denby writes in his masterpiece “The Climate,” “…the sky is in the street with the trucks and us.” The pictures feel like casts of the I Ching. They don’t land it. They hover. 

Sometimes there are multiple images of pedestrian traffic, going one way in one picture moving in the opposite direction in the photo placed adjacent to it. Always there is this off-kilter chiasmus at work, like the keel of a boat heading toward a surprise destination. The photos are anchored in chance; each presents a paradox in which a common sight becomes as strange as the sea viewed at morning from the prow; or from a camera after lunch.

The hard lines of the New York cityscape always lead out of the frame. In one of the accompanying poems Denby writes “…but the lines go on forever like us…” This technique, as well as other instances where the content continues out of the context, made me think of Pollock’s much discussed “all over” quality, but with Burckhardt it’s more succinct. One of the first pictures in the exhibit is of Edwin Denby on a rooftop. The street below extends all the way to the horizon, with Denby seated in a relaxed pose at the edge of what looms like a sublime precipice. The rest of the photos feature doorframes, billboards and shop windows from which a side of the rectangle is clipped off by the frame.

Rudy Burckhardt, [Man in Pinstriped Suit and Magazine Rack, New York City] 1939 Gelatin silver print 13 × 9.1 cm (5 1/8 × 3 9/16 in.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Florance Waterbury Bequest, 1972 (1972.585.57) é Estate of Rudy Burckhardt

Burckhardt is deeply invested in the Modernist aesthetic of metonymy and ellipsis. From a fragment or part you get the whole. Take his images of advertisement paste-ups: from the cropped “la” one deduces “Cola.” As in Chinese poetry, where isolated nouns grouped together clue you in on the rest of the details, Burckhardt knows how much a few aspects can disclose. The open borders forestall closure.

Each picture seems to anticipate the next with a serial quality. They have rhythm, each shot like a beat driving to the next chord, and so the frame remains tense, its contents—whether legs, hats, ads, hydrants or sheer granite—charged with energy.

While on a midnight outing de Kooning once remarked on “the dispersed compositions—spots and cracks and bits or wrappers and neon lights” one finds throughout the city. Taking these photos at a time when painters like Rothko had begun to hang their canvases in clusters on the wall, rather than in rows, Burckhardt must have seen life as just this, an array of “dispersed compositions”—to be condensed, snapped into a rhythm by the mechanism of the shutter.

Patterns on clothes and on the sidewalk, manhole covers, facades, newspaper stands and letters are framed to rhyme with each other. In one photo, you see a woman’s foot leaving the ground; the black-and-white pattern of circles on her dress resonates with a similar grid of glass circles embedded the sidewalk. New York was the perfect place for Burckhardt’s fancy to cut loose.

Time and history, condensed into giant cubes of granite, become vapor under Burckhardt’s lens. One photo is an extreme close-up of a building’s foundation block. At such close range you can see the black flecks in the stone’s grain. You feel as though you may be looking at a telescope snapshot of one of the Magellanic Clouds.

Burckhardt performs the heroic task of fixing chaos in harmony. The camera becomes a sort of dynamo; it turns the confusion of everyday life into music. One can’t help but think of de Kooning’s women, where classicism comes into conflict with his effeminate slippage; practiced gestures are executed with a sort of slapstick genius, whether canvas or camera is the stage.