Tibor de Nagy Gallery | November 29, 2014 – January 17, 2015
This elegant installation celebrating the centenary of Rudy Burckhardt’s birth was a good introduction to his work for anyone coming to it for the first time. The photographs for which he is perhaps best known were intermixed with his paintings, an arrangement he did not favor during his lifetime, but which here demonstrates the continuity of his interests. His films and a documentary by Vincent Katz and Vivien Bittencourt of he and others talking about his work were shown in the projects room. The exhibition also included a table holding the books he wrote, some in collaboration with Katz or Simon Pettet—both poets—a few postcard collages, and pages from his journals.
The installation highlighted Burckhardt’s attraction to offbeat subjects. A cluster of eight photos, five paintings on canvas, and one painted polyphore mushroom, all done in Maine, occupied one wall. Another sparsely hung wall showed two city paintings and a photo looking down at manhole covers. His photos and films often crop all but the lower legs and feet of passersby, everyday details to which most people pay no attention. Other sequences show hurrying pedestrians, interweaving along sidewalks and streets, hardly noticing one another, yet never colliding. This downward look and interest in anonymous, ordinary people, unbothered by rush hour traffic suggest a particular temperament. Overall, there is a downbeat quality in much of Burckhardt’s work and, as in his personal manner, a complete lack of ostentation. (In fact, it feels awkward, as one who knew him over the years, to refer to him by his august Swiss surname, “Burckhardt,” rather than
Throughout the exhibition a sort of radical innocence commingles with distinctive visual sophistication, and often a subtle, humorous wit. The common concern of the paintings and photos is always for some particular element: textures and portrait-like configurations on tree trunks that nearly fill the picture plane, ferns at one’s feet, manhole covers on city streets, cast shadows, or random bits of debris. Burckhardt’s keen formal sense carries the pictures so well that you may miss the telling detail that prompted them. His straightforwardly descriptive paintings have the look of an untrained amateur, as though he simply wanted to “do” the photographs in paint. His technical capacities often seem just equal to the task, and yet the paintings’ incidental, ad hoc inventions are so often just right as to be painters’ paintings.
Burckhardt’s art was in the tradition of the bohemian flanneur whose daily observations and responses took precedence over any agenda. If you were to ask what interested him most—taking photos, shooting films, or writing his memoirs—the answer might be: whatever he happened to be doing at the time. Nowhere is there evidence of professionally strategic thinking or any concern for a career.
Burckhardt was at the center of the world of New York art and poetry virtually from his arrival. He arrived in the city in 1935 with the poet and dance critic Edwin Denby, who may have induced him to leave his staunchly conservative family and city, Basel, Switzerland. He made many iconic photographs of now legendary artists, their work, and their studios: Pollock, Guston, Rothko, and de Kooning among them. Included in his oeuvre is a series of antic, improvised short films featuring the artists and poets who were his friends.
A wonderful, asymmetric 1937 photo depicts Denby seated on the roof of his 21st Street Chelsea apartment, the left portion showing the street, cars, and people below. Not included in the exhibition, it shows two subjects: a world of personal affections and the look of the disorderly city Burckhardt made his home.
ROBERT BERLIND is a painter and writer who lives in New York and upstate in Sullivan County. He has received the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Painting, the B. Altman Award in Painting at the National Academy, as well as grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and an Artwriters’ Grant from Creative Capital and the Warhol Foundation.
He writes regularly for the Brooklyn Rail and has written for Art in America since the late ’70s as well as writing many catalog essays for various museums. He is a Professor Emeritus of the School of Art+Design, Purchase College, SUNY.