Rudy Burckhardt, 85, Photographer and Filmmaker, Dies (New York Times, August 4, 1999)
Rudy Burckhardt, whose 60-year career as an artist and a friend of artists connected several generations and esthetic factions of the New York School, drowned on Sunday in a pond near his home in Searsmont, Me. He was 85 and also had a home in Manhattan.
The administrator of the office of Maine’s chief medical examiner said that he committed suicide.
Mr. Burckhardt was best known as a photographer and filmmaker whose primary subject was the New York cityscape: its people, architecture, fleeting detail and ceaseless vitality.
He painted and wrote intermittently, publishing ”Mobile Homes,” a book of autobiographical essays, in 1979. The book’s title was an odd but fitting choice for a man who was for so long and so quietly a constant on the New York cultural scene — the poet John Ashbery once called him a ”subterranean monument” — and yet moved easily between art forms and also collaborated with artists of all denominations.
Mr. Burckhardt was a famously diffident man, elegant, slight and soft-spoken with a habitually morose demeanor. In fact he possessed an unusually sunny personality for an artist and seemed to live in perpetual delight that the rest of the world had none of the order and homogeneity of his native city, Basel, Switzerland.
His career unfolded in the background of the tumultuous rise of the New York School, which was well known for its clashing egos.
For many years his most visible profile was as a photographer whose images of artists and their work were frequently featured in Art News magazine, where he used the credit Rudolph Burckhardt.
Even today he may be most familiar to many people interested in American art as a name that appears in other artists’ biographies: as the next door neighbor of the young Willem de Kooning, from whom he bought a few paintings in the late 1930′s; as a friend of Fairfield Porter, who was inspired by Mr. Burckhardt’s photographs to make paintings of New York City, and as companion and then lifelong friend to the poet and dance critic Edwin Denby, who wrote sonnets to accompany his photographs and who said he drew inspiration for both his poems and his writings on dance from the airiness and movement in Mr. Burckhardt’s films. As a mentor, with Denby, he influenced several generations of artists, outstanding among them Alex Katz and Red Grooms.
But Mr. Burckhardt’s photographs of New York earned him a place among the great street photographers of the 20th century.
As with the work of Cartier-Bresson his images are widely admired for their compositional poise and their ability to capture fleeting moments of urban human life that revealed both everyday beauty and its psychological mysteries. Some of his best pictures, from the 1940′s, show New Yorkers on the move, sometimes only from the knees down, crossing streets, pounding along sidewalks; others from this period capture people with a secret camera on the subway, images of dark richness, a subtle sense of gesture and underlying humor.
But he was equally at ease with New York’s chaotic bigness, repeatedly sneaking to the tops of the Manhattan’s skyscrapers to photograph the skyline or journeying to Queens to record its wide open spaces. He made photographs wherever he traveled, from the American South to Mexico, Italy, Morocco and Spain.
He approached films as if they were as easily and intuitively made as photographs, with a distinctive lightness of touch and a grasp of the medium’s different possibilities.
This understanding took him from travelogues, documentaries and silent-type comedies to films structured by the sound of music or poetry, from relatively straightforward narrative to, perhaps most characteristically, fast-paced collages of layered images. Most of his more than 90 films were 16-millimeter and under 30 minutes in length, and because Mr. Burckhardt handled their entire production they were relatively inexpensive to make. In many ways Mr. Burckhardt’s filmic approach to New York as a continuous, nearly choreographic performance might be counted among the precedents for Happenings and other kinds of performance art.
His collaborations and uses of the work being made around him were many. With Joseph Cornell he made four short films in the mid-1950′s, most notably ”What Mozart Saw on Mulberry Street,” and with Mr. Grooms, ”Shoot the Moon” in 1962. He filmed such painters as Mr. Katz, Neil Welliver and Yvonne Jacquette, whom he married in 1964, at work, as well as the sculptor Charles Simonds making one of his miniature dwellings on the Lower East Side. In other films he collaborated with poets of the New York School like Mr. Ashbery, Ron Padgett and Kenneth Koch and with such dancers as Yoshiko Chuma, Douglas Dunn, Dana Reitz and Paul Taylor.
The artists, friends and family who over the years figured in his films included Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Joseph Cotton, Mr. Welliver, Mr. Grooms, Mimi Gross, Larry Rivers, Jane Freilicher, Frank O’Hara, Brooke Alderson, Ms. Jacquette and Denby.
Mr. Burckhardt was born in 1914 into a well-to-do family in Basel that counted the 19th-century historian Jakob Burckhardt among its members. He received a classical education that included ”many years of Latin and Greek,” he once said, and began taking pictures while still a teen-ager, seeing the camera as a way of exploring the world. He was dazzled by his first trips to London, where he was supposed to study medicine but took photographs instead, and to Paris, where his camerawork continued.
In 1935 he came to New York with Denby, whom he had met in Basel the year before and whom he later described as ”a dashing cosmopolitan figure who was just what I was waiting for without knowing it.”
At first the two shared a loft on West 21st Street next door to de Kooning, living mostly on Mr. Burckhardt’s $20,000 inheritance. After Mr. Burckhardt’s first marriage, to the painter Edith Schloss in 1947, he moved to a loft across the street, and Mr. Denby joined Mr. Burckhardt and his family for summers each year in Searsmont. Mr. Denby committed suicide there in 1983.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Burckhardt is survived by their son, Tom, a painter who lives in Manhattan; a son, Jacob, a filmmaker in Manhattan, from his first marriage; two sisters, Henriette Burckhardt and Esti Burckhardt, both of Switzerland, and a brother, Lukas, also of Switzerland.
Initially intimidated by New York, Mr. Burckhardt did not begin to photograph it seriously until 1938, after returning from a nine-month stint in Haiti, where he made one of his first films. He had his first exhibition of photographs at the Photoleague Gallery in 1948.
He took up painting in the 1940′s, saying that he was finding photography too fast a medium, and studied in 1948 and 1949 with the French modernist Amedee Ozenfant. As in his films and photographs, his subjects included cityscapes, details of everyday life and the Maine landscape, usually in close-up. He showed his paintings for the first time at the Tanager Gallery in 1948. His most recent exhibition was of Maine landscapes at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery last spring. The Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective of his films in 1987.
To the end he loved New York, as reflected in his remarks in an interview with Simon Pettet that appeared in their 1994 book ”Talking Pictures: The Photography of Rudy Burckhardt.” ”Well, what I love about New York is that it just grew up wildly,” he said. ”Everyone tried to make a bigger building than the guy before him, there was no design, it just happened.”