In “The Wonderful World of Rudy Burckhardt,” at Hyperallergic, John Yau reviews an exhibit of Burckhardt’s work, which is currently showing at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York (November 29, 2014–January 17, 2015). Although not as well-known as some of his illustrious friends, like Willem de Kooning, Burckhardt was a key figure in the New York School orbit. Indeed, in the recently published book New York School Painters and Poets: Neon in Daylight (which I’ve mentioned before) author Jenni Quilter and editor Allison Power deliberately position Burckhardt — alongside Edwin Denby and de Kooning — as one of the important founders and forerunners of the New York School as a whole. In a recent interview with Adam Fitzgerald, Power explains
we begin in 1936 with what I like to call the forefathers of the New York School—Bill and Elaine de Kooning, Rudy Burckhardt, and Edwin Denby—who really set the stage for who we know as the ‘first generation’ … These guys were revered, admired, and respected by Koch, O’Hara, Padgett, Waldman, etc. They also collaborated together. Think of Burckhardt’s film Mounting Tension starring Ashbery, Freilicher, and Rivers. The story of the New York School painters and poets begins with Denby & Burckhardt, not with Ashbery, O’Hara, Koch, & Schuyler, who arrived onto a scene that was already in motion.
Titled “Subterranean Monuments: A Centenary Celebration,” the show at the Tibor de Nagy is a retrospective of Burckhardt’s varied and charming body of work: “a survey of his photographs, paintings, and a selection of his films. There will also be vitrines with his collages, his early photographic albums, and sketches. In addition, exhibited for the first time will be a group of his otherworldly painted mushrooms.”
Yau describes Burckhardt as perhaps the quintessential “flaneur” of mid-century New York:
When it comes to the artistic community of New York City, especially from the late-1930s to the end of the 20th century, I can think of many writers, photographers, and artists who readily qualify as flaneurs, but there is only who matched Charles Baudelaire’s description of the “passionate spectator,” someone who could be called “a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.”
In his films and photographs, Rudy Burckhardt captured the “flickering grace” of New York, particularly in the resolute movement and idle hanging out of its citizens. However, in contrast to Baudelaire’s mordant wit, Burckhardt imbued his work with an infectious innocence and gentle delight that, paradoxically, also infuses it with a quiet melancholy and gravity that is not immediately apparent.
Yau discusses a number of Burckhardt’s pieces in various media in detail (including the striking photograph of the Flatiron building, reproduced above) and notes that “in all of the work, one senses Burckhardt’s interest in the chaotic order of everyday life and throwaway things. Although he is never emphatic, one senses his melancholic awareness of just how fleeting and enchanting, everything is. There is an emotional depth and complexity to the work that we have yet to fully plumb, perhaps because what comes across first is Burckhardt’s droll humor.”
Of this painting, “38th Street South” (1987) —
— Yau observes that Burckhardt is
a primitive paying close attention to what is in front of him. The painting is an aerial view of a gray, nondescript office building seen in the distance, wedged in by other buildings. It is the homeliest of the bunch, which is perhaps why Burckhardt gave it so much space in the painting. Within the grid of windows, he has been attentive to the overhead yellow fluorescent lights glowing in each little rectangle, each pair of them depicted at a slightly different angle. In his attention to such details, one senses that nothing else existed during the time he worked on this painting but the inconsequential things he was looking at.
Yau concludes that “in this museum-quality exhibition, it is quickly apparent that Burckhardt is essentially uncategorizable.”