Rudolph Burckhardt: Multiple Fugitive
by Alex Katz

Downtown New York supplies a universal subject for this photographer who is also a painter, film-maker, draftsman and occasional poet.

The city, its people and its urban thought, in a larger sense, is the subject matter that runs through Rudolph Burckhardt’s many art forms-painting, photography, collage, film-making, drawing, writing, etc.

Although he does work occasionally out of New York, it is as a man on vacation or a tourist. His city is quiet, even when jammed with crowds. It has no glamor, but it has no cockroaches, either. It is more a place than a time, and the place is Downtown. When the streets are empty on a Sunday walk, it is as much a world as when the avenues are crowded at lunchtime. New cars, clothes, signs, enter the old neighborhoods and are as accepted as the morning mail. Burckhardt accepts anything that exists as a possibility for art. His judgement is whether it-things, people, ideas-interest him or not. Burckhardt’s city doesn’t have the euphoria of the manic. The grime is not for the sake of grime, but for art. His art is the city, and the city of his art is the section he happens to live in.

He was born in Basel, Switzerland, in 1914, to one of the most distinguished intellectual families of Europe (an ancestor is Jacob Burckhardt, the great philologist, historian and philosopher). He studied medicine briefly in London and started making photographs in Paris before he came to this country in 1935. He moved into Chelsea, became friends with artists here, and was one of the first to collect Willem de Kooning. When he was in the army, he had a small de Kooning tacked to his locker where other men had pinups. He said that it didn’t bother anyone after he explained it. He studied painting after the war with Ozenfant who said he could make a painter out of anyone who didn’t drink, used an alarm clock and worked hard for four years. He also studied at the Brooklyn Museum and at the Naples Academy while he was living in Ischia.

Burckhardt earns his living by photographing paintings. His professional standards are clear and most artists consider themselves lucky if they can get him to shoot their work. He only complains when business is good. He would rather work at the many arts he has mastered as an “amateur” (there are also plays and comic books and detective stories). What I mean by an amateur is that the art is not for money, not for careerism and is not an exclusive occupation.

The first time I became aware of Burckhardt’s paintings was at one of the early Christmas annuals at the Tenth-Street co-op Tanager Gallery. The painting was of an interior with a window and a view out of the window to the East River. The painting was greyish-green and tonal. Light and mood were specific and fully realized. The mood never separated from the light. The painting was naïve, unaffected and simple: it made little demand on skills, but what painting was there didn’t get in the way. It seemed that most of the values that painters argue about were ignored, and yet among the pictures hanging (and there were some beauties) it was a beautiful painting.

In Burckhardt’s early paintings, there was an emphasis on making the composition clear and the painting of it was restrained to that purpose. In later paintings, he develops the light and there is less emphasis on a clear composition and more on painting as a form in itself.

Burckhardt’s photographs are more widely known than his paintings; they have developed along similar lines. In the early ones, arrangements become convincing as matter through formalized composition. In the later ones, the compositions are more informal or obliterated, as in the photos of grass where the precision of detail contrasting with a literal field of light is extraordinary.

As Burckhardt changed his formal interests, he adjusted the subject matter. In the paintings, architectural landscapes continue to hold his attention, but now the light assumes a larger part of the subject matter and there is an interest in what the color of it is, as well as the tone. In the photos, the general shift is from an interest in man-made geometry to an interest in landscape.

In the search to develop his form, he is capable of attempting to use subject matter that has very little traditional reference. Of course, that type of courage has some disastrous consequences, but even when it is not totally successful, it has the marvelous quality of man dominating his environment with his vision. Even when this is only partially accomplished, it is a real given thing. Moreover, he is able to do this in his traditional as well as anti-traditional attitudes.

The first time I saw Burckhardt’s movies was at the showing he had at Howard Kanovitz’s loft. I had heard that his movies are wonderful, that he rents a place once a year and shows them, mostly to artists, and they are not like “experimental films” which attract a different public. They were easily as good as my friends said they were. In fact, I liked them as much as any films I could remember. His movies roughly fall into two categories. There are comedies in which his friends participate. Edwin Denby, Aaron Copland, Paul Bowles and Elaine de Kooning were some of the stars of the late 1930s and of the late ‘40s. Edith Burckhardt, Jane Freillicher, Larry Rivers, Anne Porter, Fairfield Porter, Helen De Mott and her dog Cennino and Kenneth Koch were the stars of the early ’50s. Red Grooms, Mimi Gross and their friends and Edwin Derby star in his latest mock-epic. The comedies parody techniques of old films and have a light urban wit, which I suppose is the form. They relate to Hollywood movies in which the star becomes the plot. His films in the other category don’t have much of a plot and just move, sometimes slowly, from one window to another, as in See Naples and Ischia. The camera is held stationary, shooting a building or some other inanimate object, allowing the viewer to look and then go on to something else, repeating the same static pattern over and over, almost like travel slides. That technique produced a quality of excitement that I found when I saw L’Accenture. Burckhardt’s Brooklyn Bridge, which was also shown that evening, employed that technique, too. It showed men wrecking buildings, buildings in states of demolition, workers eating lunch, children swimming in the river, people leaving factories and empty buildings at night. The film records these things as physical facts. They are interesting and beautiful and mysterious because they exist. There is no attempt to explain what they mean or what they symbolize or to distort them for the sake of “exciting photography.” They are social documentaries that do not force a point. In the mid-fifties, he made two films with Joseph Cornell, What Mozart Saw on Mulberry Street and Union Square. They are slightly symbolic and strangely lyric. In Union Square, they spent a lot of time looking at the monuments up close. It’s great to have someone show you a thing you have passed thousands of times as something you never saw, and after seeing it you continue to pass it again and again and not see it.

His still photographs, on the other hand, are liable to pop in front of you at any time because they are in a classic landscape scale. The photographs seem motivated by an enthusiasm and interest in what things around him look like as photographs.

The recurring idea of Rudolph Burckhardt as a Downtown Renaissance Man seems bizarre at first, and I suppose to be a total intellectual-of-the-world one would only be able to survive and grow in a small society. But I still have the romantic idea of the Renaissance Man, burning with pride and ambition, striving for a grand scale in which his art can excel all others. Burckhardt’s work hasn’t the pride or ambition of a typical Florentine prince.

His scale is modest, well mannered, and the art is non-competitive formally. The object becomes a vehicle to express a subject matter, whatever it may be, and his attitudes towards the subject matter. The art is classic, precise in proportion, natural, worldly and contained. It is good natured, youthful and idealistic.

He moves from one form to another depending on what interests him. He constantly strives to improve each form each time he works in it. As he put it with regard to his painting, “I would be embarrassed to call myself a serious painter. I get a little better every year, but I don’t paint enough, so it will take longer; perhaps when I’m 100. I’ll get there.” However, beauty strikes regardless of modesty and it is just the type that varies with the intention of the artist.

He has to go north of Thirty-fourth Street to be a professional of make money and his amateur activity exists south of Thirty-fourth Street. Burckhardt has been in New York since 1935 and he still doesn’t refuse a bum a cigarette or a handout. He belongs to a fugitive society. It takes a little time to become a genuine fugitive. Choice or chance has to develop into habit before the outside world becomes adjusted. Dirty-ankle fugitives can pass for village bohemians. The clean-ankle kind just try to pass more or less. Burckhardt belongs to the second type.

His attitude reminds me of Beckett, in that his subject matter, largely the city which is dismal, even by artists’ standards, in his art becomes uplifting for no apparent reason other than its being.

If Corot had lived in Dostoevsky’s neighborhood, would his work look like Burckhardt’s?...if it were today, and he were Swiss, and came to America...?

It’s not easy to come by what makes Burckhardt’s art so distinct. Maybe it’s the cultured tradition of the cool slow Swiss light placed into a downtown world.