Rudy Burckhardt, Artist, Kept to His Own Agenda

Sinclair Lewis once said that nobody ever got to be famous in America without wanting it very badly. He wasn’t talking about the art world, of course, but we now know that his observation applies with equal force to the life of art in our time. If you doubt it, give a moment’s thought to the career of Andy Warhol and the Warholization of the art scene that has followed in its wake.

Yet there have always been certain figures on the art scene who, without exactly lacking ambition, nonetheless made it a habit to shun the limelight and forfeit its rewards. One of the most fondly remembered of these figures is Rudy Burckhardt, who died on Aug. 1 at the age of 85. Rudy (as I shall refer to him here) was a familiar figure on the New York art scene for more than half a century–so familiar to some of us, anyway, that his sudden passing seems to close the door on an entire epoch in the life of art in New York.

Like many others of my generation–a little younger than Rudy’s–I first encountered his name and his work in the early 50′s in the pages of Art News . His photographs of New York artists at work in their studios were then a regular feature of the magazine. This was a period in which several of the magazine’s principal contributors–among them, Elaine de Kooning and Fairfield Porter–were better known as writers than as painters. Rudy’s photographs often gave us our first glimpse of the painters and sculptors of the New York School whose work we were also seeing for the first time in the galleries.

It was thus as a photographer of the New York School that Rudy made his first reputation. It was only later that I discovered that his photographic accomplishments were a good deal larger than that, and that he was also a painter–and a very good one. Yet it was a measure of his modesty, his independence and something else–call it taste or sheer quirkiness–that his own paintings were kept at a distinct distance from the scale and ambition of the New York School. The first painting of Rudy’s I ever saw was a small, very poetic landscape of the Tuscan countryside. It probably dated from the early 50′s, when Willem de Kooning, still one of his closest friends, had turned to the painting of his Woman series, and Jackson Pollock was completing his now celebrated cycle of “drip” abstractions. With neither of them did Rudy’s Tuscan landscape have anything in common. For, while he had a welcoming and generous attitude toward all kinds of art, as an artist himself Rudy was a man who kept to his own agenda.

Like de Kooning, whom Rudy met in New York in 1935, he was a European émigré for whom New York offered the promise of a new, unfettered life. Just as there is a side of de Kooning’s life and work that can be seen as shunning the clean, well-lighted order of Dutch domesticity, there are many aspects of Rudy’s that can be seen as a similar flight from the comforts and conventions of the Swiss middle class. Even Paris, where he lived before coming to New York, was as he said, “not far enough away from Basel,” where he was born in 1914.

His father was a ribbon manufacturer and Rudy was educated in the Greek and Latin classics. At the age of 19, he went to London to study medicine for which he had no vocation. He took photographs instead. Then came Paris, where he continued his photography. It was back in Basel, however, that he met Edwin Denby in 1934.

Denby, who was later to become the most accomplished American dance critic of his time, was then performing with a touring German dance company. It was Denby, 14 years his senior, who first told Rudy about the life of art in New York, and it was to live with Denby that Rudy sailed for New York in 1935. He was 21. As Vincent Katz has written in the best account of Rudy’s life we have, “The two were to spend much of the next 50 years together.”

Rudy was married twice–first to the German painter Edith Schloss, and then to Yvonne Jacquette, who is herself a highly regarded painter on the current scene–and had two sons. In 1941, though not yet an American citizen, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and spent most of his service in Trinidad. It wasn’t until after the war that he studied painting on the G. I. Bill, first with Amédée Ozenfant in New York and then in Naples and Rome. In the 1930′s, he had made a series of short films, mostly in collaboration with artist and writer friends. These films, some as short as five or 10 minutes, are still highly esteemed by many people, yet I have to confess that the few I have seen struck me as amusing trifles that were probably more fun to make than they are to look at. But I am probably not the best judge of their merits.

His paintings are another matter entirely. It is my impression that in the course of his later career painting came to interest Rudy more than photography or almost anything else he put his mind to. In this respect, I see an interesting parallel between Rudy’s career and that of Henri Cartier-Bresson, who in recent decades has virtually abandoned photography for the art of drawing. Both brought an inspired pictorial eye to their photographs, and then at some point, as time was running out, they found the slower, more painstaking and–dare one say it?–more difficult problems of the more traditional pictorial media a greater and more satisfying challenge to their artistic gifts.

Many of Rudy’s best late paintings are pictures of the Maine woods. They are bolder and more painterly than that early Tuscan landscape I have already mentioned, and–how shall I put it?–more New York School-ish in the way they are painted. Yet they, too, reflect the artist’s characteristic modesty and independence, especially in their refusal to be grand or picturesque. I thought that represented his best work until I saw several of his late self-portraits a year or so ago. These are some of the most candid and courageous pictorial accounts of old age that any American painter has ever given us, and they can break your heart when you get to know them. But you may have to have reached a certain age to finally understand their implications and their audacity.

Rudy had been spending his summers in Maine for many years, and it was there, where I also spend my summers, that I usually ran into him each year at some exhibition opening. I expected I would see him again this summer as well. Instead I received a phone call informing me of his death. I am told that he had completed 10 paintings in Maine this summer before drowning himself in a pond near his summer home. In this final respect, too, he was a man who kept to his own agenda.