Rudy Burkhardt’s Photographs of N.Y. Captured an Age

The late Rudy Burckhardt (1914-1999), whose photographs are the subject of an enchanting exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, was for so many years a familiar and admired presence on the New York art scene that it comes as something of a shock to be reminded, as we are by this exhibition, that he’s been dead now for five years.

Rudy (as I shall speak of him here) was best known to the public as a photographer, and especially for his photographs of New York and its artists in the heyday of the Abstract Expressionist painters. Many of his pictures of artists in their studios were first published in the pages of Art News in the days when the late Thomas B. Hess was the editor of that widely read magazine. They were often used to illustrate articles written by Elaine de Kooning that gave readers a close-up account of an artist’s work-in-progress.

That Rudy was also an accomplished painter himself is nowadays sometimes forgotten, probably because in his paintings he rejected abstraction in favor of traditional representational subjects. Among the paintings I’m most familiar with (because I live with them), one is an undated Tuscan landscape that has a command of tonal delicacy that’s sheer poetry, and the other is one of a series of doleful self-portraits from the very last years of Rudy’s life. In retrospect, it’s clear that the series was the artist’s farewell to life: After its completion, he died a suicide at the age of 85.

About still another of Rudy’s endeavors-his work as an independent film-maker-I cannot speak with any certainty. He is said to have produced over 100 films, many of them devoted to the New York painters, poets, composers and dancers with those work he felt a special affinity. The roster of talents he recruited as collaborators on these films-among them, Paul Bowles, Aaron Copland, John Ashbery, Fairfield Porter, Larry Rivers, Red Grooms and Jane Freilicher-is certainly remarkable.

Alas, my memory of the few films I saw many years ago is too faded to inform a serious opinion. What I mainly recall at this distance in time is their quirky wit, their high-spirited, fractured narrative, and a style that may best be described as aleatory. They were clearly fun to make, and they were fun to see.

If Rudy’s movies are the work of an inspired amateur, however, his photographs are the work of a master. Certain photographs of Manhattan in the 1940’s and early 50’s- Flatiron Building, Summer (1947), Astor Place (1947) , Herald Square (1947), and the two versions of A View from Brooklyn (1953 and 1954)-are right up there with the work of Walker Evans. And just as Evans’ photographic aesthetic was deeply influenced by his devotion to French literature, especially Baudelaire and Flaubert, Rudy’s owed a lot to his European roots, for he brought to his New York subjects the sensibility of a European émigré for whom the wonders of Manhattan were a foreign terrain.

He was born in Basel, Switzerland, where in 1934 he met the American poet and dance critic Edwin Denby, who brought Rudy to New York the following year. Denby introduced him to Willem de Kooning, himself an émigré from Holland, and this opened the way for Rudy’s career as a kind of house photographer of the New York School.

While the current exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, Rudy Burckhardt: Selected Photographs , is an excellent introduction to two major aspects of his work-the photographs of Manhattan and the portraits of New York painters-it isn’t meant to give us a complete account of Rudy’saccomplishments. What’s needed is a full-scale museum retrospective that encompasses not only the paintings, photographs and movies already familiar to Rudy’s devotees, but the many other works that remain unknown to the public-among them, photographs of Haiti, Mexico, Europe and Maine, and the books Rudy published in collaboration with his favorite poets, Edwin Denby and Vincent Katz. The latter range in subject matter from Mediterranean Cities (1956) to Mobile Homes (1979) to New York Hello! (1990). What a grand exhibition that would be!

Meanwhile, Rudy Burckhardt: Selected Photographs remains on view at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, through Sept. 11.