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Rudy Burckhardt and Friends: New York Artists of the 1950s and 60s


Grey Art Gallery: May 9 – July 15, 2000 New York, NY (April 14, 2000)…Through the lens of Rudy Burckhardt—artist, photographer, filmmaker—Rudy Burckhardt and Friends: New York Artists of the 1950s and ’60s offers a fascinating glimpse of the New York art world during the heady and epoch-making decades when the city assumed its role as an international art capital. A longtime denizen of lower Manhattan, the multi-talented Burckhardt was an unassuming yet consequential figure whose work includes both portraits of most of the leading artists of the New York School and views of New York City from his arrival in the 1930’s through the 70s. The exhibition will be on view from May 9 through July 15, and will be touring next year to the Middlebury College Museum of Art, where it will be on view from January 16 through March 18, 2001.

Simultaneously the ultimate “insider” and a disinterested observer, Burckhardt, who died in August 1999 at the age of 85, produced arresting and intimate portraits of Josef Albers, Willem de Kooning, Elaine de Kooning, Philip Guston, Al Held, Alex Katz, Joan Mitchell, Marisol, and Jackson Pollock, among others. The exhibition will juxtapose Burckhardt’s photographs of artists with important works by them from the New York University Art Collection, supplemented by major loans from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and seldom exhibited works from private collections. Rudy Burckhardt and Friends features nearly 80 photographs by Burckhardt and approximately 55 works by the artists he portrayed, ranging from prints to paintings and sculptures, including the artists previously mentioned as well as Ann Arnold, Nell Blaine, Norman Bluhm, Joseph Cornell, Burgoyne Diller, Jane Freilicher, Michael Goldberg, Red Grooms, Hans Hoffman, Yvonne Jacquette, Lester Johnson, Ibram Lassaw, Fairfield Porter, Larry Rivers, Mark Rothko, and Jack Tworkov. Rounding out the exhibition are selections of Burckhardt’s New York cityscapes and independent films.

“We are very pleased to be the first American museum to mount a full-scale, and long-overdue, tribute to Rudy Burckhardt,” says Lynn Gumpert, director of the Grey Art Gallery and cocurator of the exhibition. “It is also a great opportunity for us to exhibit, in an unusual way, some stellar but rarely seen works by the artists who shaped American art at midcentury.” “Rudy Burckhardt is unique in the annals of twentieth-century photography,” observes poet and critic Vincent Katz, who cocurated the exhibition. “His enjoyment of the moments he photographed is palpable, and his photographic corpus reads as the pursuit of such moments.”

From the late 1930s through the early 1970s Burckhardt created his famous series of New York cityscapes. “New York was different,” Burckhardt said. “Arriving here in 1935, at age 21, I was overwhelmed by its grandeur and ceaseless energy. I felt this was the place where I wanted to stay. The tremendous difference in scale between the soaring buildings and people moving against them on the street astonished me, and it took a couple of years before I felt ready to photograph.” But photograph he did, and, perhaps more than any other photographer of his generation, he succeeded in capturing the hallmark dynamism and tempo of New York’s urban landscape: its street life, its artists, its passersby. “Burckhardt’s favored subjects were people captured at ease in their normal environments,” says Vincent Katz. “He pictured New York’s casual bustle in carefully-composed but tantalizingly evanescent scenes. He brought this same ability to work on the move to his photographs of artists, catching them mid-thought, as though unaware of the photographer, even while looking straight into his lens. He was the invisible center of the New York art world.”

Like many of his contemporaries, Rudy Burckhardt was an émigré to New York City. Born in Basel, Switzerland, in 1914, Burckhardt enjoyed a childhood of relative ease and high culture, then spent time in London and Paris before settling in New York City in 1935.

Throughout his long career, Burckhardt worked in various media in addition to photography and film, but kept a distance from art world trends and movements, steadfastly pursuing his own vision. Starting in the 1950s and continuing through the mid-1960s, Burckhardt, a quintessential “artists’ artist,” worked as a staff photographer for Art News. In assignment after assignment he recorded colleagues in their studios preparing for exhibitions. These photographs form a selective, personal, and vital picture of the New York art world during those two decades and contrast greatly with the more studied poses that these same artists would adopt for the photojournalists of mainstream publications like Life and Time. Burckhardt’s pioneering independent films—ninety-five in all—form another component of this remarkable artist’s work. Ranging from short comedies to meditations on architecture set to music, the films were often produced in collaboration with the same artists on whom Burckhardt trained his still camera. His films belie the myth of the solitary artistic genius and open yet another portal to the vibrant and interconnected artistic community that thrived in downtown Manhattan. Burckhardt also filmed dancers such as Paul Taylor, Yoshiko Chuma, Douglas Dunn, and Dana Reitz. Although several of his underground classics are organized around loose narratives or themes, more often his films are poetic reflections that juxtapose varying seasons, times of day, and locales—seemingly at random, though a “musical” logic always guides his choices. Included among the nine films to be screened in the exhibition is one of Burckhardt’s most memorable and oft-cited works, Square Times (1967), which features color night footage of Times Square set to songs by The Supremes.

Public Programs Public programs will include a Gallery Talk by cocurators Lynn Gumpert and Vincent Katz; a panel discussion exploring the New York art world’s dynamic rise to international prominence in the 1950s and ’60s, which is cosponsored with New York University’s American Studies Program and American Photography Institute—National Graduate Seminar, Department of Photography and Imaging, Tisch School of the Arts; a walking tour tracing the cultural history of Greenwich Village and a “Food and Thought” evening combining dinner with a discussion by cocurator Vincent Katz of the downtown art world of Rudy Burckhardt and friends, both of which are cosponsored by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation; and a three-day festival of Burckhardt’s films at Anthology Film Archives.

All programs are open to the public. For more information, see the enclosed schedule or call Lucy Oakley, Education and Program Coordinator, 212/998-6786.

Related Exhibitions In conjunction with the Grey Art Gallery’s showing of Rudy Burckhardt and Friends, NYU’s Elmer Holmes Bobst Library is organizing an exhibition focusing on the poets working in and around Greenwich Village. Curated by Katherine Smith, Ph.D. candidate, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, The Other New York School: Poetry from the Fales Library at New York University will include photographs by Rudy Burckhardt of writers, among them many members of the New York School of poetry, displayed alongside a selection of first editions and other publications. As the group’s name suggests, these poets embraced a creative process that was akin to the Abstract Expressionist sensibility, generating works based on the writer’s inner feelings rather than observations of the outside world. The Other New York School will be on view from May 9 through July 15. For more information, call 212/998-2596.

Another exhibition complementing the show at the Grey Art Gallery this summer is Rudy Burckhardt Books and Diaries, on view from May 23 through June 17, at the Swiss Institute in Soho. Among the works featured will be Mediterranean Cities, Burckhardt’s first book, published in 1956; Trip to Morocco, a travel diary; and The Adventures of Private Dibble in World War Number Two, a comic book drawn from his experiences in the U.S. Army. The Swiss Institute is located at 495 Broadway, 3rd Fl. For more information, call 212/925-2035.

In addition, several institutions in the New York metropolitan area will be presenting related exhibitions this spring and summer. Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art will be on view from March 23 through May 27 at The AXA Gallery (formerly The Equitable Gallery). The Archives of American Art will show Selections from the Fairfield Porter Papers from March 16 through June 1. And the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton will present In Memory of My Feelings: Frank O’Hara and American Art from June 11 through July 30.

Sponsorship Rudy Burckhardt and Friends: New York Artists of the 1950s and ’60s has been made possible by a grant from PRO HELVETIA Arts Council of Switzerland. Additional support has been provided by The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation and the Abby Weed Grey Trust.

Gallery Information The Grey Art Gallery, which is located at 100 Washington Square East in New York City, is open Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays 11 am–6 pm; Wednesdays 11 am–8 pm; and Saturdays 11 am–5 pm. The gallery will be closed May 27–29, 2000 (Memorial Day Weekend) and July 4, 2000. For further information the public may call 212/998-6780.