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PRINT November 1999

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Eye of the Storm

IN MY MIND’S EYE are hurried comings and goings. People in full stride under the shadow of tall buildings, the monumental immobility of which measures the figures’ relative stature and speed. One by one they set their course, converging like tributary currents into great pedestrian waves that break on other pedestrian waves at crosswalks and street corners. Unseen in this steady flow of brisk bodies and thrusting ankles is a slight, stationary figure. He watches, the bemused, faintly melancholy look on his face occasionally relieved by a broad sweet smile. Otherwise he is all attention as he goes about his unobtrusive business and clicks the shutter.

His name is Rudy Burckhardt. The city is New York. It might have been many others, though—Paris, Port-au-Prince, Naples, Montgomery. Rudy, who died this summer, was a natural cosmopolitan. Wherever he found himself he disappeared effortlessly into the crowd, wearing his inbred sophistication like a suit off the rack. Blending high-born European manners with a streetwise democratic spirit, Rudy was a constellation of oxymorons: a Swiss Walt Whitman wired into the free-flowing electric charge of the metropolis, but incapable of overstatement; a multitalented artist, connected to virtually every major figure of the New York School, but curiously indifferent to the fate of his own work.

That work took many forms. He was best known as a photographer. As a young medical school dropout in Basel, Rudy took up the camera and began to make pictures suggesting a reserved Cartier-Bresson. Arriving in Manhattan in 1935 in the company of the American writer Edwin Denby—with whom he would share much of his life before and during his marriages to the painters Edith Schloss and Yvonne Jacquette— Rudy found his primary subject matter: the city and his friends, including fellow immigrant Willem de Kooning. The yet-to-be-discovered painter lived next door to Rudy and Edwin, and to help him out Rudy used part of a small inheritance to buy some of his pictures. When the money ran out, Rudy turned to photographing artists at work, as well as photographing artists “at work” for ArtNews, the magazine that documented studio visits with the rising stars of Tenth Street under the heading “X Paints a Painting.” Rudy’s Xs were, among others, de Kooning, Larry Rivers, Alex Katz, Joan Mitchell, and Jackson Pollock.

All the while Rudy made films. The first, 145 West 21, dates from 1936, and involved the participation of Denby, novelist Paul Bowles, and composers Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and John Latouche. Between 1955 and 1957, he collaborated with Joseph Cornell on four films, and on other projects enlisted the efforts of everyone from poets John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Ron Padgett, Peter Schjeldahl, and Kenneth Koch, to artists Joe Brainard, Neil Welliver, Rackstraw Downes, and Red and Mimi Grooms, to actors Joseph Cotten, Taylor Mead, and Brooke Alderson. Yvonne Jacquette, whose painterly love affair with Manhattan and Maine matched Rudy’s own, was a contributor and regular player, as were sons Jacob and Tom. Occasionally screened by film collectives and museums—the Museum of Modern Art gave Rudy a retrospective in 1987 and will honor him with a program this month—the ninety-odd movies he made are a kind of cinematic iceberg, in which “let’s do a skit” enthusiasm alternates with an uncorny romanticism of place and off-hand technical vanguardism. My favorites are the ones where the camera just comes to rest on a view or a thing— the Brooklyn Bridge in early morning, a bunch of bananas on a windowsill in time-lapse daylight. An ordinarily “sensitive” still-life cinematographer would have picked a teacup or bouquet. Only Rudy could have shot bright yellow bananas in the sunset.

Then there are the paintings, so modest in size and touch that one doesn’t know how seriously to take them, until the affection for things-as-they-are that prompted Rudy gently seizes the imagination. The things? Like his late photographs, they are skyscraper rooftops, young women, piney forest floors, young women, his own aging Buster Keaton–like face, and young women: a Sunday painter for a month of Sundays by a man sure enough of his own inclinations to have turned down lessons from de Kooning. Finally come the books, among them Mobile Homes (1979) and Talking Pictures (1994), which preserve the artist’s voice, if not his soft Swiss-German accent and thought-filled conversational hesitations. Diffidence as sustained as his is defiance; modesty that precise is pride. Rudy set a standard for being an artist every bit as stringent as that of the big names who befriended him.

Rudy was eighty-five when, at the time and place of his own choosing (his beloved home in rural Maine), he stepped out. He left early. This season an exhibition that brings together his photography, films, and paintings for the first time in the United States will open at the Grey Art Gallery in Greenwich Village, near the center of his world. I’m not only saddened by his quiet exit, but bothered. Having looked forward to his finally receiving the recognition so many of his peers had enjoyed, I wanted to celebrate the event in his presence. It is not to be. Rudy’s self-effacement is complete, and it leaves us hanging. A late August letter from his close friend Alex Katz says it best: “Strange summer, bad back, bad weather, Rudy. I guess that old elegant Bohemia is gone and there is nothing to replace it.” No, there isn’t.

Robert Storr is senior curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.