Rents were cheap and New York was a cultural backwater when Swiss-born Rudy Burckhardt settled into a Chelsea apartment in 1935. But intimations of things to come were only a door away, where another young émigré, Willem de Kooning, was struggling to make modern paintings from his fluent academic drawings. The two men became friends, and when Burckhardt enlisted, he kept a de Kooning gouache tacked inside his footlocker. After the war, when New York emerged as the leading international art center, Burckhardt was at the art scene’s center, photographing friends who would soon be icons. In this exhibition, his portraits are juxtaposed with examples of artists’ works, often drawn from the Grey Art Gallery’s underutilized collection.
Throughout his life, Burckhardt was an unassuming Boswell to the New York School. Often on assignment from Art News, he produced well-observed portraits of artists at work. De Kooning, frustrated with Woman I, caresses a paint tube under the intent gaze of Elaine de Kooning, who stands with crossed arms like one of her husband’s imminent subjects. Jackson Pollock, already famous, poses as if painting an already finished canvas. Hans Hoffman pontificates, Mark Rothko smokes, Josef Albers sorts paper squares, Joan Mitchell absently wipes a brush—all in the postures of artists who were just learning to pose for the camera.
In the ’60s, Burckhardt shifted to a younger set of friends—Larry Rivers, Jane Freilicher, Frank O’Hara, and Alex Katz—who painted or wrote about him even as he photographed them. A prolific filmmaker, Burckhardt preferred to shoot his subjects as they did their own thing. So it is that Burckhardt, who committed suicide last year at age 85, managed to remain for nearly 50 years New York’s preeminent emerging artist, perpetually in wonder of his adopted city and its astonishing capacity for nurturing artists.