‘You couldn’t build a city like New York in good taste,’ Rudy Burckhardt—photographer, filmmaker, painter—observed in 1994 of the hometown he’d adopted some six decades earlier. That was, in large measure, what he liked about it. Of the countless bohemians who’ve fallen in love with New York, Burckhardt’s feeling for the metropolis that inspired his greatest work is marked by lightness—passion masquerading as a passing fancy.
His constant, understated presence amid the New York School writers and painters made him something of a “subterranean monument,” according to the poet John Ashbery. Along with his companion and later lifelong friend, the poet and dance critic Edwin Denby, he belonged to perhaps the last generation for whom it was still possible to live comfortably as artists-not-particularly-concerned-with-their-careers in Manhattan. The city has lost something with their passing. Just how much may be glimpsed in this show of a unique, handmade album that the two men put together in 1939, consisting of Burckhardt’s photographs of New York accompanied by sonnets that Denby wrote in response to them.
The two had met in Burckhardt’s hometown of Basel, Switzerland, in 1934, when Denby, who’d been leading the continental expatriate life—performing “eccentric dances” in Berlin, getting psychoanalyzed in Vienna, etc.—knocked on the aspiring photographer’s door, needing a passport picture. The 20-year-old Burckhardt, scion of a prominent local family, yearned to escape all things proper and Swiss. Denby, 11 years his senior and the son of an American diplomat stationed in China, possessed a louche, cosmopolite exoticism that Burckhardt found enthralling.
A year later, armed with a $20,000 inheritance (no small sum at the height of the Depression), Burckhardt followed Denby to New York and took up permanent residence amid the little Bohemia of Lower Manhattan. They shared a cold-water loft in Chelsea, where Burckhardt made madcap short films starring Denby and friends, a coterie of avant-gardists that included the composers Paul Bowles and Aaron Copland. (His photograph from that time, included at the Met, showing a Keaton-esque Denby seated on a rooftop high above West 21st Street, suggests a parody of the artist’s divine perspective.) At night, they roamed the streets in the company of their neighbor, an aspiring painter named Willem de Kooning, who pointed out the glittering, scarred beauty of the pavement.
In 1938, after an extended trip to Haiti (“the terminal point in his continuing quest for the anti-Switzerland,” curator Doug Eklund notes in his catalog essay), Burckhardt began the series of photographs collected in New York, N. Why?, the sublime, three-part “scrapbook” whose title (hand-lettered) betrays his signature combination of diffidence and drollery. (The Metropolitan owns the sole copy, which is temporarily unbound for display here; the exhibition catalog is a newly printed facsimile.)
Its subject, in Part One, is time itself and, more specifically, the provisional passage of people through the canyons of the metropolis. Who, newly arrived in New York, hasn’t felt his or her own transience reflected in its immensity? The contrast was perhaps more acute, as the memory of widespread economic misery was fresh, and the scuff marks of shiftless men who had spent long afternoons cooling their heels outside the city’s granite and marble temples were still visible. Like Atget, but drier and more deadpan, Burckhardt photographed these traces, along with worn curbs, obsolete signage, and Siamese standpipes amid “Sunday bits of dirt,” as Denby described them.
The question was also: How to be an artist in a city of bankers? (It’s still relevant, though the bankers may be unemployed today.) Balzac had made the movement of capital through Paris the motor of his creative activity, but that was in another century. Burckhardt and Denby stood outside and, with camera and verse, gently pried the stone façades of New York free of their monumentality and their makers’ intention.
Part Two focuses on the welter of signs that call out from barbershop windows, luncheonette counters, and the like, promising an end to corns and calluses or insisting that Chesterfields are milder and offering 5-cent malts or the delights of Gary Cooper in Beau Geste. “Professor: What is advertising? Answer: Magic is a joke that you pay cash for,” Denby writes, spoofing academic solemnity when faced with this untamable wilderness of incitements to desire. Still, a hint that darker forces are at play: Mussolini’s iron visage peeps out from the cover of Life at an Italian-owned newsstand.
The specter of European fascism, however distant, also haunts the final section, picturing the strange dance that animates passersby on New York City sidewalks. Yet Burckhardt’s crowds are so wonderfully individuated and random that it’s hard to imagine them whipped up into a frenzy by Hitler. “Steady, ready, harried, married, cute, astute, hairy,” Denby describes them, while also offering the most succinct definition to date of street photography: “In a split second a girl is forever pretty.”
With its ties to the real world, photography might appear more akin to prose, but, like poetry, it works through a combination of condensation and liberty. That freedom, in today’s New York—an indifference to utilitarian or material concerns, an ability to regard the world with the eyes of a child or a perfect stranger—seems particularly hard to come by. Burckhardt and Denby died years ago. (They separately committed suicide at the summer home they shared with Burckhardt’s family in Maine: Denby in 1983, and Burckhardt 16 years later.) But one day, in the kitchen of a loft belonging to the painter Alex Katz, I noticed one of Katz’s signature cut-out portraits, this one of two men forever engaged in conversation. It was them.