Friday, August 20, 2004

ARTS: The Unbearable Lightness of Rudy Burckhardt

When the photographer and filmmaker Rudy Burckhardt committed suicide five years ago, leaving a note saying that he had gone to join his lifelong companion, the poet and dance critic Edwin Denby, another suicide, "at the bottom of the pond," Burckhardt's fans hoped that in death he would get the recognition he had missed in life.

Many of his friends, including Willem de Kooning, Alex Katz, Red Grooms, Larry Rivers, Fairfield Porter, Jane Freilicher, Merce Cunningham, John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara, were famous. Meanwhile, Burckhardt was famous only for being underrated. As Ashbery put it, he "has remained unsung for so long that he is practically a subterranean monument."

Has Burckhardt's time come? A big book of his photographs has just been published (Harry N. Abrams), with a long essay by Phillip Lopate and an appreciation by Vincent Katz. And Tibor de Nagy, the gallery that represents Burckhardt's estate, is exhibiting two dozen of his best-known pictures. If fame does not come now, then when?

When Burckhardt first came to New York from his native Basel, in 1935, ready to live down his clean Swiss background and his all-to-famous family name (he was related to the historian Jacob Burckhardt), he found himself overwhelmed by New York. "The tremendous difference in scale between the soaring buildings and the people in the street astonished me," he wrote, "and it took a couple of years before I felt ready to photograph."

Copyright: New York Times, Sarah Boxer


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