Rudy Burckhardt and Friends:
New York Artists of the 1950s and ’60s
Before World War II, American art was generally considered provincial and unsophisticated. Artists in New York worked in isolation, in spartan conditions, without public recognition. Paris, which had been the center of the art world since the nineteeth century, still reigned. Only after World War II did New York come to dominate the international art scene. When Jackson Pollock appeared in Life magazine in August 1949, it signaled a shift whereby New York art became the standard against which all other art would be measured.
Rudy Burckhardt and Friends: New York Artists of the 1950s and ’60s provides an insider’s glimpse into the downtown Manhattan scene during these two decades central to the development of postwar American art. Organized in homage to Rudy Burckhardt —best known as a photographer and filmmaker—it juxtaposes his black-and-white portraits of fellow artists with works by them that are drawn primarily from the New York University Art Collection. Burckhardt, who moved to New York from his native Basel in 1935 at age 21, was an unassuming yet consequential figure who steadfastly pursued his own vision. He continually photographed and filmed his friends—including many New York School artists—as well as myriad views of his adopted city.
Burckhardt’s arresting and intimate portraits of artists derive mostly from his work for Art News during the 1950s and early ’60s. Under the rubric an artist “Paints a Picture,” the magazine published a series of articles on emerging artists featuring a different profile nearly every month. Assigned to photograph many of these articles, Burckhardt followed each artist through a day in the studio, documenting the progression of an individual work of art. His pictures convey exceptional informality and spontaneity, qualities that are often missing from the more studied poses that some of the same artists would adopt for the photojournalists of mainstream publications such as Life and Time.
The works by the twenty-six artists in the exhibition reveal the diversity of artistic strategies that were embraced during these years. Abstract Expressionism is represented by Elaine de Kooning, Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Jack Tworkov, while geometric abstraction makes an appearance in the pieces by Josef Albers, Burgoyne Diller, and lbram Lassaw. Also represented are the “second generation” Abstract Expressionists Norman Bluhm, Michael Goldberg, Al Held, and Joan Mitchell. Then there is the uncategorizable Joseph Cornell, with whom Burckhardt made four films.
The artists with whom Burckhardt most frequently collaborated, however, moved away from Abstract Expressionism’s lofty rhetoric into a reinvolvement with images from daily life, which had been declared taboo by the influential critic Clement Greenberg. Among those artists are Jane Freilicher, Alex Katz, Fairfield Porter, and Larry Rivers, all of whom applied gestural brushstrokes and planes of color—inspired by their abstract predecessors—to figural compositions. The wide range of Burckhardt’s interests is exemplified also in his collaborations with Red Grooms, who created some of the first Happenings, and Yvonne Jacquette, Burckhardt’s second wife, who participated in the return to hard-edge realism in the 1960s. That many of the artists in the exhibition continue to be active and prominent today is a testament to their artistic longevity and to Burckhardt’s prescience.
The exhibition reveals a varied and multilayered artistic community which flourished in downtown New York at the time.
A selection of Burckhardt’s distinctive New York cityscapes
and films—on view in the downstairs gallery—helps complete
a picture of the city in which these artists lived and worked. Burckhardt’s own film collaborations with many of the artists in the exhibition are emblematic of an important tendency, which provides an alternative to one myth of Abstract Expressionism— that originality and significance depend upon solitary creation. Burckhardt’s cityscapes, films, and portraits of artists—along with works by them—provide an opportunity to reconsider the increasingly legendary New York art world of the 1950s and ’60s.