Burkhardt, A Friend to Poets (1914-1999)
by Simon Pettet
on images to enlarge.
(Five photos, one painting and one photocopied poem by Rudy Burkhardt.)
Photographer, filmmaker, painter, collagiste, poet, writer Rudy Burkhardt, died this past August at his summer home in Maine (bidding adieu to his loved ones and walking into the adjacent lake he affectionately called "our pond"). He was 85 years old. "A jack of all trades and master of several," as John Ashbery once put it, a quintessential artists' artist, Burkhardt had, for over three generations, (since his arrival in New York, in 1935, from his native Switzerland), been a key presence, famously diffident, famously under-appreciated, quietly and unostentatiously, for over half a century, avoiding the glitz (and the fame of his contemporaries), doggedly getting on with the work. His achievements ranged far and wide, over an extraordinary span of years. Through his lifetime friendship with poet and da'hce critic Edwin Denby (1898-1983) he became intimately involved (both as observer and participant) at the very beginnings of a nascent post-war New York avant-garde.
If the art world had a conscience, it was he-poet and patient witness-of the day-to-day, of the quotidian, laureate of unpretentiousness. His humility and old- fashioned gentleness were significant and defining features.
His was something rare-a friendly art. His collaborations with poets were legion; among them, film collaborations with John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Alice Notley, Ron Padgett, David Shapiro, and books with Edwin Denby, Vincent Katz, Simon Pettet.
Belatedly-in February 1987, he was feted with three simultaneous New York exhibitions-a show of photos (at Brooke Alexander), a show of paintings (at the Blue Mountain Gallery), and a film retrospective (featuring over 60 of his short films) at the Museum of Modern Art. Ten years later, in 1997, he was the subject of a full-scale retrospective (held at the Institut Valencia d'Art Modern, in Valencia, Spain, and organized by poet Vincent Katz).
His images of New York City-the work that he is, perhaps, currently best known for are among the most fundamental and enduring taken this century. His position in the pantheon (as if he aspired to such immortality!) seems assured.
My shoulder damp with tears
I thought to see the streets
Green awning wings burning mangoes
People relaxed & slowed almost naked
Sunday morning the lens on Avenue B
Ann says, "Who's that behind those Foster Grants?"
Her light smile wells up in East Sixth
August 1, 1999, a cool morning
sky blue background air of no deception
It's an old song but singing is the game of consolation
Fill the loss with personal good karma
And for our lamentation our queen
Will bend her breast to us
On my back
East Hill, New York, ground close in clouds
Chilly balm to lasting heat
My shaded lens to the sky
Caught shapes in coming fair weather clouds
Light gray & darker peaks coming up the hill
A large pregnant dark one
Hoisted herself up to me
And there he was!
His head and hair
grayer and darker
Chiseled like Mt. Rushmore
Not smiling not frowning
Just there enormous in the heavens
His deep look behind the camera
I took my fill as he took his again
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