NEW YORK, NY.- In the late 1930s, Rudy Burckhardt—then a recent émigré to America from Switzerland—photographed his adopted hometown of New York City, and immediately made some of the most lyrical, witty, and poetic images of the city ever created. New York, N. Why?: Photographs by Rudy Burckhardt, 1937–1940, opening September 23 at the Metropolitan Museum, will present in its entirety Burckhardt's unique, handmade album of 67 classic images of sidewalks, outdoor advertising, and pedestrians, selected and sequenced by Burckhardt in 1940 and acquired by the Museum in 1972.
Rudy Burckhardt (1914–1999) left Switzerland for New York City in 1935 and roomed with the aspiring poet Edwin Denby, his closest friend and occasional collaborator, as well as one of the most important dance critics of the era. Although Burckhardt had begun a serious interest in street photography during a trip to Paris the year before, at first he was too overwhelmed by the scale, pace, and energy of New York to take up photography again. Instead, Burckhardt made quirky, humorous films that drew on his and Denby's circle of artistic friends and acquaintances, including Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Paul Bowles, and Joseph Cotten. Burckhardt's films mixed screwball comedy, the lives of artists, popular culture, and plein-air footage showcasing the streets of Manhattan.
In 1938, Burckhardt began photographing the city in earnest and produced a series of remarkable images that he eventually would gather into his most ambitious surviving album, New York, N. Why?. Interspersed with six related sonnets by Denby, the album is a structurally complex, lyrically sustained sequence of photographs in which the mise-en-scène is the concrete curbsides and bustling sidewalks of New York, N.Y. Burckhardt organized the album into three sections: building fronts and street furniture; street advertisements; and pedestrians. The first section depicts a barren terrain of cracked pavement and crooked angles, tilting standpipes and darkened doorways. The next section shows the urban terrain decked out with commercial enticements for cures, candy, movies, and malteds. For the third section, Burckhardt was interested in how unconscious, everyday movements can become like a dance. He snaked anonymously through the crowds, capturing New Yorkers as they weave unconsciously around one another. New York, N. Why? contains many of Burckhardt's greatest city pictures, which playfully explore the threshold between public and private, and find a balance between chaos and equilibrium.
Prolific in film, photography, and painting, Burckhardt was mostly indifferent about public recognition, with the result that during his lifetime he was perhaps best known for his photographs for ArtNews magazine of New York School painters at work, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. At the same time, he was an ubiquitous figure in the bohemian milieu of postwar New York City, so much so that the poet John Ashbery once described Burckhardt as "practically a subterranean monument." The Museum of Modern Art, New York, held a retrospective of his films in 1987, and a 1998 exhibition at the IVAM Centre Julio Gonzáles in Valencia, Spain, featured his paintings and photography. Earlier this year the Museum of the City of New York presented an exhibition of 90 of Burckhardt's New York photographs.
In order to show the whole album in its proper sequence, facsimiles of certain photographs will be included in the exhibition. Burckhardt's original photographs were pasted on both sides of the album's pages, making it impossible to display both sides simultaneously. The facsimiles to be shown in the exhibition were made by Teresa Christiansen in the Metropolitan Museum's Photo Studio.