New York Two Times
Rudy Burckhardt’s New York photos and Yvonne Jacquette’s New York nocturnes at the Museum of the City of New York
Rudy Burckhardt (1914–1999) and Yvonne Jacquette (b. 1934) were a creative team from their first meeting in 1961 through their marriage that lasted until Rudy’s suicide at 85. Though the work of both has been much exhibited and commented on over the last 50 years, this is the first time their work has been shown in tandem. The Museum of the City of New York presents concurrent exhibitions of the New York paintings and pastels of Ms. Jacquette and the urban photographs of her late husband.
Born in Basel, Switzerland, Burckhardt met Edwin Denby, American dance critic and friend of Aaron Copeland, when he was 20. He moved to New York to live with Denby the following year. 1938 marked the beginning of his photographic love affair with his adopted city. In 1947, he married Edith Schloss, an artist best known for knowing everyone who counted in Manhattan’s legendary postwar art scene.
They divorced in the early 1960s, and Burckhardt married Yvonne Jacquette, 20 years his junior, in 1964. In its way, this exhibition records the impact of an older, exceptionally versatile artist on the creative pulse of a younger one. But first, Rudy.
An accomplished painter and filmmaker, he photographed the city with a artist’s eye for telling detail and pictorial moments. A great part of the pleasure of these 90 black-and-white photos, taken over a 60-year period, is their backward glance to the 1930s. When they were made, his gelatin silver prints of pedestrians were formal experiments in nonhierarchical image-making. Time has turned random shots, taken without a primary subject or center of attention, into documents of the age.
Downward shots of feet in passing capture open-toed shoes, blunt heels and the occasional seam up the back of silk stockings. Viewed in retrospect, they recall the prescriptive literature popular for women in the 30s: “Are your shoes clean and well polished?” a story in Everyday Living for Girls asked in 1936. “Do you wipe them off every night? … Are your hose clean?”
Women in small pert hats, tilted at a saucy angle, combine with men in baker-boy caps and fedoras — on the F train, even — to evoke an era. Contrast with his similar street and subway shots from the 1980s is striking. A half century later, formality is gone from the public scene; gone with it is a certain dimension of democratic urbanity.
In strictly formal terms, some of the most visually interesting and original of Burckhardt’s cityscapes are compositions of cast shadows on the sidewalk and reflections of the Flatiron Building in street puddles. The minimalist geometries of pavement, broken by the tondo of a manhole cover or sliced by the metal edge of a curb, could provide an abstract painter with motifs for a lifetime.
His close-ups of architectural details witness the degree to which the psychic satisfactions of city living are bound to the character of buildings, even the most unassuming. Burckhardt’s series on the wastes of Queens in the 1940s are an unintended indictment of unplanned, jerrybuilt urban sprawl.
Even as his films were gaining recognition on the underground circuit, his earlier photographs, seemingly detached and fragmented, were slow to gain recognition. This generous overview clarifies and confirms Burkhardt’s formal achievement.
Burckhardt’s spectacular views of Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge, seen through his studio window, and signage (“Malted Milk, 15¢”) provide the bridge to Ms. Jacquette’s cityscapes. Some 30 paintings and pastels, all nocturnes, comprise a resplendent near-retrospective of her signature views of the Big Apple from high vantage points — the observation deck of the World Trade Center, an upper floor at the Ritz Carleton, or the window of a small plane charted out of Teeterboro Airport.
Her dramatic, large-scale canvases hang in dimmed light that emphasizes the dazzle of nighttime illumination against surrounding gloom. The sheer size of the works (some measuring 7 by 10 feet) contributes to its theatricality in the high-ceilinged chamber chosen to display it. Luminous wattage — from street lamps, traffic lights, neon signs, car headlights, office fixtures — moves like hot lava across the darkened city.
Perspectives vary with the scene. Some are vertiginous, almost vertical. Others are broad panoramas, hovering aerial views, architectural close-ups, or a combination of them all. “Chelsea Composite II” (1995), looking east from Ms. Jacquette’s 29th Street studio, is a lovely example of her working methods. The bulk of an ordinary watertower holds the foreground in a darkling composition crowned by the flicker of lights on the New York Life Insurance Building, the New York Merchandise Mart, and 11 Madison Avenue, now Credit Suisse/First Boston.
Specific landmarks are identifiable, but the order in which they appear is frequently invented. Composition takes precedence over mapmaking. Working from documentary photographs and drawings made of the same locale but from multiple vantage points, Ms. Jacquette combines elements in the manner of a capriccio, an architectural fantasy.
Streets can run the wrong way. A recognizable building might set on the wrong avenue. Or the same building could appear twice, in different heights, within the same composition. Distances are compressed or exaggerated; near and far occupy the same plane.
Ms. Jacquette’s strength lies in the vigor of contrasting values and an animated surface, not in drawing. Consequently, the most recent entry, “A Pier at Battery Park III” (2007), disappoints. Supported by color, her quavering line adds to the dizzying quality of her motifs. But on a canvas painted in flat monochrome, the line looks naive, even weak. The verve of a full palette serves her better.
A fitting cap to the exhibition is upstairs on the third floor: A floor-to-ceiling scale model of New Amsterdam in 1660, extending fom Peter Stuvesant’s house to Wall Street. Burckhardt’s and Jacquette’s world began here.
“Street Dance: the New York Phototgraphs of Rudy Burckhardt” and “Under New York Skies: Nocturnes by Yvonne Jacquette” at the Museum of the City of New York (1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street, 212-534-1672).
This review appeared first in The New York Sun February 14, 2008.
Copyright 2008: Maureen Mullarkey