Views of the City, His and Hers, With Lens and Brush
"When I arrived in New York in 1935," the photographer Rudy Burckhardt recalled near the end of his life, "I was amazed at the difference in scale between the people and the buildings." Over the course of his career he figured out a way to make the city's architecture fit the human scale he favored. Faced with the same choice, Burckhardt's wife of 40 years, the painter Yvonne Jacquette, opted to focus on the city's skyscrapers.
Opening Friday, "Picturing New York: The Art of Yvonne Jacquette and Rudy Burckhardt" displays photographs by Burckhardt, who died at 85 in 1999, alongside paintings by Ms. Jacquette, 20 years his junior, who is still working. Burckhardt's black-and-white photographs approach the city from several angles, descending from rooftops to street level and even into the subways. Ms. Jacquette's paintings peer down into the canyons between high-rises. This pair of shows does not establish either artist as an unjustly overlooked talent, but it reveals the competing visions of the city behind a romantic and creative partnership.
Vincent Katz, a poet and filmmaker and the son of the painter Alex Katz, is the guest curator of the Burckhardt portion of the show, "Street Dance: The New York Photographs of Rudy Burckhardt." It includes about 90 black-and-white photographs, supplemented by seven short films. "Under New York Skies: Nocturnes by Yvonne Jacquette" consists of 30 paintings and works on paper organized by the museum's painting and sculpture curator, Andrea Henderson Fahnestock.
A large percentage of the Burckhardt photographs on view were taken in the 1930s and '40s, while Ms. Jacquette's paintings date from the '80s through last year. The couple married in 1964 and became part of a close network of creative types, including Willem de Kooning and Alex Katz, who lived and worked in Chelsea, then an industrial section. Both appear in Mr. Katz's scene-defining painting "The Cocktail Party" from 1965.
Burckhardt, who emigrated from Switzerland in 1935, is difficult to classify within the tradition of New York street photography. He was an impatient photographer, taking few exposures even when shooting stationary subjects, and a careless printer who allowed his negatives to become scratched. Photography was not his only medium; he also painted and made short, lyrical 16-millimeter films of the city. His early work has been compared to that of Walker Evans and Berenice Abbott, though without the social or historical conscience. His playful late photographs, from the '70s and '80s, suggest a less aggressive Garry Winogrand.
His photographs also register as the work of an outsider. Burckhardt's most famous pictures, views of Astor Place and the Flatiron Building taken from rooftops, focus on the few places in the city where the street grid is broken. New York landmarks become European boulevards. Another well-known photograph shows the Midtown skyline from the vantage point of a rail yard in Astoria, Queens.
Burckhardt did not set out to make documentary photographs and films, but some of his architectural views have the added benefit of immortalizing neighborhoods that are now hellishly congested or overdeveloped. "Brooklyn, 1940" shows the Sweeney Manufacturing Building, now dwarfed by luxury condominiums, rising from a deserted street in what is now called Dumbo. In Burckhardt's film "Under the Brooklyn Bridge," shots of demolition give way to a charming sequence of children swimming in the East River.
His best photographs convey a filmic sense of motion, particularly his 1939 series of pedestrians outside soda fountains and barbershops. In "Shave 20 Cents," he leaves the toe of a passing man just outside the frame. Several pictures from the same year show legs and feet on sidewalks. Cropped views of women's legs, in the seamed stockings and sensible lace-ups of the day, form graphic compositions against the glass dots that allow natural light into the subway system.
In a series from 1947, Burckhardt took his Leica camera underground. These photographs are often compared to Evans's covert subway photographs of a decade or so earlier, but unlike Evans, Burckhardt photographed openly. His subjects react by hiding behind newspapers, scowling or straightening up in their seats. One man even points at the camera. Burckhardt reprised his subway series in the mid-'80s, and the misery of the transportation system at that time is painfully apparent in the riders' alternately defeated and defensive expressions.
In contrast to her husband, who often seemed to be searching for just the right angle on the city, Ms. Jacquette settled on an aerial perspective in the late '70s. Her earliest New York nightscape, a pastel titled "East River View at Night" (1978), shows the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive from the hospital room of the couple's longtime friend Edwin Denby. Later she refined the frantic texture of the drawing into a more meditative painting.
Ms. Jacquette continues to work in stages, first in pastel and then in one or more large-scale paintings. As a result her paintings can appear inflated. Depicting architectural details and watery expanses with the same tightly clustered, uniform brush strokes, they also seem insufficiently atmospheric.
The aerial sweep of Ms. Jacquette's paintings implies a more privileged New York than the city inhabited by the subway-riding secretaries of Burckhardt's photographs. Ms. Jacquette has been known to charter private planes (for works like "Triboro Triptych at Night," 1987) or call in connections with glamorous offices in Midtown. ("Above Times Square," 2003, shows the view from the Condé Nast cafeteria.)
Sometimes Ms. Jacquette combines perspectives from different buildings, or different floors of the same building. In works made during a residency at the World Trade Center, from 1998 to 2001, she moved between the North and South towers.
Burckhardt's influence is not immediately apparent in Ms. Jacquette's soaring nocturnes, but she credits one of her husband's most famous images as a source of inspiration: "The aerial photograph of Astor Place with the Coca-Cola billboard was a strong example to me of a way one could be high above the street but still avoid some grandiosity."
"Picturing New York: The Art of Yvonne Jacquette and Rudy Burckhardt" is at the Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue, at 103rd Street, (212) 534-1672, mcny.org, through April 13 ("Street Dance: The New York Photographs of Rudy Burckhardt") and May 4 ("Under New York Skies: Nocturnes by Yvonne Jacquette"). A poetry reading in honor of both artists will be held at the museum on Sunday at 3.
By Karen Rosenberg
For The New York Times
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