I imagine they took many walks in New York City. One was a photographer who was born and educated in Switzerland. He got viewers to think about all the legs and shoes they saw in a day. The other, his friend, was born in China shortly after the start of the 20th century. He got viewers to think about legs, feet, and torsos from another perspective: dance. The two men met in Basel in 1934. A year later, they came to New York and rented a fifth-floor walk-up in a building on West 21st Street, between 6th and 7th Avenue. Willem de Kooning lived in the building next door. The rest, as they say, is history.
The two men are, of course, Rudy Burckhardt and Edwin Denby. Although neither of them has ever been regarded as a major figure, they are perhaps more than that because they are indispensable. Remove all the photographs of de Kooning taken by Burckhardt and what would we have left? Erase all the dance criticism Denby published and what would we know about Martha Graham and George Balanchine, not to mention the many dancers and dances he wrote about? For these and innumerable other reasons, they are central figures in New York’s cultural history, even though they are not as well known as others who gave less, and I don’t mean just in a public way.
I remember seeing Denby at a rehearsal in Merce Cunningham’s Westbeth studio in the late 1970s, long after he had stopped writing dance criticism. When offered a chair, he refused because he wanted to sit on the floor. He was in his mid-70s and still spry. Later, he told me that he sat on the floor because that was closest to the view he would have had if the dance was being performed on a stage and he was seated in the audience. I also remember bumping into Burckhardt some years later, in Soho. One part of our conversation from that afternoon remains strong in my mind: he said that if you were old and did not know anyone young, you might as well be dead. Although I did not know either man particularly well, both of them got me to think a lot about the kind of attention one ought to pay to the everyday world one lives in.
The exhibition, A Walk through Astoria and Other Places in Queens, 1943 by Rudy Burckhardt & Edwin Denby at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery (September 14–November 22, 2017), represents the third collaboration between these two men, a photographer and a poet, resulting in a unique album of sequenced photographs and typewritten sonnets. In 1939, Burckhardt and Denby compiled their first album, New York, N. Why?, which is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1940, the two men went to Queens and made another album of photographs and poems, An Afternoon in Astoria (1940), which is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. In 1943, Burckhardt and Denby collaborated on their third album, A Walk through Astoria and Other Places in Queens, or what the poet calls, in the first sonnet, a “backyard of exploitation and refuse.”
The photographs document an industrial zone that is empty of people under a gray, cloudless sky. America is at war and a mood of quiet gloom pervades the work, from the empty streets to the page design, in which Burckhardt has grouped four photographs of pairs of people: in each image, the two people are neither looking at nor talking with each other. They have sunk into themselves because there is nowhere else to go. Through all of this, Burckhardt manages to take in the gloominess while keeping it at a distance. He never gets that close to his subjects and they probably did not know he was photographing them. He was incognito.
In one picture, there is a simple church and unremarkable house rising up from behind an embankment of stones and gravel. Beyond them, in the distance, a vast cemetery full of gravestones stretches across the horizon, framed above by an elevated highway blocking the way to heaven. The thick, dark elevated track feels poised to crush the already dead even further, pushing even the stones back into the earth.
In another photograph, two buildings — one of them a tavern — stand in the middle distance, looking like something that you would see a John Ford western. Burckhardt’s photographs are full of jolts that you catch only after looking for a while. If bleakness can be understated, then Burckhardt is the only photographer I know who can get us to that place. The album comes across as vulnerable, like the poems typed on thin paper. In one sonnet, Denby has typed, “A truck is dead for the day.” Above the word “dead,” which is crossed out, he has penciled in the word “home.” The truck is home for a day. “Dead” must have been too dramatic for Denby, which is why he crossed it out and wrote “home” above.
Burckhardt and Denby’s three albums should be brought together and published in a facsimile format in chronological order. According to an essay authored by Christopher Sweet and published on the gallery website, “The form, of the composed, arranged, and sequenced unique photographic album as a work of art in and of itself, is original to Burckhardt.” And yet, no one has reproduced any of them as a book. This is a shame.
A Walk through Astoria and Other Places in Queens, 1943 by Rudy Burckhardt & Edwin Denby at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery (529 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through November 22.