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Sights and the city fantastic

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  December 30, 2008 02:24 PM

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Legs of Woman Walking Across Manhole Cover
"Untitled (Legs of Woman Walking Across Manhole Cover, New York City, 1939)"
Photo by Rudy Burckhardt

Two exhibits in New York ponder the truths of illumination and illusion

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff

NEW YORK - Switzerland, that bastion of numbered bank accounts, prides itself on sobriety no less than profitability. Yet the writers and artists it has produced (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Herman Hesse, Paul Klee, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Frank) tend to be at least slightly cuckoo - just like the clock Orson Welles says in "The Third Man" is the country's only great achievement. Also, they tend to emigrate.

Rudy Burckhardt (1914-1999) qualified on both counts. It's been so long since the avant-garde got domesticated, it's hard to believe someone like Burckhardt once existed. A photographer, filmmaker, and painter, Burckhardt had "a gift for pure seeing," as the essayist Philip Lopate has written. He also had a gift for friendship, knowing pretty much everyone who was anyone in New York artistically. The young Willem de Kooning lived next door in the 1930s and befriended Burckhardt when he found the painter's lost cat.

Burckhardt's closest friend was the poet and dance critic Edwin Denby. In the late '30s, he and Denby collaborated on a modest and quite marvelous handmade book, consisting of 67 Burckhardt photographs and seven Denby sonnets (some of them very funny). That album, its pages unbound, is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as "New York, N. Why? Photographs by Rudy Burckhardt, 1937-1940." Do your holiday travels include Gotham? Skip the Rockettes' Christmas spectacular and see this show instead. It closes Jan. 4.

The photographs charmingly blend formality (Burckhardt was Swiss, after all) and wonder (he'd only recently arrived in New York). They fall into three categories. The first takes a street-level look at streets: cornices, sidewalks, standpipes. It seems all but chaste compared to the typographical pizzazz of the second, on signage. Finally, there are pedestrians - the people who cross those streets and at whom those signs are directed.

This isn't imperial New York. Or, rather, it's imperial New York from the point of view of a cheerful plebeian. Burckhardt exhibits a child's openness to the city's unusualness.

Checkerboard Tiled Wall Detail
''Untitled (Checkerboard Tiled Wall Detail With Ice Cream Advertisements, New York City, 1938)''
Photo by Rudy Burckhardt

Although Burckhardt's city is weighty (all that granite used on the cornices, the rounded fatness of the standpipes), it's by no means oppressive. Denby has the best word for it: "uncosy." That doesn't mean it's unwelcoming, though. The signage, which is as much ornamental as commercial or informative, is there to beguile rather than sell or inform. (A photograph of a malted milk sign superimposed on a tiled wall is like a Mondrian waiting to happen.) And Burckhardt's New Yorkers are too busy to be alienated. They're individuals, clearly, but not isolated. Almost always we see them as part of a larger whole: active organisms part of a bigger active organism.

These pictures have a relaxed spareness. Burckhardt shoots his subjects simply, most often from right in front. His photographs could hardly be more straightforward - or more different from those in "Reality Check: Truth and Illusion in Contemporary Photography," which runs at the Met through March 22. They're deceptive, not declarative.

The idea is to show photographs that are not necessarily what they appear to be. There are just 28 images in "Reality Check," but many are very large. The square inches pile up, even if the number of frames doesn't. The combination of limited quantity and large scale makes it that much easier to study each image, the better to appreciate how our expectations get played with.

One marvels at the daring of Hiroshi Sugimoto in coming so close to the subject of "Polar Bear" - until realizing the animal is stuffed and sits in a diorama rather than on an ice floe. Vik Muniz built a tiny replica of Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" in his studio and photographed it to look like the real thing. Thomas Struth's "Las Vegas I, Las Vegas, Nevada" is all the more disorienting for being a hyper-realistic view of that hyper-fantastic place.

Yet in the end, as Burckhardt's sweetly sedate images remind us, fantasticality owes more to the imagination than it does to the eye or the contrast with reality (whatever that is).

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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