Bruce Silverstein is pleased to present A Walk through Astoria and Other Places in Queens, 1943 by Rudolph Burkhardt and Edwin Denby. Consisting of 71 vintage gelatin silver prints and five typed sonnets, this original unpublished album is the third of three monumental albums produced in collaboration between the two artists – the first, New York, N. Why?, 1939 (collection the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and the second, An Afternoon in Astoria, 1940 (collection Museum of Modern Art).
The photographer and filmmaker Rudolph Burckhardt (1914–1999) arrived in New York in 1935 from his native Switzerland, where he quickly became immersed in the city’s avant-garde circles. His life-long friend, the poet and dance critic Edwin Denby (1903–1983), introduced him to several artists, composers –together they befriended their neighbor, an unknown painter at the time, Willem de Kooning. The two dear friends would become essential figures in the downtown cultural bohemian scene over the next several decades, with friends and artistic collaborators including John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Franz Kline, Joseph Cornell, Larry Rivers, Alex Katz, Red Grooms, and many others.
In 1943 when the work was produced, the United States had entered the war, and Burckhardt had been drafted, though not yet a citizen of the country. The undeveloped and industrial districts of Queens were a strange, barren wilderness and fascinating to Burckhardt and offered a chance to escape the intensity of Manhattan, all in a day, just across the East River, a subway ride away. And, one suspects, Burckhardt’s sense of irony is at play, seeing in this proximate zone of desolation a striking contradiction of the phantasmagoric vision of a bright future offered up in another part of Queens just a few years earlier at the 1939 World’s Fair.
A Walk through Astoria and Other Places in Queens opens with an introductory poem by Denby, invoking “this backyard of exploitation and refuse,” followed by a sequence of images by Burckhardt of the rail yards that separate Sunnyside from Astoria. A filmmaker as well as a photographer, Burckhardt preferred the transience of film to the monumental aspect of photography. Here he manages to capture the fleeting grace of human existence through cinematic narrative. Denby’s poems contain the same understated elegance present in Burckhardt’s images, creating a collaborative celebration of life’s quotidian moments.
As described in Christopher Sweet’s essay, “Warehouses punctuated with water towers gather in the distance along the middle horizontal axis, while in the foreground lie expanses of scrubby terrain scored by railroad tracks or road beds of bald asphalt. Bridges stretch across the rail yards, the siding either a lattice of steel strips or solid walls of steel reminiscent of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, all supine under flat, pale skies, demarcated with almost surreal utility poles and electric pylons, and street lamps of impoverished gentility.”
The carefully sequenced images are followed by two additional Denby sonnets, and then the space closes in. In the words of Sweet, “The Manhattan skyline appears in the distance as a place to aspire to and, on the facing page, denizens of the neighborhood saunter onto the scene. The men invariably in coat and tie, the ladies in hats or adorned with a flower. A sudden syncopation occurs in the sizing, sequencing, and configuration of images on the album page, as if gathered for audition in a Beckett play. Odd telling details follow, a stoop leads nowhere, a Dadaistic horse rears up, a For Sale sign, a Victory Garden – Keep Off. The war is faraway and yet close to home.”
Concluding the album is the Laurel Hill subsection, which appears like a mining town in the Wild West at high noon. With no one on the street, there is no movement; it is a ghost town. One powerful image shows a nondescript house and a small church dropping just below the foreground of gravel, stone and dirt while beyond the opaque structures, in the distance, lies a cemetery, a dense conglomeration of monuments. In the middle distance suspended in the air as if above the cemetery, the elevated expressway passes over, stretching across the picture, its steel beams seeming to crush the grave stones into gravel. Denby reconsidered the last lines of his poem as included in the album, and in his final published version they read:
“Far away is right here on a plain sky Air anywhere to change, anywhere to die.”