Subterranean Monuments: Burckhardt, Johnson, Hujar, and the Changing Life of Bohemia in Post-War Manhattan, an Appreciation From the Margins of the Art World. June 30 – September 17, 2006

Poughkeepsie, NY — The work of Rudy Burckhardt, Ray Johnson, and Peter Hujar was essential to the developing attitudes and aesthetics of the New York School, the amorphous field of painters, poets, composers, choreographers, and street performers spawned in the mid-twentieth century and united by more than their proximity to New York City. Yet, while each of these influential artists enjoyed considerable fame among select artistic circles, none of them was widely known during their lifetimes.

Consider, for example, that in 1995, a year after multimedia artist Ray Johnson's suicide, The New York Times described him as "New York's most famous unknown artist." Or note poet John Ashbery's observation that, "Before there was an underground, there was Rudy Burckhardt. The genial, Swiss-born jack-of-all-trades, and master of several, has remained unsung for so long that he is practically a subterranean monument."

With a nod to Ashbery's ripe metaphor, the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center has organized the exhibition Subterranean Monuments: Burckhardt, Johnson, Hujar, and Bohemia in Post-War Manhattan. By juxtaposing the three artists' works in three adjacent galleries, the exhibition examines the artists' analogous lives, and looks beneath the surface of their art to discover the myriad associations and parallels that tie these men together.

"In fact, their artwork reflects their individual lives, which took place on the fringe of the New York art world," said curator Mary-Kay Lombino. "The works in this exhibition are made from a point of view situated on that margin."

Tracing the path of bohemian New York, Subterranean Monuments includes upwards of sixty photographs, collages, and paintings, from as early as the mid-1930s, when 21-year-old Rudy Burckhardt moved to New York from Basel. Through the now legendary 1950s, when the New York School redefined American art, the exhibition continues into the 1980s, when the onset of the AIDS crisis took the life of photographer Peter Hujar and many other artists.

Praising Burckhardt, a self-taught painter-photographer-filmmaker, the critic and curator Robert Storr wrote, "No one has recorded the tempo of New York life more attentively or accurately." In Subterranean Monuments, Burckhardt portrays the city through its monuments as well as its hidden treasures — majestic skyscrapers soar over everyday scenes of a bygone era (Times Square, New York, 1947), and the glorious skyline is glimpsed through the window of a modest apartment in Brooklyn (A View from Brooklyn I, 1953). With equal flair, he reveals the rhythm of street-level activity by utilizing storefronts, signs, and billboards as backdrops for the bustle of people and traffic (Astor Place, New York, 1947).

The Burckhardt paintings in Subterranean Monuments reflect a life alternating between urban and rural phases (Cityscape, 1981 and Tree Branch Pond, 1995). Subjects range from children playing in the streets of Sicily (Siricusa III, 1951), and other strangers he captured during his international travels (Sunday Best, Trinidad, 1942), to elegantly posed nudes (Shadow Play, 1985) and intimate portraits of heroic Abstract Expressionist painters such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

An eccentric collage artist, Ray Johnson transformed his inner thoughts and personal relationships into a massive oeuvre of correspondence art and mixed-media constructions, which paint an idiosyncratic group portrait of his era. His intricate and dense collages are filled with references to artists, friends, and celebrities, tied together with a stream-of-consciousness meta-narrative (Agnes Martin, 1972). Heavily coded with his private systems of numerology, symbols, and repeated motifs, each piece is part of a complex web of relationships that eventually lead back to the artist himself (Untitled: Bunny Ray, 1992).

Viewed with patience, Johnson's works reveal a love for riddles, visual jokes, anagrams, and rhymes. Over the years, he recycled, chopped up, and reworked his collages, as a way to keep them in constant flux, leaving the possibilities open and avoiding any fixed meaning that could be attached to a particular work. The combination of Johnson's art, his enigmatic life, and his death by suicide, suggest that he did not distinguish between life and art, and that the real protagonist of his work was his relationship to the world around him.

Peter Hujar was the quintessential downtown artist, and divided his fierce concentration between the revelatory possibilities of the camera portrait and the younger creative figures he mentored; in both respects, he quietly helped define art's evolution in New York from the 1970s. He was deeply enmeshed in the arts subculture, which allowed him to create sensitive portraits of such friends as John Waters (John Waters, 1975), Paul Thek (Paul Thek III, 1976), David Wojnarowicz (David Wojnarowicz, 1981), Andy Warhol (Andy Warhol, 1975), and Susan Sontag (also an acquaintance of Johnson's and Burckhardt's).

Other favored Hujar subject matter ranged from anonymous street people and models, to circus performers, drag queens, animals, and desolate buildings. His distinctive style and consistency in treating his subjects, with an eye for detail, light, and texture, imbued his images with personal expression, intensity, and a soulful beauty.

Each of the artists' lifetimes brackets the next, when viewed chronologically, with Burckhardt living to 85, Johnson ending his own life at 67, and Hujar tragically succumbing to AIDS at 53. During the years that their lives overlapped, the three had many shared interests, similar lifestyle choices, and people in common, and Subterranean Monuments reveals some prominent connections.

For instance, celebrated poet Frank O'Hara and several artists, including Pollock, Joseph Cornell, and Mark Rothko, appear in works by both Burckhardt and Johnson. Both Johnson and Hujar depict New York icons such as Warhol. Hujar knew Johnson and photographed him (Ray Johnson (III), 1975), and he also knew dance critic and poet, Edwin Denby, Burckhardt's life-long friend and collaborator. Subterranean Monuments also captures how Burckhardt and Hujar each photographed recognizable New York buildings with the same careful attention that they bestowed upon people in their portraiture.

About the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center was founded in 1864 as the Vassar College Art Gallery. The current 36,400-square-foot facility, designed by Cesar Pelli and named in honor of the new building's primary donor, opened in 1993. The Lehman Loeb Art Center's collections chart the history of art from antiquity to the present and comprise over 16,000 works, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, and glass and ceramic wares. Notable holdings include the Warburg Collection of Old Master prints, an important group of Hudson River School paintings given by Matthew Vassar at the college's inception, and a wide range of works by major European and American twentieth century painters. Vassar was the first U.S. college founded with a permanent art collection and gallery, and at any given time, the Permanent Collection Galleries of the Art Center feature approximately 350 works from Vassar's extensive collections.

Admission to the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is free. The Art Center is open to the public Tuesday-Saturday, 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m., and Sunday, 1:00-5:00 p.m. Located at the entrance to the historic Vassar College campus, the Art Center can be reached within minutes from other Mid-Hudson Valley cultural attractions, such as Dia:Beacon, the Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt national historic sites and homes, and Olana, the Frederic Edwin Church home. The Art Center is wheelchair accessible. For more information, the public may call 845.437.5632 or visit

Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential, liberal arts college founded in 1861.

Posted by Office of Communications Tuesday, May 2, 2006