Rudy Burckhardt’s “An’ I’ve got a nickel”
Advertising, in its moment, can be powerfully manipulative. But reframed or removed in time, advertising tends to turn oddly quaint and amusing. This phenomenon is at play in Rudy Burckhardt’s An’ I’ve got a nickel (1938), a photograph in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s permanent collection.
Within the image, three posters hawk Horton’s Ice Cream products, probably from the tiled wall of an ice cream parlor or drug store fountain. Burckhardt’s title quotes the phrase of a cartoon lad in one of the posters, uttered as he eagerly eyes 5-cent Horton treats. The quote, the drawing style, the blunt typeface and sentiments, everything about these ads is hopelessly dated. But I’d bet they were fairly with-it in terms of 1938 point-of-sale marketing.
Someone, after all, conceived them as part of a branding campaign. An art director designed a unified look. Some professional labored over a drafting table to make it all happen. It was serious business to them. It’s not serious to us, and I suspect it was not serious to Burckhardt, who emigrated from Switzerland to New York to be with Edwin Denby, the poet and great dance critic, in 1934.
The European point of view of the photograph is: These Americans! So naïve, so amusing, so charming! But the picture is not condescending. I think Burckhardt shot the posters because he got a kick out of them, not because he felt a need to critique American capitalism. An’ I’ve got a nickel is a fun picture.
The dopey charm of the advertising art, alone, would not have been enough for Burckhardt. I doubt he would have shot the posters had they been on a blank wall. The black and white tile pattern makes the image. Burckhardt no doubt knew Piet Mondrian’s work. Abstraction was in the air, and Burckhardt saw how to get at it with the camera.
The clincher is the stitched vertical seam of black tiles, the formal heart of the piece. Burckhardt framed it just so, just off center, with five tiles from the seam to the edge of the frame on the viewer’s left and 6.3 or so to the right. The long horizontal banner at the top sits on the seam like a seesaw on a fulcrum, overbalanced to the left. The square poster, the one with our cartoon pal, has nearly the visual weight to counter that overbalance.
Human beings love pattern. We’re the greatest pattern recognizers on the planet. That’s why we’re at the top of the food chain and that’s why you are able to read this right now. This little picture encourages us to exercise that talent, first by spotting the pattern in the title and then by discovering how the seam and the teeter-totter weight of the posters disrupt the pattern. This sort of thing is fun for us. We’re wired that way.
Mondrian painted the great Broadway Boogie-Woogie just a few years later. An’ I’ve got a nickel has a lot in common with that painting, but it’s more modest and vernacular. Boogie-Woogie is a high-falutin’ jazz symphony; Burckhardt’s photo is a peppy Gershwin tune. The tile pattern is the meter, the ads are the lyrics and black seam is the jumpy syncopation.
Put it all together, and An’ I’ve got a nickel‘s got rhythm.