Charles Burchfield at the Whitney

An exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), features a chronological overview of the watercolors, drawings, and paintings of an important 20th century American artist perhaps more well known among artists than with the general public. While it's become common to label the painter a "visionary artist," with his exaggerated circular forms and frightening distortions of nature, sometimes bordering on fantasy illustration (but never boiling over that far), Burchfield nevertheless worked prolifically and well within the confines, at least outwardly, of a fairly conventional American life.

Charles Burchfield, Sun and Rocks, 1918–50. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 40 x 56 in. (101.6 x 142.2 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York. Room of Contemporary Art Fund, 1953.

Curated by artist Robert Gober and organized and first presented by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, the presentation of work over a fifty-year period describes the continuities, creative development, and intriguing backtrack of an artist both "visionary" and yet deeply akin to artists of his own generation. The point of the exhibit is to bring Burchfield up a few pegs in the art canon, perhaps within range of his friend Edward Hopper, though the latter will still be difficult to topple as the art god of the Whitney. The exhibit's supplemental printed material from earlier decades, including exhibit catalogues of Burchfield's work, interviews with the artist in popular magazines, Hopper's 1928 essay, etc., helps advance the case for the artist.

Charles Burchfield, Two Ravines, 1934–43. Watercolor on paper, 361⁄2 x 611⁄8 in. (92.7 x 155.3 cm). Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga, Tennessee. Gift of the Benwood Foundation.

A native of Ohio, Burchfield lived most of his life near Buffalo New York, staying close to the study of the natural world around him, especially the teeming spaces of bogs and swamps. Preferring watercolor as his medium, he developed a highly individuated style of expressionist interpretations of nature. Early in his artistic life, he sketched out abstract forms that symbolized emotions, and these bare and elegant sketches from 1916, a year that marks his graduation from the Cleveland School of Art, to 1918 would earn him the distinction of having the first solo show at MoMA in 1930. His abstractions actually invite some comparison to Georgia O'Keeffe's charcoal drawings from the same period, a generational attraction of budding modernists to the geometries of nature.

During the 1920s Burchfield worked as a designer for a wallpaper factory in Buffalo, and the exhibit continues into a gallery papered in one of his designs. Gober, the curator, certainly winks at the knowing spectator here, as Gober, the artist, frequently contextualizes his own sculpture within the broad context of wallpapered environments. Burchfield's artistic designs for the M. H. Birge & Sons wallpaper factory extended his own visual language. The income helped support a wife and a growing family of five children. At the end of the decade, the Frank Rehn Galleries in New York began to represent his work, allowing him to leave the factory and paint full time.

Charles Burchfield, Dandelion Seed Heads and the Moon, 1961–65. Watercolor, gouache, charcoal, and graffito on lightly textured white wove paper faced on ¼-inch thick laminated gray cardboard, 56 x 395⁄8 in. (142.2 x 99 cm). Karen and Kevin Kennedy Collection.

Through the 1930s, Burchfield painted rural and industrial themes, ones more realistic than his earlier work. These less-fanciful works allowed him to enjoy some mainstream success, but by the early 1940s, with the United States at war, the 50-year-old artist endured a profound artistic crisis that forced him to doubt his work from the preceding two decades. He started to reengage his younger artist self, and in a quite literal way, by reconstructing and enlarging works from 1916 to 1918. As a passionate naturalist, Burchfield gave himself over to the often-violent moods of nature, a kind of method acting for the artistic soul. Preferring to work on site among the rocks and streams and thunderstorms, he surrendered to the kinds of nightmares a child might dream on a stormy night. Several works on display, especially The Coming of Spring and Two Ravines, unite the earlier and later artists to a higher synthesis of masterful technique and artistic expression.

While it's possible to question the curator's assumption that artists rarely produce great art in their later years - contradictory evidence comes from Renoir, Picasso, Goya, Titian, Hals, and others, the final large gallery devoted to Burchfield's last decades is indeed a knockout. With these gloriously complex insights into nature, often leading the eye to unknown places on a path ahead, the artist seems truly blessed with visions of infinity.  

More information:
Whitney Museum of American Art
Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield
Through October 17, 2010


RSA Online said...

I love the deepness of the shading in "Two Ravines", it really give the picture amazing depth.

xenia elizabeth said...

I love the energy & mark-making in Sun and Rocks. These are great!