Skip to main content

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

Comments

RSA Online said…
I love the deepness of the shading in "Two Ravines", it really give the picture amazing depth.
I love the energy & mark-making in Sun and Rocks. These are great!

Popular posts from this blog

Museums in New York Open on Mondays

Please see this post for current announcements of reopenings . Please consult the museum websites for changes in days and hours. UPDATED September 23, 2020 Advance tickets required for many museum reopenings. Please check museum websites for details. • The  Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)  reopened to the public on  August 27 , with new hours for the first month, through September 27: from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday to the public; and from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.  on Mondays for MoMA members on ly. Admission will be free to all visitors Tuesday through Sunday, through September 27, made possible by UNIQLO. See this  new post on WOTBA for a sense of the experience attending the museum . •  New-York Historical Society  reopened on  August 14  with an outdoor exhibition, "Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine,” in the rear courtyard. The exhibit by activist Kevin Powell and photographer Kay Hickman will highlight how New Yorkers weathered the quarantine

25 Things To Do Near the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

(updated 2016) The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) at 11 W. 53rd Street is near many other New York City attractions, so before or after a trip to the museum, a short walk in any direction could easily take in additional experiences. Drawing a square on a map with the museum at the center, a shape bounded by 58th Street to the north and 48th Street to the south, with 7th Avenue to the west and Park Avenue to the east, proves the point of the area's cultural richness. (A map follows the list below.) While well-known sightseeing stops fall with these boundaries, most notably Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick's Cathedral, and the great swath of famous Fifth Avenue stores, cultural visitors may also want to check out places such as the Austrian Cultural Forum, the 57th Street galleries, the Onassis Cultural Center, and the Municipal Art Society. The image above shows an intriguing glimpse of the tops of two Beaux-Arts buildings through an opening of the wall inside MoMA's scu

A Walk From Lincoln Center to Zabar's

If you happen to be attending a noon or matinee performance in Lincoln Center or otherwise happen to be hanging around there for whatever reason and find you've got some time, I recommend a stroll up Broadway to Zabar's, the famous Upper West Side food emporium. This stretch of Broadway takes in the sights of several new housing sky-rises, several theaters, and some flamboyant former apartment hotels of the early 20th century. Flâneurs will love the Belle Epoque ambiance of these overly-ornamented buildings, and the distance from W. 66th or so to W. 80th is not so taxing, especially if you're dressed in shoes for the opera. View Larger Map Several noteworthy structures along the way - The Dorilton, 171 W 71st St., from 1900-02, at the northeast corner of Broadway, is considered a Beaux Arts masterpiece. The 72nd St subway station dates from 1904 and is a funny little thing. Verdi Square, at the convergence of Broadway, Amsterdam, an W. 73rd, is a nice small park fea

Museums in New York Open on Tuesdays

American Folk Art Museum , 45 W. 53rd St. Asia Society and Museum , 725 Park Avenue (at 70th Street) Guggenheim Museum , 1071 Fifth Avenue (at 89th St.) Pictured left International Center of Photography , 1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street The Metropolitan Museum of Art , 1000 Fifth Avenue NEW: Beginning May 1, 2013 MoMA will be open seven days a week. 11 W. 53rd St. The Morgan Library & Museum , 225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street Museum of the City of New York , 1220 Fifth Avenue New York University, Grey Art Gallery , 100 Washington Square East Mondays and Tuesdays are the hardest days to remember which museums are open. See the list for NY museums open on Mondays here .

25 Things to Do Near the Metropolitan Museum of Art

(updated) Sitting on the steps in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of those iconic things to do in New York City. On a sunny day, the wide steps can become crowded with the young and old, the tourist and the resident. It's tempting to stay awhile and soak in the sun and the sights. Everyone has reasons for lingering there, with one being the shared pleasure of people watching along this expansive stretch of Fifth Avenue, a painting come to life. Certainly, just getting off one's feet for a moment is welcome, especially if the previous hours involved walking through the entirety of art history from prehistoric to the contemporary. The entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue The Metropolitan Museum of Art should be a singular pilgrimage, uninterrupted by feeble attempts to take in more exhibitions along Museum Mile. Pity the poor visitor who tries "to do" multiple museum exhibitions in one day, albeit ambitious, noble, and uplift

The Marx Brothers in New York: Interlude - On Groucho Walking

This special new series about the Marx Brothers in New York continues this week, following the brothers into a career in Broadway and into the movies, but first I would like to take a little time to discuss Groucho's peculiar way of walking. Sometimes described as a "lope" or "stoop," Groucho's silly and often lecherous walk became just as an important part of his persona as his glasses, eyebrows, cigar and greasepaint moustache. He didn't walk this walk all the time, but as you recall from the films, Groucho would often bend his knees and lean forward as he proceeded from point A to point B. To imitate Groucho properly at a costume party, it's important to get this part down. • Groucho explained that it was simply a bit of inspired improvisation. From the book Hello, I Must Be Going by Charlotte Chandler, he says, "I was just kidding around one day, and I started to walk funny. The audience liked it, so I kept it in."(pps. 153-154) Chand

25 Things to Do Near the American Museum of Natural History

After visiting the American Museum of Natural History, explore attractions on the Upper West Side or in Central Park. Visitors to New York often run around from one major tourist site to the next, sometimes from one side of the city to the other, and in the process, exhaust themselves thoroughly. Ambitious itineraries often include something like coffee in the Village in the morning, lunch near MoMA, a couple of hours in the museum, a ride on the Staten Island Ferry in the afternoon, cocktails at the midtown hotel, a quick dinner, and then a Broadway show. It's a wonder people don't pass out at the theater. While sitting on the steps of the American Museum of History, consider exploring the Upper West Side and nearby sites of interest in Central Park. There's a better way to plan a New York trip. Consider grouping attractions together geographically. Several posts on this site address this recommended approach. The Wild West of the Tecumseh Playground Groupin

25 Radical Things to Do in Greenwich Village

A list of 25 things to Do in Greenwich Village with history of protest, old cafes, and signs of change. Hipstamatic iPhone images of contemporary Greenwich Village by Walking Off the Big Apple (Revised and updated.) Flipping through  Greenwich Village: A Photographic Guide by Edmund T. Delaney and Charles Lockwood with photographs by George Roos, a second, revised edition published in 1976, it’s easy to compare the black and white images with the look of today’s neighborhood and see how much the Village has changed. A long shot photograph of Washington Square taken up high from an apartment north of the park, and with the looming two towers of the World Trade Center off to the distant south in the background, reveals a different landscape than what we would encounter today.    On the north side of the park, an empty lot and two small buildings have since given way to NYU’s Kimmel Center and a new NYU Center for Academic and Spiritual Center Life. The Judson Memorial Church

A Weekend Walk on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail

Imagine strolling from town to town near the eastern shores of the Hudson River, walking a well-trodden path lined with trees and stately architecture and with easy access to cafes, local shops, and train stations for an easy ride home. Imagine a weekend when the sun is bright and the sun is warm, and many other people - but not too many - are out enjoying the same weather and the same stroll. Such were the pleasures on a recent Sunday, in the latter part of this unseasonal winter, along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail not too far north from New York City. View of the Hudson River from the Keeper's House The Old Croton Aqueduct, the system that once delivered fresh water from the Croton River to New York City, was a huge and complex marvel of engineering. The trail sits on top of the aqueduct system. This post describes a walk along just a section of the trail, the one that begins at the Keeper’s House in Dobbs Ferry and ends in Irvington. Recommended purchase - a map det

Circling the Met: A Springtime Visit to Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art

For a double feature of art and nature, the Metropolitan Museum of Art happens to be conveniently situated in Central Park. The front of the museum faces Fifth Avenue, its monumental wings stretching the blocks between E. 80th and E. 84th. The sides and the back of the museum are within easy walking distance of several prominent landmarks within the park.  Cedar Hill in Central Park Before a visit to the Met, consider taking a walk around the museum beginning on the southern side. A walk in the park can serve as a good preparation for a museum visit, because looking at or noticing the shapes and colors of the built and natural environment can enhance the art experience. Cedar Hill in Central Park The path south of the 79 Street Transverse leads to a scene at Cedar Hill very much like a panorama, with a vast wide-angle expanse of green grass and hill. Take the first path that leads back over 79th Street to the southern side of the museum. This path brilliantly disguises the motor traffi