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









Popular posts from this blog

A New York Spring Calendar: Blooming Times and Seasonal Events

See the UPDATED 2018 CALENDAR HERE . Updated for 2017 . At this time of year, thoughts turn to spring. Let's spring forward to blooming times, the best locations for witnessing spring's beginnings, and springtime events in the big city. While the occasional snow could blow through the city, we're just weeks now from callery pears in bloom and opening day at the ballpark. In The Ramble, Central Park. mid-April Blooming Times •  Central Park Conservancy's website  lists blooming times within the park. During the month of March we begin to see crocus, daffodils, forsythia, snowdrops, witch-hazel, and hellebores. Species tulips will emerge in several places, but the Shakespeare Garden and Conservatory Garden are particularly good places to catch the beginning of Spring blooms. Central Park near E. 72nd St., saucer magnolia, typically end of March. •  Citywide Blooming Calendar from New York City Department of Parks & Recreation April is u

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

The Lonesome Metropolis: A Walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center

As New York City reopens, why do the attractions of the great metropolis still look mostly deserted on a summer morning? A morning walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center sought to address this question. As it turns out, there are several adequate explanations. But for what happens next, there are no right answers. Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Many neighborhoods outside of tourist New York are still buzzing along. While some residents of wealthier neighborhoods have largely decamped to mountain cabins, beach houses, and other second homes, the less wealthy have nowhere to go and may still be working. Just visit Washington Heights or Corona or Flatbush, and you’ll see sidewalks full of shoppers and summer evening street partiers. Those who fled the city remain only a fraction of the total population.   Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Other renowned parts of the city such as City Hall and Brooklyn Bridge have been fr

Visiting New York City Again on the First Day of Spring

  The first weekend of spring in New York City coincided with bright and pleasing weather. Blue skies and Blue Jays, Bald Eagles and brightened crowds greeted the new season, at least in my world. It may be a clichĂ© to say something like “Hope is in the air,” but contrast this spring of 2021 with the one a year ago, the new mood is palpable. Last year during early spring, the city shut down, in caution and crisis, but this season feels like a resurrection, albeit still cautious. The Met Steps on Fifth Avenue Last spring, when many of the city’s residents feared going outside, many are at least partially vaccinated now. The numbers rise every day. I have been fully vaccinated for a month now, so I used the occasion to revisit New York City. I have been out and about in my neighborhood, but in terms of the public New York City, the one celebrated in tourist books and on this website, I have not ventured there much at all.  A Bald Eagle grasps a fish in its talons outside the Met Cloister

Traversing Manhattan: An Afternoon Trip to the Battery and Back Again

  Wherein the vaccinated sightseer from Northern Manhattan travels to the southern end of the island by means of the express bus, the MTA subway, and the NYC ferry, with a little sauntering on foot In Battery Park, during the first blushes of spring in New York. View of One World Trade Center Residents of the far north and far south of Manhattan are the ones most keenly aware that they live on an island. The north end of the borough tapers to a relatively small area of land, bounded by the confluence of the Harlem and Hudson Rivers and the waters of Spuyten Duyvil. The land is hilly and green, with an old growth forest. The Battery sits on the southern end, a land where the geography is defined by the meeting of the East River, the Hudson River, and the vast New York Harbor. Manhattan stretches a little over 13 miles on the long side and just 2.3, more or less, at its width. On 42nd Street, approaching Grand Central Terminal. A resident of the hilly northern terrain may sometimes long

Early Voting in Washington Heights, and A Walk

Early voting for the 2020 federal election in New York began on Saturday, October 24 and continues through Sunday, November 1. The weekend was overcast and autumnal, with the bright yellows of fall on display. In New York City, thousands of New Yorkers turned out at the 88 early voting locations and waited in long lines, many stretching around the block.  A line to vote in Washington Heights. The line stretched around the block multiple times. Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn were two of the well-known sites, but most voting places were typical neighborhood places such as schools, churches, and hospitals.   The scene outside the entrance to the Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion, one of the early voting locations in Washington Heights. In Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, two early voting locations were within a short walk of one another, causing some confusion for voters emerging from the 168th Street subway station. The Columbia Universit

North Towards Autumn: A Day Trip on the Metro-North Hudson Line

The peak of autumn colors in New York City tends to fall sometime in the days following Halloween, but those anxiously waiting leaf change can simply travel north.  Near Beacon, a view of autumn colors from the Metro-North Hudson line One way to speed the fall season is to take the Hudson line of Metro-North north of the city and watch the greens fade to oranges and yellows and the occasional burst of red.  Autumn light in Hastings-on-Hudson Weekends during the month of October are ideal times to make the trip. The air tends to be crisp with bright blue skies, and the Hudson River glimmers like a mirror in the light of autumn. As the Hudson line hugs the river for much of the distance north, the train ride alone provides plenty of opportunities for sightseeing. Try to grab a window seat on the river side of the train car for views of the Palisades and the bends of the Hudson Highlands later in the trip.   Autumn leaves on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail in Hastings Still, October is a gr

Walking on Snow

❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ For the better part of this new year, snow has been either on the ground or in the forecast. In the city landscape, the streets look enchanting for a day or so and then devolve into a dirty mess. This sort of snow is unappealing for an invigorating walk. A snowy path in Inwood Hill Park The forest, on the other hand, has managed to stay enchanting throughout each bout of winter weather. The presence of owls and hawks, bright red cardinals and sweet chickadees, and brown squirrels and black squirrels transform the woodlands into a fairy tale. An Eastern Screech-Owl at home in the winter forest I've spent much of the whole pandemic year, going back to March 2020, in the woods of Inwood Hill Park in Northern Manhattan. While I have been accustomed to walking through the park in spring, summer, and autumn, I've never managed to engage with the deepest parts of the forest when a lot of snow was on the ground. Last winter there wasn't much snow anyway. Eastern Screech-Owl

A Morning Walk from Penn Station to Times Square

Penn Station to Times Square New York City entered a new phase of the reopening on Monday, but you would never know it from a morning walk in Midtown on the day after.  At 34th Street and 8th Avenue, an outsize reminder of the public health crisis from Montefiore Medical Center After running an errand near Penn Station, I decided to take a walk up to Times Square and Broadway before heading home from 59th Street and Columbus Circle.  34th Street looking east toward the Empire State Building I wasn’t altogether prepared for the sights and sounds of this time and this place. Like many other New Yorkers, I have rarely left my neighborhood for the past four months.  8th Avenue at W. 38th Street After exiting a quiet Penn Station near 8th Avenue and W. 33rd Street at what would normally be the end of rush hour, I found myself suddenly dropped into a city (mostly) bereft of crowds.  A few commuters near Port Authority and The New York Times building, 8th Avenue and W. 40th Street Yet, I had

The Most Beautiful Bridge in the World

Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier (1887 - 1965), the leading proponent of the International Style of modern architecture, visited NYC on several occasions in the 1930s and 1940s, and he made much to say about the skyscraper city. He didn’t think much of the faux tops of the tall buildings nor did he care about the haphazard city planning, but he did fall madly in love with one particular bridge:  "The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson is the most beautiful bridge in the world. Made of cables and steel beams, it gleams in the sky like a reversed arch. It is blessed. It is the only seat of grace in the disordered city. It is painted an aluminum color and, between water and sky, you see nothing but the bent cord supported by two steel towers. When your car moves up the ramp the two towers rise so high that it brings you happiness; their structure is so pure, so resolute, so regular that here, finally, steel architecture seems to laugh. The car reaches an unexpectedly wide apr