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Genius Loci: Burchfield’s Spirits of Place 1921-1943

On View Friday, December 14, 2018–Sunday, March 31, 2019

Anthony J. Sisti Gallery    Charles E. Burchfield Rotunda    John R. Oishei Foundation Gallery   

Growing up in Ohio, Charles Ephraim Burchfield (1893-1967) had the myriad details of its landscape indelibly imprinted in his mind. Not satisfied with simply documenting his favorite countryside vistas, small-town eccentricities, and disturbing industrial blight, he revealed the true spirit of the places he painted. His perspective was not passive. Instead, he endeavored to paint lively images that could stimulate several senses, condensing a span of time into each work—from the quick flash of lightning to a day’s meander through the woods. The character of each place was distinctive, capturing the magic of its essence.

November 1921 marks the month Burchfield moved to Buffalo, New York. Although he left his Ohio roots geographically, its memories still resonated in his imagination. His new job as assistant designer at the prestigious M. H. Birge & Sons Company enabled him to use details from some of his beloved Ohio landscapes in wallpaper and cretonne designs. While his love for wildflowers emerged in many non-traditional designs, he felt stifled by imposed design parameters for scenic wallpapers, and uncomfortably bore increasing responsibilities as a supervisor. The job had been an appropriate source of income as his life evolved, marrying Bertha Kenreich in 1922 and raising a family of four daughters and a son born between 1923 and 1929. Yet he yearned to have more time for his own artwork. Such a busy schedule meant he could paint only on weekends or evenings, so production was limited. In an alternative, collaborative effort, printmaker J. J. Lankes carved and printed small, affordable wood engravings that Burchfield designed, many based on Ohio subjects.

Burchfield’s big break came in February 1929, when collector and educator Edward Wales Root introduced him to the New York dealer Frank K. M. Rehn, whose gallery was representing Edward Hopper, among others. Burchfield resigned from Birge on July 31. Despite the October 29th stock market crash that initiated the worst economic collapse in the history of the modern industrial world, Burchfield persevered. In April 1930, he was given the first one-person exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, which had just opened in November 1929. In the years that followed, his work was lauded in both solo and group exhibitions, including several that toured internationally. At the forefront of the American art scene, he won awards, served on exhibition juries, and was commissioned by Fortune magazine to paint industrial subjects.

Fittingly, Burchfield’s style changed during this period. His depiction of urban, suburban, and rural scenes of Western New York became more realistic. His paintings grew larger and more detailed, yet they still revealed personal reflections of his subjects without the stylized “conventionalization” of his early symbolic language. In 1945, he explained how there had been a “romantic trend” in both his early career’s work from 1916 to 1920 as well as the two decades that followed. “The difference between the periods is in the form rather than the subject matter,” he stated. Flat patterning had evolved into a three-dimensional, lifelike approach to provide “more form and solidity.” However, he also tried to achieve a highly subjective representation of his subject. Not wanting to be labeled simply as a “Regionalist,” he continued: “The American Scene, in its more limited aspect, has no more significance than any other subject matter. While I feel strongly the personality of a given scene, its ‘genius loci’ as it were, my chief aim in painting it is the expression of a completely personal mood.”[i]

This exhibition, curated by Burchfield Scholar Nancy Weekly, reflects the range of Burchfield’s artworks, from wallpaper designs and prints to masterful paintings produced between 1921, when he moved to Buffalo, until a turning point in 1943, when at the age of 50 he experimented with yet another great stylistic change. Works from national museums, private collections, and the Burchfield Penney Art Center illustrate this critical period in Burchfield’s life and career—when he became one of the most famous artists in the country.

Lenders include the Charles E. Burchfield Foundation; Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio; DC Moore Gallery, New York, New York; Fitchburg Art Museum, Fitchburg, Massachusetts; Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York; and The Spiro Family Collection, Courtesy, Debra Force Fine Art, New York. Exhibition support was provided by John and Candace Darby.

Genius Loci: Burchfield’s Spirit of Place 1921-1943 will be on view through Sunday, March 31, 2019. It is presented by the Charles E. Burchfield Foundation and an Anonymous Foundation with additional support from John and Candace Darby.

Three programs are planned to enhance visitors’ experiences of the exhibition’s theme. All programs are free for Burchfield Penney Art Center members; SUNY Buffalo State students, faculty and staff; and visitors with museum admission. For more details, visit www.burchfieldpenney.org.

Sunday, January 27, 2018, 2 P.M. “Gardenville Memories”
Presenters: Jackie Albarella, Joan Albarella, Mary Ann Kresse, and Nancy Barlow
Moderator: Nancy Weekly

Sunday, February 24, 2018, 2 P.M. “Charles Burchfield’s Wallpaper Designs: Then and Now”
Presenters: Nancy Weekly, Traci Ackerman, and Philippa Radon 

Sunday, March 24, 2018, 2 PM “Seeing Buffalo through Charles Burchfield’s Eyes”
Presenters: Nancy Weekly, Burchfield Scholar and Steve Cichon, Journalist, Author, and Historian

The Burchfield Penney Art Center, accredited by the American Alliance of Museums and member of the Association of Art Museum Directors, is supported in part with public funds from Erie County and New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. Additional support is provided by SUNY Buffalo State, the Charles E. Burchfield Foundation, the Elizabeth Elser Doolittle Trust, the Mary A. H. Rumsey Foundation, the James Cary Evans Endowment, and the Center’s members and friends.

[i] Charles E. Burchfield, “Foreword,” Charles Burchfield. New York: American Artists Group, Inc., 1945.