Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), Winter Sunburst, 1960; watercolor, charcoal, and white chalk on joined paper mounted on board, 33 x 39 3/4 in. (83.8 x 99 cm); DC Moore Gallery, New York

Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), Winter Sunburst, 1960; watercolor, charcoal, and white chalk on joined paper mounted on board, 33 x 39 3/4 in. (83.8 x 99 cm); DC Moore Gallery, New York

Why we exhibit unfinished works by Charles E. Burchfield

Monday, March 2, 2015

Head of Collections and Burchfield scholar Nancy Weekly cites the original mission of the Burchfield Penney Art Center among the reasons that the museum exhibits and publishes art that is technically “unfinished,” including large watercolor compositions. In short, the museum is dedicated to collecting, interpreting, and exhibiting all of Burchfield’s work to understand his ideas and his process in art-making. His pictorial ideas that are well articulated, although not fully realized, still appeal to a contemporary audience eager to understand Burchfield’s legacy.

This philosophical perspective established the goals and purpose of the museum’s creation. With the approval of the artist, his family, and the museum’s founders, the concept for a museum dedicated to Charles E. Burchfield was publically stated at the inaugural ceremony on December 9, 1966:

The Charles Burchfield Center, a gallery devoted to the exhibition of major works and memorabilia of Western New York’s world-famous watercolorist, occupies the former Library of the Buffalo State University College in Rockwell Hall. The Center will feature continuous exhibits of significant works by the artist, including paintings and sketches as well as his journals and writings, together with publications concerning him and comprehensive photographic records of his work. The current plan is to hold a number of special exhibits every year, each organized about a particular period of the artist’s work, a special theme or specific collections lent by private owners or institutions. In the periods between the special exhibits, works from the permanent collection in the Center will be featured, supplemented by loans from other sources. Items in the permanent collection will be available for viewing and study at all times.

One exhibition in the museum’s rich history that focused entirely on “unfinished” works was Charles E. Burchfield: Ecstatic Light. It was co-organized and presented in New York and Buffalo by the DC Moore Gallery and the Burchfield-Penney Art Center in 2007 to take a focused look at many of his grand, late paintings in progress. Quotes from the exhibition catalogue that address why we exhibit unfinished works include the following:

Excerpt from the Foreword by Bridget Moore

…This collection of late, never-before-exhibited paintings explores the ambition and goals which compelled the artist to enlarge the scale and scope of his later work. Burchfield’s driving inspiration is effectively reiterated in the anecdote of a gallery-goer who approached the artist at one of his openings and asked: “Why Mr. Burchfield do you now feel the need to work to large?” to which he replied, “Because, I have more to say.”

…There is a striving and persistence in these works that is exhilarating to witness. There is also a sheer physicality of mark-making that keeps them particularly fresh and in many ways very relevant to contemporary painting today.

On another level, a substantial part of the drama and exuberance inherent in these compositions is achieved through the artist’s orchestrations of brilliant and evanescent color. It is, in fact, these distinctive plays of light and range of tonalities evidenced throughout Burchfield’s work that compose the defining ‘ecstatic light,’ eloquently alluded to by Nancy Weekly in her incisive catalogue essay.

Excerpt from the essay, “Charles Burchfield: Ecstatic Light” by Nancy Weekly:

Many of Burchfield’s greatest compositions were created using these methods for breathing new life into paintings started in an earlier period. This exhibition presents works in progress that not only demonstrate Burchfield’s working techniques, but illuminate his mature conceptions about an idealized landscape that attests to a humanistic understanding of earthly experience. These windows into his mode of thinking appeal to a contemporary aesthetic. Energy emanates from his quavering lines, mysterious symbolic patterns, and invigorating yellow light. He considered his composite “two-period pictures” to be among his best and even described his techniques in a newspaper article in 1953, which showed the artist altering Ravine in Spring and Mid-June as a successful finished painting. He cited Rembrandt as an artist who also pieced paper in an etching he had seen in New York. As he later told his friend and patron, Dr. Theodor W. Braasch, “sometimes the better ones have to evolve over a period of years.”