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Burchfield returns to the stage with ‘Heat Waves in a Swamp’

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Heat Waves in a Swamp was featured in the Buffalo News on March 7, 2010.  Read the article here.

Burchfield returns to the stage with ‘Heat Waves in a Swamp’

Published:March 7, 2010

The name of Charles E. Burchfield carries a certain weight in Western New York.

For many local artists and art lovers, the prolific painter of fantastical watercolors is a master of the medium, a latter-day transcendentalist who joined his conflicted soul to the nature around him to create some of the most haunting, spellbinding and visionary paintings in the history of American art.

But beyond Western New York, the late Buffalo artist’s national reputation – once considerable – has been eroded by the artistic tides that have washed over the country since Burchfield’s death in 1967. Though the artist’s work appears in countless museums and private collections across America and still exerts a firm hold over the minds of many artists and aficionados, its grip on the popular imagination has weakened.

But a major new exhibition, which opens today in the Burchfield Penney Art Center, aims to change that. “Heat Waves in a Swamp,” which opened last October in the Hammer Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles, is the first full-scale retrospective of Burchfield’s work in more than 20 years, and the first ever to have appeared on the West Coast. It will travel to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City in June, providing a coast-to-coast refresher course in the art of an American master.

The show, which considers a huge swath of Burchfield’s career – from 1916 to 1966 – was curated by Robert Gober, a sculptor of international repute. He was tapped by Hammer Director Cynthia Burlingham to take a look at Burchfield’s life and works in the hopes of reviving the artist’s somewhat deflated international image.

“He’s very underappreciated, and I’ve always been interested in underdogs in art,” Gober said. “Like, why is this person underappreciated?”

Exhibitions curated by artists have become increasingly popular in recent years, as museums look for innovative ways to shake up traditional curatorial viewpoints. For Gober, whose meticulous sculptures and installations bear no obvious hallmarks of Burchfield’s influence, the show was an opportunity to delve into the history of an artist rather than to seek parallels between his work and Burchfield’s.

Gober said he was surprised to find “very, very smart people who had no idea who Burchfield was” and, conversely, completely unexpected Burchfield fanatics, like the Los Angeles-based conceptual photographer James Welling.

Theories abound as to the overlooked status of Burchfield’s work in the later part of the 20th century. Some surmise that Burchfield’s brief but much ballyhooed participation in the American Scene Painting movement of the 1920s and ’30s unfairly pegged him as a provincialist and a painter of pretty pictures to hang above the couch.

Others, like art critic Dave Hickey, who wrote an essay for

the exhibition catalog, posit that his decision to remain in Western New York, far from the New York City art world, played a role. It’s also fair to say that Burchfield’s label-defying paintings, coupled with constant recapitulations and shifts in the scope and style of his work, mark him as a figure who evaded wider fame largely by virtue of his own mild-mannered insistence on forging his own artistic path.

But this exhibition, which received accolades during its run in Los Angeles and is sure to garner even more significant attention during its stay at the Whitney Museum in the summer, is out to shake the dust from Burchfield’s image.

Ted Pietrzak, outgoing director of the Burchfield Penney, hailed the show as a major opportunity for Americans to re-evaluate the career of a prolific artist Buffalonians have long championed.

“It is being featured in two major population centers on the East and West coasts,” Pietrzak said of the exhibitions. The increased exposure, he added, results in “a kind of double-take that the public is having: Who is this artist, and why is Robert Gober interested in exploring his work?”

The show looks at several distinct phases of Burchfield’s career, beginning with a selection of important watercolors made in his youth in Salem, Ohio, and at the Cleveland Institute of Art, and ending with the ambitious and sometimes apocalyptic paintings of his final years. In between, the show considers Burchfield’s creation of a kind of symbolic hieroglyphics – dubbed “Conventions for Abstract Thought” – which captured the feelings of childlike dread, fear and morbidity that would permeate much of his later work. It also chronicles the period during which Burchfield produced haunting, picturesque paintings that came to be assumed into the American Scene Painting movement.

In the wake of an important exhibition of his early watercolors at the just-opened Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1930, Burchfield turned his attention back to the fantastical landscapes for which he is beloved by artists and curators today. The show contains many of these paintings, some of which were expanded from earlier canvases and others which were entirely new. “Heat Waves in a Swamp” – named for a Burchfield painting that does not appear in the show – also takes a look at Burchfield’s constant revisions to his canvases, many of which were completed over decades. The artist’s sketches and doodles are also included, as is an exhibition of his wallpaper designs for the Buffalo company M. H. Birge & Sons.

The final segment of Burchfield’s career also receives plenty of wall space. And to hear Burchfield experts tell it, this material produces the most acute awe and wonder of any other period of the artist’s long and productive career.

“There’s no question that the latter stage of the artist’s life is the most powerful,” Pietrzak said, adding that he is amazed at the degree to which Burchfield reinvented himself in his later years to produce perhaps the most compelling and ambitious paintings of his career.

In his catalog essay, Hickey characterized Burchfield as an artist haunted by visions of fear and dread, carried over from his childhood in Ohio. He praised the watercolorist’s works for their emotional depth, reflecting on the confluence of glorious spectacle and haunting dread that appears even in some of his most luminous watercolors.

“In any gathering of Burchfield’s work, there is more grace and elegance than we can possibly internalize in the time we are allowed and more moral emptiness than we would ever wish to,” Hickey wrote.

No one can say what effect “Heat Waves in a Swamp” will have on the the national reputation of Buffalo’s favorite artist. But Hickey, like the rest of the exhibition’s organizers, is hoping for the best.

“In the aftermath of this exhibition, I hope, Burchfield will be more aptly regarded as the spine that runs through the history of American art in the first two-thirds of the 20th century, an expedition bound for the post-World War II apocalypse in American art,” Hickey wrote.

And that’s a sentiment Pietrzak, who will end his 12-year run as the Burchfield Penney’s director in October, can get behind.

“I believe that Burchfield’s name will be as recognizable as Frank Lloyd Wright and Frederick Law Olmsted as one of our nationally, internationally important geniuses that is associated with this region,” Pietrzak said. “This exhibition allows that as a possibility.”