Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), Storm Over Irondale, 1920; watercolor on paper, 24 1/4 x 29 1/4 inches; Image from the Burchfield Penney Art Center Archives
Blistering Vision: Charles E. Burchfield’s Sublime American Landscapes at the Burchfield Penney Art Center
Sunday, April 10, 2016
The Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo State in Buffalo, New York presents the groundbreaking exhibition Blistering Vision: Charles E. Burchfield’s Sublime American Landscapes, on view from July 8-October 23, 2016. Blistering Vision, which brings together more than 100 paintings and drawings by American master Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), examines Burchfield’s work as a bridge between the 19th century American naturalists and the emergence of the environmental movement of the late 20th century.
For 50 years, the Burchfield Penney has been dedicated to the vision of American master Burchfield and to the diverse art and artists of Western New York. The Center is commemorating this golden anniversary with full year of special exhibitions and events, beginning Friday, July 8 with Blistering Vision: Charles E. Burchfield’s Sublime American Landscapes, an exhibition that heralds a new interpretation of Burchfield's accomplishments.
In this collection of landscapes, Burchfield both celebrates nature’s beauty and examines its complex relationship with industrial development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and places the artist between the 19th century naturalists, such as John Burroughs and Henry David Thoreau and 20th century environmentalists including Rachel Carson and Stuart Udall.
“Burchfield’s aesthetic concern with nature was serious, and his paintings of the American landscape remain an important part of our understanding of the environmental challenges presented by industry in the first half of the twentieth century,” said Tullis Johnson, curator and manager of archives at the Burchfield Penney and curator of the exhibition.
Important works from public and private collections combined with collection and archival materials from the Charles E. Burchfield Archives at the Burchfield Penney present Burchfield’s concerns for the environment expressed from within the dialect of the tradition of the sublime, extending its reach into the new context of environmental aesthetics.
“It is amazing, at a moment when climate change looms over the planet’s future, when sustainability seems almost out of reach, when long-term thinking is in such short supply, that the beauty, directness and simplicity of a long-dead painter can seem so relevant,” writes Lucy R. Lippard in the introduction to the book which accompanies the exhibition. “Charles Burchfield anticipated the Anthropocene, was moved by the dire impacts of ‘progress’ and ‘modernity’ on the landscape at the same time that he saw their beauty. The artist’s visual and verbal ruminations on the chromatic glories of pollution resonate with current socio-esthetic issues.”
“Tullis Johnson’s deep read of Burchfield’s journals, letters and ephemera opens the field of thought about the artist, who in his most narrow of moments has been considered simply a special case regionalist. Johnson reveals far more about Burchfield,” writes Anthony Bannon, Ph.D., executive director of the Burchfield Penney. “From these documents, Johnson brought forth Burchfield’s unstated, early participation in what has become known in the 20th century as an Environmental Aesthetic - in which, with alchemical irony, the tables of industry, once considered a national boon, turn to become a global scourge to nature.”
About Charles Burchfield
Charles Ephraim Burchfield (1893-1967) was an American painter, best known for his watercolor landscapes. Burchfield was born April 9, 1893, in Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio. Five years later, his family moved to Salem, Ohio, where he graduated from high school as class valedictorian in 1911. He attended the Cleveland School of Art from 1912-1916 and studied with Henry G. Keller, Frank N. Wilcox, and William J. Eastman.
In 1921, Burchfield moved to Buffalo, New York, to work as a designer for the prominent wallpaper company, M.H. Birge & Sons Company. The next year he married Bertha Kenreich, with whom he raised five children. Fascinated by Buffalo's streets, harbor, railroad yards, and surrounding countryside, he adopted a more realistic artistic style. Burchfield's foray into realism lasted for several years.
He became friends with Edward Hopper in 1928, after Hopper’s essay on Burchfield appeared in the July issue of Arts magazine. Hopper wrote, "The work of Charles Burchfield is most decidedly founded, not on art, but on life, and the life that he knows and loves best.”
In 1929, the Frank K. M. Rehn Galleries in New York City began representing Burchfield, allowing the artist to resign from his job as a designer to paint full-time. During this period, his works show optimism and an appreciation of American life. In 1930, his work was the subject of the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s first one-person exhibition, Charles Burchfield: Early Watercolors 1916-1918. He was included in the Carnegie Institute’s The 1935 International Exhibition of Paintings, in which his painting The Shed in the Swamp (1933-34) was awarded second prize. In December 1936 Life magazine declared him one of America’s ten greatest painters in its article Burchfield’s America.
In the 1940s, Burchfield returned to ideas begun in early fantasy scenes that he often expanded into transcendental landscapes. Burchfield, always probing the mysteries of nature in an attempt to reveal his inner emotions, once stated, "An artist must paint not what he sees in nature, but what is there. To do so he must invent symbols, which, if properly used, make his work seem even more real than what is in front of him." He followed this artistic vision until the end of his life, creating some of his most mystical works.
Burchfield’s artistic achievement was honored with the creation of the Charles Burchfield Center at Buffalo State College on December 9, 1966, a month before his death on January 11, 1967. Today, the Burchfield Penney Art Center stands as a testament to the art and vision of Charles Burchfield and the artists of Western New York State, and the museum holds the largest public collection of works by Burchfield as well as more than 70 volumes of handwritten journals, 25,000 drawings and other ephemera including a scale re-creation of the artist’s Gardenville, New York studio.
President Lyndon B. Johnson eulogized the artist in a letter dated November 14, 1967. President Johnson wrote "He [Burchfield] was artist to America."
About the Burchfield Penney Art Center
The Burchfield Penney was established in 1966 on the campus of SUNY Buffalo State, the Burchfield Penney Art Center is dedicated to the art and vision of renowned American watercolorist Charles E. Burchfield (1893–1967) and the distinguished artists of Western New York state.
In 2008, The Center opened a $36 million freestanding facility in the heart of Buffalo’s Museum District. Designed by Gwathmey Siegel and Associates Architects, the museum includes more than 84,000 square feet dedicated primarily to galleries, as well as education and program space. It is home to the world’s largest collection of artwork and ephemera by Burchfield and a collection of more than 8,000 works by over 850 artists. The Burchfield Penney was the first LEED certified art museum in New York State and was featured by travel editors of the New York Times as one of the “44 Places to Go in 2009.”
In 2016, the Burchfield Penney Art Center celebrates 50 years as the Museum for Western New York Arts. The year is highlighted by groundbreaking exhibitions, dynamic programming, aggressive collecting and celebration of the cultural legacy of the region.