Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), Spring Rain in the Woods, 1950; Watercolor on paper, 30 x 40 inches; Private Collection
Charles E. Burchfield: Transitions’ Review: A Change of Seasons in the Wall Street Journal
Tuesday, August 20, 2019
Read what Judith H. Dobrzynski wrote in the Wall Street Journal at www.wsj.com
Weather forecasters called for rain and snow one day in 1954 when Charles E. Burchfield set out to paint in a favorite place in western New York that he called the “Big Woods.” Nonetheless, Burchfield (1893-1967) gleefully packed his watercolors, charcoal, paper and portable easel, intent on capturing “the clashing of spring and winter in the woods, sunlight and wind penetrating the deep gloom of winter.” He thrilled to the authenticity of being present in the storm while he worked.
The painting he made that day, “Oncoming Spring” (1954), more than any other work on view, successfully encapsulates the theme of “Charles E. Burchfield: Transitions,” the Burchfield Penney Art Center’s current exhibition. Burchfield had long harbored the idea of creating single artworks that would show the passage of time, with its changes in nature, sound and light effects. In “Oncoming Spring,” viewers can almost hear the fierce wind whipping through the trees, blowing from west (on the left) to east, bringing glints of sunlight in oddly shaped yellow glimmers through the darkened sky. The background, much lighter than the foreground, shows spring inevitably advancing from the distance in the future, just as the snow, slowly melting to reveal brown earth, and the deep green trees in the foreground signify the still-cold present.
All his life, Burchfield was nature’s bard, making dazzling, complex watercolor landscapes that usually teem with life. And yet there’s something unsettling about his work. His images, representational but incorporating abstractions, patterns and symbols, are often imbued with an undertone of menace or alienation. When his work was last given national attention in 2009-10—the artist Robert Gober curated the marvelous, expansive “Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield,” which toured to three cities—admiring critics labeled Burchfield’s output sensual, visionary and mystical but also spooky, eerie, even a bit mad.
To that list of adjectives, “Transitions” rightly adds “ambitious.” In this focused exhibit, curated by Burchfield scholar Nancy S. Weekly, Burchfield wants his art to do something, not just be something. He hit on the idea of transitions around 1915, after seeing Chinese scrolls, and began to experiment with “all-day sketches” (several are here) of changing weather conditions. “Untitled [Sunburst]” (1916) is an early attempt in watercolor. It reads from left to right, starting with rays from a rising sun; the white light grows richer and more golden as the day progresses, hits an orange zenith at sunset, then transitions to light gray after the sun sinks.
Burchfield takes a nonlinear approach to the clash of seasons in “View From Our Front Porch at Salem, Ohio” (1917), painted on May 23. At the painting’s center, the sun blazes white, tinged with orange, illuminating verdant trees. But that day, a freak storm hit, and Burchfield fills the foreground—again, signifying the present—with slashes of white rain and dabs of snowflakes driven by a strong wind ripping through the tree leaves. A dark cloud threatens to overshadow the sun and hints at thunder. It’s a striking work, very different from those his contemporaries were creating.
In the 1920s, Burchfield turned more realistic, with what he termed a “romantic” spirit. He returned to his time-span idea only occasionally until about 1943, when he turned 50 and wasn’t selling much. Seeking inspiration, Burchfield looked to his neat folders full of notes that chronicled his career and started thinking. His thoughts are visible in several drawings made for two of his most successful transitions paintings: “The Four Seasons” (1949-60), which is structured in four planes—with winter in the foreground and autumn in the far background—and owned by the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and “The Coming of Spring” (1917-43), at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sadly, neither finished work is here.
But the span of those dates shows how much Burchfield pondered this idea, a point also revealed in his raw drawings, which sometimes include notes to himself. In one (c. 1964-66), for a planned winter-to-spring image, he writes: “North woods—have snowflakes falling. More numerous at the bottom. (Thoreau—song of redwings” as of the last snowflakes of winter tinkled as they fall).”
Successful solo exhibitions go beyond obvious visual pleasures or provocations to reveal an artist’s inventiveness, and “Transitions” measures up on that score. It doesn’t, however, quite jell around its stated theme. A rotunda space is filled with a sequence of works that straightforwardly portray a season or month. Another section is devoted to Burchfield’s attempts to convey sound, with “Telegraph Music” (1949) as a prime example. In it, Burchfield limns the wires linking telegraph poles as broken, curvy lines to signal their reverberations, while the cawing of crows in the sky is amplified via gray, bird-shaped clouds.
Still, this shortcoming is like a misleading book title. “Transitions” provides a fresh way to view and appreciate the unique vision of an American master.
—Ms. Dobrzynski writes about the arts for the Journal and other publications.