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The Visionary Charles Burchfield

Thursday, October 1, 2009

In 1930, at the age of 37, Charles Burchfield was given a one-man exhibition by the Museum of Modern Art. While by no means indifferent to the honor and in no way dissatisfied with the way his work was presented, the artist didn’t trouble himself to make the trip from his home in Buffalo, N.Y., to attend his own show. To MoMA director Alfred H. Barr Jr., he wrote, somewhat sheepishly, “I wish I had been able to come to the exhibit, but found it was impossible just now.” Psychologically impossible, that is: Burchfield’s shyness and introverted nature, coupled with his Midwestern, small-town aversion to the metropolis, conspired to keep him out of the limelight.

In a way, Burchfield, who died in 1967, is still out of the limelight. While he is definitely established in the canon of 20th-century American art, he remains a classic example of the “artist’s artist.” His work, almost entirely in watercolor and ranging from dreamlike, almost hallucinogenically poetic landscapes to gritty, realistic depictions of 1920s and ’30s American life, is well known to cognoscenti but not to the general museum-going public. A major retrospective opening this month at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield (Oct. 4, 2009 through Jan. 3, 2010) intends to help fix that and bring this unusual painter the broader attention he deserves. Meanwhile, a more narrowly focused show, The Architecture of Painting: Charles Burchfield, 1920, at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo through Nov. 29, aims to prove that Burchfield belongs squarely in the mainstream of modernism, where he has not always been situated.

The Hammer exhibition should have no problem getting attention, not least because its curator is the sculptor Robert Gober, a high-profile contemporary artist who represented the U.S. at the Venice Biennale in 2001. While Gober has curated before, this is his first monographic loan exhibition. Visitors to the Hammer shouldn’t overstrain their eyes looking for a link between Gober’s work and Burchfield’s, though. In his introduction to the catalogue, the sculptor writes that “even if I made a mental list of influences…I have never heard the name Charles Burchfield come from my brain.” The seed for the show was planted when Hammer director Ann Philbin visited Gober’s house and saw two Burchfield pencil sketches on the wall. She suggested that Gober might help bring Burchfield’s work to younger artists, whom the Hammer considers a special constituency.

So why is Burchfield comparatively obscure? One reason is his chosen medium. “I think that a lot of people haven’t seen his work because he worked primarily in watercolor,” says Cynthia Burlingham, deputy director of collections at the Hammer and editor of the exhibition catalogue. “Institutions can’t exhibit watercolors for long periods of time because they are fugitive and might fade.” Burchfield himself was sensitive to this issue; in the 1950s the normally mild-mannered artist became irate when the Cleveland Museum of Art denied him permission to restore the faded mauve in a portion of his 1917 painting Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night,saying that they were afraid he might try to alter the composition, as well.

Despite the risks, Burchfield always stuck with watercolor, partly out of long habit and partly because he treasured its spontaneity in use, especially when working outdoors. While his early paintings exploit the medium’s natural transparency, during the 1920s he developed a new technique of laying on opaque colors with great density, to achieve an almost oil-like solidity. And toward the end of his career, Burchfield greatly enlarged his paper size, far beyond what is usual for watercolor, to give his paintings a monumental scope reminiscent of the watercolors of Turner—although, according to Burlingham, “there is no evidence that Burchfield ever saw a Turner.”

Another, deeper reason that Burchfield is “curiously unappreciated,” says Burlingham, is the sheer multifariousness of his work. “He had different phases in his work; it’s hard to pin him down.” Bridget Moore of DC Moore, the New York gallery that represents the Burchfield estate, agrees. “He had so much creativity and inventiveness,” she says, “which is why he is harder to pigeonhole than a lot of other artists. There’s no one iconic picture, like Hopper’s Nighthawks.”

Burchfield’s work falls into roughly three periods: In the first, from 1915 to 1920, nature was his exclusive subject, and he rendered the landscape around his hometown of Salem, Ohio, in a heightened, visionary style that is basically representational but includes abstract and symbolic elements, including a strange system of what the artist termed “conventions for abstract thought”—glyphs of his own invention meant to represent certain emotional states that he worked into otherwise realistic scenes. In his middle period, during the 1920s and ’30s through the early years of World War II, Burchfield turned away from this inner world of communion with nature to engage the social and political realities of his time, painting realistic small-town and industrial scenes in an almost documentary vein. His work in this period is generally grouped with the American Scene school of Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry. Finally, in 1943 he returned to the visionary, fantastic mode of his youth, but with new techniques and grander ambitions.

While acknowledging these transitions, Burchfield himself negated the idea that any fundamental change had taken place. In the introductory essay to a small 1945 volume of his work in the American Artists Group series of monographs, he wrote, “It has been customary to speak of the work of my early career—1916 to 1920—as romantic, the next period—the twenties and the early thirties, as Scenist, and the present as a blend of the two. There is some truth in this classification, but like all generalizations, it does not tell the whole story. It seems to me that thru [sic] all my work there has been the romantic trend, more obvious perhaps in the early years but never lost sight of.”

Those early years were absolutely formative for Burchfield’s art. Born in 1893 in Ashtabula Harbor, in northeastern Ohio on the shore of Lake Erie, he moved with his family to nearby Salem after his father, a tailor, died when Charles was eight. Exploring alone in the woods and swamps, the young Burchfield was fascinated by nature and unusually susceptible to sensory impressions, both visual and aural. (Later on, as an artist, he would try to try to render sounds, such as the wind or the chirping of birds and insects, in brushstrokes.) While still in his teens, he started keeping a deeply introspective, often eloquently phrased journal of his thoughts and impressions, which he kept up to the time of his death. Nostalgia was a major element of his personality and a key ingredient of his art; as early as 1915, when he was just 22, Burchfield was writing in his journal, “My mind feeds on the poetry of past events.” To illustrate and document the artist’s creative process, the Hammer show includes numerous journals and even doodles he made over the years, as well as other pieces of ephemera.

In 1912 Burchfield enrolled in the Cleveland School of Art, intending to become a commercial illustrator. During his four years there, the professor with whom he had the most contact was Henry Keller, head of the design department and also a modernist painter who exhibited at the 1913 Armory Show. In 1916, Burchfield, having completed his course of study in Cleveland, moved to New York to attend the National Academy of Design. He lasted literally one day there, leaving in disgust after realizing that he would be required to draw the figure from casts of classical sculpture. (Throughout Burchfield’s oeuvre, human figures are almost absent, unless they appear as tiny elements dwarfed by nature or architecture, in a manner reminiscent of the Chinese painting Burchfield admired.) While New York was not for him, he did establish a relationship with a gallery and bookshop, The Sunwise Turn, that continued to sell his work into the 1920s. Returning to Salem, Burchfield hit his stride as a painter; later he would call 1917 his “golden year.” In 1918 he was conscripted into the army, using his skills to design camouflage for the war effort.

In 1921 Burchfield moved to Buffalo to work as a designer for M.H. Birge & Sons, a wallpaper manufacturer. Although he was steadily exhibiting and selling paintings, he needed the job to support his growing family, which would eventually number five children. Burchfield excelled at wallpaper design and eventually became chief designer, but he disliked the work. Nonetheless, he would go on to make several forays into the realm of commercial art, most notably a series of illustrations he made in 1936 for Fortune magazine, depicting railroads in western Pennsylvania. He was not above doing the occasional advertising assignment; the Hammer show features a Johnnie Walker whiskey ad he did in 1954.

In 1929 Burchfield got exclusive representation from the Frank Rehn Galleries in New York. That enabled him to quit M.H. Birge, bringing to a close what he considered a barren period in his artistic life; his biographer, John I.H. Baur, referred to it as “the wallpaper years.” From then on, despite the Depression, Burchfield was able to support himself entirely by painting. His reputation grew steadily; in 1936 Timemagazine named him as one of America’s 10 greatest artists (although another critic referred to him, a bit condescendingly, as “Edward Hopper on a rainy day”). Burchfield’s secluded life in Gardenville, a suburb of Buffalo, became an integral part of his artistic persona: a Thoreau-like dreamer, a provincial American, an “inlander,” as Baur called him. He lived and painted in Gardenville for the rest of his life.

What Burchfield called the “romantic” thread running through his work is really a visionary quest, a desire to enable the viewer to see the world as Burchfield saw it. Sometimes nature filled him with ecstasy, sometimes with fear, always with wonder. Even his most realistic paintings are laden with emotion. “There’s a sort of pendulum swing in his work,” says Moore. In his journals, she explains, Burchfield agonized over whether he was capable of capturing the beauty he saw. “So he does a realistic rendition, which he feels doesn’t capture it, then makes it more imaginative, then goes back. He was always looking, keeping it vital.”

The Hammer show illustrates Burchfield’s development by reuniting two landscapes,Coming of Spring (1917–43) and Two Ravines (1934–43) that haven’t been seen in the same place since 1943, when they were in the artist’s studio. Both depict the same scene in the countryside around Salem. “Coming of Spring was started in 1917,” says Burlingham, “but it was a smaller piece of paper, and in the early ’40s Burchfield started to get the idea of expanding his paintings and reworking them on a larger scale, with more chiaroscuro and layering. He went back and forth between that and Two Ravines, and that’s when he really began to develop the style he would follow for the rest of his life. The two paintings were completed within about a month of each other.”

This expansion technique worked by beveling the edges of a painting to a 45-degree angle, adding strips of identically beveled paper around it so the edges were flush, and then pasting the whole thing to a piece of board. In this way, Burchfield took early ideas, expressed in paintings that measured some 15 or 20 inches on one side, and expanded and corrected them into grander conceptions that accordingly could measure up to 60 inches.

The show at the Burchfield Penney—which originated this spring at DC Moore—complements the Hammer exhibition by micro-focusing on one small window of time in Burchfield’s career, 1919–20, during which Burchfield himself concentrated on painting architecture, mainly domestic houses. The curators, Michael D. Hall, Nannette Maciejunes and Karli R. Wurzelbacher, believe these paintings demonstrate that early in his career, Burchfield had already absorbed the lessons of modernism and was by no means an isolated, self-invented primitive, as has often been claimed.

“Despite the fact that his foremost champion and biographer, John I.H. Baur, claimed that Burchfield had little or no exposure to Modernism in school,” writes Hall in his catalogue essay, “and that even after graduation, ‘it was several years before Burchfield saw a Cézanne, Van Gogh, or Picasso,’ the early pictures themselves argue otherwise.” The curators of this show see clear Cubist influence in the “highly rigorous geometric grids” of these paintings, as well as in the flattening of space that they exhibit. They speculate that Burchfield would have had exposure to Post-Impressionists such as Gauguin at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and that he was schooled in modernist principles by Keller, “a tireless advocate for all forms of radical and new art.” Also, Burchfield on at least one occasion visited the studio of the Cleveland modernist William Sommer, who incorporated Cubist space into his work. Hall takes a contrarian approach to Burchfield’s autobiographical writings: “I have long been skeptical of Burchfield’s journals….Like many early modern artists, Burchfield was something of a mythologizer. Throughout his life he carefully crafted the romanticized self that speaks from his journals.” In contrast to the Hammer show, this one invites viewers to look at the art on its own terms, abstracted from biography.

The market for Burchfield’s work is strong, although the fact that he worked in watercolor puts a certain downward pressure on prices. “People should realize that Burchfield is very underpriced vis-à-vis some of his contemporaries, like Hopper,” says Moore. “The difference is that he worked on paper, and that has artificially lowered the prices. If you buy a Burchfield, you’re getting a fully realized end product as opposed to a drawing that led up to a painting.” The large late works are the most desirable now; a top example would sell for up to $1.5 million if available, according to Moore. The auction record for a Burchfield is $1,329,000 for A Dream of Butterflies, from 1962, at Sotheby’s New York in November 2007. Early works start as low as $25,000 or $30,000, and go up to about $150,000. Tastes change—the middle, or American Scene, period used to be the most desirable, with the result that most have gone into museum collections. Moore points out that scarcity in general is starting to be a problem, despite Burchfield’s relatively prolific output. New York dealer Bernard Goldberg observes that prices overall have gone up “by about a factor of five in the last dozen years.”

Moore suggests that the ongoing appeal of Burchfield has a lot to do with the way the artist revealed the unusual hiding in the ordinary. Even if a painting was done from his backyard, it seems to depict a fantastic, spiritual universe. “The brilliance of light coming through trees, that shimmering light, resonates,” she says. “It’s very reverential about nature, and has a basis in something that feels true to people.”

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