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Charles Burchfield: In His Own Words in Artvoice

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Artvoice's Jack Foran on Charles E. Burchfield:In His Own Words. Read the article at

In His Own Words by Jack Foran

An excellent new Charles Burchfield exhibit at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center is a portrait of the artist In His Own Words. From his struggles with Army life to his artistic struggles with himself in the creation of his masterpieces, he wrote it all down—or a lot of it, enough of it—in scribbles and notes to himself that are pithy and poetic and more than occasionally grim.

A page of jottings about his time in the Army is like rough draft for a memoir. He was assigned to paint camouflage, but it turned out a frustrating task for the artist. “It was impossible for me to do straight camouflage,” he writes, “I had to have a poetic idea back of my design…complaints came in that my designs were too complicated for the men to carry out.” An example of his camouflage work on an equipment emplacement is shown. It looks a little like a preliminary sketch for a painting. Fortunately, his superior officer had some appreciation of his artistic talent. “Lt. Yarrow was more interested in pure painting than he was in camouflage, and took a keen interest in my sketches which I brought in.” Yarrow sounds like another military life misfit.

Detail sketches for larger works including further directions and exhortations to himself are displayed alongside the ultimate finished work. He doesn’t mince the words.

In conjunction with the major work Solitude, a remote area sylvan scene of large cliff rocks and a water pool, and dark, foreboding cave that may somehow be the water source, preliminary sketch sheets bear the following instructions: “Have all sorts of evil glowers under rocks, esp. all around pool, with evil reflection in water—a pool of death—sinister—evil lurking under logs, etc. Have trees in fantastic grotesque mood—be sure to have everything—rocks, cavities under rocks in grotesque mood…” On another sketch sheet for the same work, he says: “All through the picture, the stroke of agony.”

And doesn’t spare himself for the sake of his art. In conjunction with a Buffalo harbor looming grain elevators scene, the following instructions: “Get the wild sweep of March through the hard life of the harbor—do it like this—harder edges—yours are too mellow and soft—let the vigor & excitement of the wild day make the stroke more swift and nervous—let it distort proportion.”

Other notes not attached to artworks range from simple poetic (“the bright warmth of sunshine on my studio door like a benediction”) to Nietzschean philosophical (“Life is a steel-gray prison—the soul struggles to free itself and suffers horrible agony because it has had a vision”), to expression of frustration with his workaday responsibilities at the Birge factory, to the neglect of more artistic projects (“All things are now arrayed against you…You have a hard job ahead of you. Your daily task at the factory is enervating and softening—fight—fight—fight. Regain that harsh bold treatment of American life…”). Shades of the Army experience.

But above all reveal the struggle of the artist to articulate a vision that is only realized in the articulation: “Draw—draw—draw with paint. It is up to you now to carry on. Are you equal to the task? You cannot grow unless you attempt things beyond your powers…Surmount difficulties. Do not give in. You are perilously near it.”

A smaller, obverse complementary exhibit in the adjacent rotunda area is called Thinking in Visual Terms. It consists of Burchfield’s doodles, which he produced prolifically, on envelopes, correspondence, whatever scrap of paper was handy.

The doodles have a kind of Saul Steinberg quality (who may have gotten it from Burchfield, not Burchfield from Steinberg, but Steinberg’s doodles may be better known). Zigs and zags and squiggles with an art deco flavor. Floral forms and insects, usually symmetrical, and with large, prominent black dots that could be eyes or the nature mimicry eyes that can occur on butterfly or moth wings to make the insect look large and formidable. And Burchfield’s signature vitalist emanations semantic. Wave form representations.

But words here, too. A single sheet on which he jotted some notes for a brief talk he gave on his doodles on the occasion of the opening of the art center named for him, in 1966. He says: “Doodling in my case is a free exercise in abstraction, unpremeditated and therefore not a conscious expression…It is a compulsive sort of thing…[But] it should not be assumed that such doodles have no value…[Doodling] can be a form of subconscious thinking in visual terms. Some of my most useful abstract motifs…come from such seemingly idle diversions.”

Both exhibits were curated by Tullis Johnson and continue through March 17.