Rediscovering A Romantic Realist
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Heat Waves in a Swamp was featured in the Wall Street Journal on December 1, 2009. Read the article here.
Rediscovering A Romantic Realist
If you're from Buffalo, N.Y., as I am, you sort of assume that everyone knows Charles Burchfield's work. But even I hadn't realized that, in 1930, he was the first artist to be honored with a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art, shortly after its founding. Today Burchfield (1893-1967) isn't as known (and instantly recognizable) as some of his contemporaries—Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove, John Marin—which reflects more on the fickle fashions of the art world than on his impressive body of work. So rediscovering him in, of all places, Los Angeles comes as a special gift. An extraordinary exhibition at UCLA's Hammer Museum, curated by the noted sculptor Robert Gober, provides an opportunity to encounter Burchfield's watercolors and drawings with fresh eyes. He is revealed to be a deeply sensual romantic realist fully in tune with and reflective of the forces in abstract art so dominant during his productive years.
Born in Ohio, Burchfield studied at the Cleveland School of Art. By 1921 he had moved to Buffalo to work as a designer for Birge, the wallpaper company. He remained in the Buffalo area for the rest of his life, but lest that suggest obscurity, it's significant that Burchfield's work had been shown in New York, Chicago and London even prior to his MoMA exhibition.
For those who saw his work regularly in various exhibitions at the Albright (later Albright-Knox) Art Gallery, on whose board he served, it was instructive to see how neatly he fit into a collection that included Gauguin, Seurat, Picasso, Chagall, Soutine and the other early modern masters who have long distinguished the Buffalo museum—although in the gallery's 1979 collection catalog the artist doesn't merit the full-page treatment accorded many of his contemporaries (perhaps because by then a Burchfield Center had opened across the street; now the Burchfield Penney Art Center, it is the venue to which the exhibition will travel before arriving at the Whitney in New York next summer).
In a 1917 series of drawings, "Conventions for Abstract Thoughts," Burchfield is already expressing himself in the abstract forms that dominate most of his oeuvre, but instead of assembling them to describe nature or the buildings that he depicted with such affection, here they represent ideas such as fear, evil and insanity. And these early references remind the viewer that even the most felicitous of Burchfield's large views of nature, such as "Autumnal Fantasy" (1916-44) and "The Four Seasons" (1949-60), are alive with both the beauty and the threat inherent in the natural world. The landscape teems with a vast array of forms that the artist insists on our seeing. Even at their most lush, these exceptionally large watercolors carry weight we don't usually associate with the medium and often present an uncanny sensibility about the scene, whether urban or rural. Unlike Hopper, whose cityscapes might superficially seem similar, Burchfield's palette is never austere and occasionally feels wildly uncontrolled. A spooky sensibility permeates the exhibition, along with a multitude of delicious visual treats: His snow is like candy that wants to be licked off the painting, and a threatening tree might make you think of licorice. It's almost as if we were being plied with some kind of forbidden fruit.
After so much recent exposure to the wonders of O'Keeffe and Dove, it takes a bit of visual reorientation to get in sync with Burchfield. Unlike them, he wasn't helping us to see nature through discrete abstract forms, teaching us to see things we might have missed. Rather, this is an artist for whom almost everything functions as pattern and abstraction, even when there's a quality of almost casual realism, reassuring us that we see what he sees.
It's anything but casual, as we learn by watching the artist carefully work his way through a myriad of natural forms in some of the voluminous drawings that supplement the exhibition. Burchfield seems to have constantly doodled on whatever bits of paper lay at hand, and these fragments demonstrate how carefully he was working out the forms that later populate his paintings. There's a meticulous sense of composition and formal organization behind the nervous lines and apparently random bits of the world Burchfield presents to us. And it's very much a post-Cézanne sensibility as well, in which an imagined perspective moves toward the picture plane—confusing the sense of depth and further asserting the patterning that so intrigued the artist. In that sense, Burchfield seems closer to Matisse than to his American colleagues. These large (often 30-by-50-inch or more) watercolors on paper at first often read like oil paintings, making Burchfield's achievement more remarkable, considering the dexterity required in using watercolor. But moving through the exhibition, one also renews an appreciation for the versatility of a medium that can be at once so dense and so transparent.
In his notes for the MoMA exhibition catalog, Burchfield wrote descriptively of a painting: ". . . trees stood motionless as if yearning toward the sun; the roses drooped in the heat; all things seemed blended in one harmonious whole; I only was out of harmony." And of another: "A melancholy settles down over the child's world—he is as if in a tomb . . . the ghostly white petunias drip with sadness—unnamed terrors lurk in the black caverns under bushes and trees. . . ." It's the visualization of this Poe-like quality that permeates the Burchfield exhibition and that makes us grateful for the rediscovery of an important American master.
—Mr. Freudenheim, a former art museum director, served as the assistant secretary for museums at the Smithsonian Institution.