Sometimes I see an exhibition that completely changes the way I see an artist's work; this happened at the large retrospective of Henri Rousseau in 1985 at the Museum of Modern Art. I had thought of him as a naive painter of no great consequence, but seeing his grand, ambitious, beautiful paintings, of startling originality, made me realize he was an important modern painter. The reassessment can go in the other way, too, as it did for me with Jasper Johns after seeing the 1996 retrospective, also at the Museum of Modern Art. I found his paint quality inert, clumsy, and lacking in feeling or grace, and was sadly disappointed; it turned out that for me, his paintings worked better as ideas and reproductions than actual physical objects. (I know that some of you will be horrified by my appraisal.)
The show "Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield" now at The Whitney Museum of American Art until Sunday (!) was a revelation; the painter I'd believed was a modest expressive watercolorist who saw the world of nature as a positive, vivid force, was actually much more complex, interesting, and ambitious. In the first room of paintings, dating from around 1917, small works evidenced an ambivalent view of nature, with some showing feelings of darkness and dread. Burchfield's commentary on some of the paintings made it clear that a full range of emotions motivated him, including painful memories. Another thing I loved was his attempt to paint sound, as in the painting above; his use of shape and line calls up the intense buzzing of insects above and through wildly vigorous greenery.
The biggest surprise were the paintings from the Depression and war years, powerful dark images of working life; they are an interesting interlude in Burchfield's output, but turn out to be far from what painting finally meant to him.
During the war, when art wasn't selling very well, Burchfield felt that he could go back to some ideas that were more personal, and that might not have a market. He finished two remarkable large watercolors of the same subject: two streams flowing down two ravines, a promise of spring on one side, winter remaining on the other. Though they are closer to naturalism than his later works, there is a pulsing energy in these paintings, a sense of nature as a living force in both its light and dark moods. I don't know if Burchfield was a pantheist, seeing God in nature, but it seems that he might have been, and his God was both bounteous and bleak.
Could Burchfield have been thinking of T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland"––
––when working on this painting? It seems to show a prickly place of gloom, far from the coming days of spring. This is a monumental work that rivals the grandest of American landscapes, such as the works of Frederic Church or Albert Bierstadt.
|April is the cruellest month, breeding|
|Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing|
|Memory and desire, stirring|
|Dull roots with spring rain.|
Dandelions are glowing in fantastical moonlight, as expressive and full of movement as the insects floating above them. In this late work, Burchfield looks at the small plant and sees a large world, one that was supremely inventive and deeply personal. He kept journals and completed many volumes; on May 21, 1945 he wrote
It is as difficult to take in all the glory of the dandelion, as it is t0 take in a mountain, or a thunderstorm.He certainly succeeded.