October 13, 2010

Charles Burchfield

Burchfield, The Insect Chorus, 1917. Opaque and transparent watercolor with ink, graphite, and crayon on off-white paper, 20 × 15 7⁄8 in.

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.

Burchfield, Black Iron, 1935. Watercolor on paper, 28 1⁄8 x 40 in.

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.

Burchfield, Two Ravines, 1934–43. Watercolor on paper, 361⁄2 x 61 1⁄8 in.

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.

Burchfield, An April Mood, 1946–55. Watercolor and charcoal on joined paper, 40 × 54 in.

Could Burchfield have been thinking of T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland"––
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
––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.

Burchfield, Dandelion Seed Heads and the Moon, 1961–65. Watercolor, gouache, charcoal, and graffito on lightly textured white wove paper faced on ¼-inch thick laminated gray cardboard, 56 × 39 5⁄8 in.

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.


  1. I'm so glad you got to this exhibit. It was the sole reason for a trip down a few weeks ago; I've been a great admirer of Burchfield for many years. And I thought the exhibit was well done (mostly). I'm grateful for it.

    I spent a long time in front of the dandelion painting. And the house fire, and the night with insects and stars. He painted sound, heat, energy -- who could do that?!

  2. I agree! it was one of those exhibits that opens up rather than closes an artist's oeuvre. rare. I got a sense of his whole trajectory. he was looking and feeling and wrestling with the times, whether one likes his results or not. loved your Eliot April quote in there too.

  3. I am coming to like Burchfield more and more as I get older, but for different reasons. When I was younger I liked the decorative quality of many of his works which I now see as expressive and more complex. And, of course, it's me that's changed, not the paintings. "Dandelions" is wonderful and reminds me (on some level) of the painting by Samuel Palmer titled "Garden in Shoreham."

  4. Susan, I feel grateful to some artist friends who told me this was an important show, so I made sure to see it. I don't know about you, but the part I thought unnecessary was the room filled with his doodles. I too loved that huge painting filled with light of insects and stars.

    rappel, I agree that a good part of the joy of seeing this show was in seeing the arc of his work, from visionary to realist and back again. And the "cruelest month" quote came to me as I was writing the post.

    Linda, oh wow, of course Samuel Palmer is perfect to think of as precedent to Burchfield. There was a terrific Palmer show at the Met a couple of years ago.

  5. The part of the doodles I liked best, and none of these got into the catalog, was the card game scores. "C" and "B" and rows of numbers, in the middle of all those odd figures.
    As for those drawings, did he just do those w/out thinking (my definition of a doodle), or were they part of that language as specific as several early diagrams showed (and they were all dark meanings -- "morbid brooding" and the like)? I couldn't take them that way; the paintings seem not at all to be coded or formulaic.
    The cartoons and notes on the Rocks and Sun painting were terrific to see, I thought, and the process drawings of expansions. What a way to work!

    I disliked the box-room completely covered w/ sunflower wallpaper. And with that wonderful/horrifying painting of the house fire on top of it, which I just ached to see on a plain wall. I don't think Mr. Burchfield would have approved of that room! Panels of the wallpapers would have been very interesting, and I would have liked to've sen more of the design and printing process, though that would just have been to satisfy my curiosity about such things and not the point of the show at all.

  6. Susan, I agree completely about that wallpaper room; though I found it fascinating that Burchfield worked in design, covering all 4 walls was a mistake; the paintings had to fight with it, especially the best of that group, of the fire.

    I found the early diagrams interesting as a window into Burchfield's thinking at the time, which was much darker than I expected. But I'm with you in that his paintings were not formulaic. As for the doodles, after reading your comment, I wish I could go back and look at them again, or even better, look at them with you.

  7. Altoon, I don't know if you'd see more, but I know _I_ would have seen more if I'd been anywhere near you!
    Marcy Hermansader was the first person who told me about him. I didn't like the work at first -- there was something a bit clunky about the brush work, that I now find natural. It's like getting to know someone with an unusual face; you don't see everything right off because you're noticing the oddness. Later you wonder what you found so odd.
    Now I have to go find Samuel Palmer, whom I don't think I know.

  8. Among your many talents is your ability to open our eyes and engage us with such a varied array of artwork . You make a wonderful teacher of art history!

  9. thanks, A.; I most often feel that I'm teaching myself by writing for this blog.

  10. Oh Altoon, I was feeling just too tired and dulled to think I could enjoy anyone's blog,but I came to you and was so surprised there was so much to see. Loved this one on Burchfield, what you said, the images, given and the comments between you and Susan. Rich, perked me up a bit, but now I must find the bed...be back tomorrow.

  11. hi Maggie, I'm so glad you liked this Burchfield post; thinking of his work does enrich our day.

  12. So glad I found your post of Burchfield. This guy manages to keep a child's magic alive in his very "grown up" paintings.