Place, memory, and emotion are closely intertwined in the paintings of Charles Burchfield (1893–1967), at a exhibition currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Thoroughly grounded in the landscapes and neighborhoods of Western New York, Burchfield meticulously observed and freely interpreted places that others might overlook—sites not conventionally scenic or remarkable—transforming them into highly charged works of art. Reflecting a personal sensibility that evolved over six decades, Burchfield’s oeuvre constitutes an important chapter in the history of American art, fully equal to those articulated by Albert Pinkham Ryder, Winslow Homer, Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Joan Mitchell, Fairfield Porter, and others who forged a contemplative visual language from the places they inhabited and recollected.
(left) Charles Burchfield (1893–1967),Yellow Afterglow, July 31, 1916, Watercolor and graphite on paper, 20” x 14”, Burchfield Penney Art Center, Buffalo, Gift of Tony Sisti, 1979. Fine Arts Magazine. Whitney Museum of American Art.
Having lived and painted in Burchfield’s locale for more than 20 years, I was particularly pleased this winter to visit a fascinating new exhibition, Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield. Curated by the artist Robert Gober (b. 1954) for UCLA’s Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, where it premiered in October, this groundbreaking show is now at the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC) on the campus of Buffalo State College, and will next visit New York City’s Whitney Museum of American Art.
As the first major exhibition of Burchfield’s work since 1995, Heat Waves is notable for the fresh perspective offered by Gober, who is widely known for provocative, exquisitely crafted sculptures that evoke the complicated mysteries of domestic life. Ann Philbin, who directs the Hammer Museum, invited Gober to organize the show after she discovered a Burchfield drawing in the artist’s home. Setting aside his own work for a full year, Gober seized this opportunity to investigate a master he had long admired, and traveled to Buffalo to delve into the Burchfield archives at BPAC. The handsome exhibition catalogue has been enhanced by several authors, including BPAC curator Nancy Weekly and Cynthia Burlingham, respectively director of the Grunwald Center and the Hammer’s deputy director of collections, who contributed important insights on the artist’s life and use of watercolor.
Encompassing paintings, drawings, journals, wallpaper designs, doodles, and ephemera, Heat Waves reanimates Burchfield’s work and reframes our image of him as a family man painting in his backyard studio in Gardenville, New York, insulated by brushes and sketchbooks. Instead it reveals the complex world of an artist who had a profound appreciation for literature and classical music, and who lamented the problems of success in the art world even as he benefitted from its privileges.
Charles Ephraim Burchfield was born in Ashtabula, Ohio, a small town on Lake Erie’s southeastern shore that was shaped by the burgeoning coal, steel and railroad industries. Burchfield’s father died when he was four, prompting his mother to return with her six children to Salem, Ohio, where her family provided support. Young Charles found consolation in the sequences of nature that played out in the surrounding woodlands and byways. There he collected moths and botanical specimens, and made drawings of anemones and wrens in the grape arbor. From adolescence right into his early seventies, Burchfield kept journals that provide a counterpoint to his paintings; they reveal the rich interior life of an artist who struggled with financial uncertainties, notated bird songs, and kept meteorological notes on a calendar, because, as he wrote later, it was “important as you look back over a month what kind of weather you had.”
In 1916, upon graduation from what is now the Cleveland Institute of Art, Burchfield won a scholarship to the National Academy of Design in New York, but he quit after his first day of life class there. (He’d had enough of art school and never warmed to the figure.) A fortuitous encounter with Mary Mowbray-Clarke, co-owner of the Sunwise Turn Bookshop, led to Burchfield’s first significant patronage, followed by connections with galleries such as Montross, where he showed for several years before moving to the Frank Rehn Gallery. Returning to his beloved Salem late in 1916, Burchfield took an accounting job and embarked upon what he later called his “Golden Year,” during which he produced more than 200 paintings and cultivated many of the themes that came to fruition subsequently.
In 1921, Burchfield moved to Buffalo to design wallpaper for M.H. Birge & Sons. He had married Bertha Kenreich, with whom he went on to have five children. Bertha was an ideal artist’s partner, unflinchingly supporting his decision in 1929 to leave Birge in order to paint full-time, and becoming a devoted archivist of his reviews. Their marriage provided a foundation of joy and security, enabling Burchfield to weather the storms of self-criticism and illness, and to continue taking artistic risks right into old age. Over the next three decades, he achieved professional success through sales, exhibitions, and awards, always painting what was close at hand: the railyards, ravines, and vernacular architecture of Western New York.
Burchfield dismissed critics’ characterization of him as a Regionalist, however. Although he drew inspiration from his environs, he worked deliberately to express the deeper, universal forces suggested by place. Indeed, few of Burchfield’s titles refer to specific locations. Historian Kenneth Ames writes that “Place, in any petty political sense of the term, is not what Burchfield was about. It was more important for him to live in a comfortable and manageable world… Western New York gave him… easy access to Buffalo… and to the open countryside. And it gave him his own backyard.”
As a painter who spent my early years in Ashtabula and later lived 15 miles from Burchfield’s studio, my thinking has long been informed by his art. In 1985, for example, I helped reframe several Burchfield drawings that were being prepared for auction from Buffalo’s Sisti Gallery. (Tony Sisti often exhibited works by Burchfield and made a significant bequest of them to the BPAC.) Some of the drawings I handled contained notes the artist had made to himself. These were executed rapidly, as if Burchfield couldn’t wait to get things down because there was so much more to see, and to be remembered back in the studio. Burchfield’s lyrical, note-to-self drawings were never an end in themselves, but rather a means of preserving his visual memories. Looking at them day after day, I came to understand how a drawing might remain a flexible scaffold upon which a painting could be developed, rather than becoming overly polished or virtuosic.
In addition, the poetry in Burchfield’s evocative titles formed a parallel in my mind with those of the Armenian-American painter Arshile Gorky (c. 1902-1948), who also relished music, and drew upon childhood memories of gardens. Titles such as The Sphinx and the Milky Way, Cornfield of Health, One Year the Milkweed, Song of the Telegraph, and Yellow Afterglow reveal a shared appreciation for language and metaphor that is often embedded within a painter’s experience.
Painted in Salem the year Burchfield graduated from art school, Yellow Afterglow  deftly captures the transitional moments after a summer rainstorm. From his backyard, looking past the tobacco-colored house toward East Fourth street, Burchfield paints a sulfur-yellow sky enclosed by dusky green and black masses of foliage. Menacing silhouettes of telephone poles and trees seem to hiss with electrical energy. The graphic play of light and dark in this composition reflects the artist’s awareness of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints and Chinese landscape paintings, both of which he had seen in Cleveland. Using opaque watercolor (gouache), Burchfield expertly controlled his degrees of transparency, simultaneously suggesting the permanent and ephemeral aspects of weather and light. Not surprisingly, watercolor would always remain his preferred medium.
My own paintings are derived from observations of weather and water as carriers of the transformative power of nature. The fluctuating tides and textures of Lake Erie, the massive ore boats that move toward and from its horizon, and its daily variations of color constitute my earliest memories. Now, whether I am working along the Hudson River, in the Pacific Northwest, Virginia, or Maine, I think about how water influences and mirrors its surroundings.
For example, I recently painted Infant Stream/Wappinger Creek and Turning Course in response to a tributary of the Hudson that traverses 36 miles of woods and marshland. With these works, I strove to translate the spatial, ecological, and geological qualities of my chosen sites into a visual equivalent of the watershed landscape that goes beyond the place itself. In this respect, Burchfield’s interpretations of the contained spaces of thickets and streams—and also his ambition for an artwork to transcend the specificity of its source—still resonate powerfully for me.
A Vision More Timely than Ever
Although Burchfield suffered periods of illness and self-doubt during his last two decades, the paintings of this period are imbued with a cosmological majesty and a visionary sense of awe. Consciously revisiting the work of his formative years—which he believed to be more improvisatory and less encumbered by realism—he created larger works that were literally reconstructed from earlier paintings. For example, The Four Seasons (1949–60) is composed of several sheets of paper added to an earlier, central sketch. This exuberant picture conflates the seasons in a single, symphonic image, framing space through a telescoping stand of animated trees and invented flowers. Trees in the distance form a Gothic portal—essentially Burchfield’s private cathedral of nature. Cadmium red and yellow brushstrokes surround the trees and radiate from the sun, producing an otherworldly glow that might be read as life-giving warmth or destructive fire.
Many paintings from this late period express a dual vision of redemption and apocalypse, a reminder that life and death are often in close proximity, and never further than one’s own backyard. In our own era, which seemingly suggests that enlightenment is to be attained only by journeying great distances, now is an ideal moment to re-consider Burchfield’s remarkable—albeit more intimate—vision and achievement.
by Rebecca Allan
Rebecca Allan is a New York-based painter whose work examines the landscape and aspects of music. She is also the head of education at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Material Culture. A solo exhibition of her recent work will be held in September 2010 at Gallery 2/20 in New York.
You can see more of her work at www.rebeccaallan.com
Editor’s Note: Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City www.whitney.org , now, through October 10, 2010
This article first appeared in the April 2010 issue of Fine Art Connoisseur Magazine and is presented here with their permission. Visit their site at www.fineartconnoisseur.com
Endnote: 1. Yellow Afterglow does not appear in the show, Heat Waves in a Swamp.