Charles Burchfield

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Charles Burchfield writing at his desk, by William Doran (Photo: Charles E. Burchfield Archives, Gift of William Doran)

For years I had Charles Burchfield misfiled under “Depression Era Regional Artists” along with Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood. It wasn’t a file I spent much time rifling through, so my error wasn’t discovered until I saw the show of his work curated by artist Robert Gober in 2010 at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Whitney in New York. (An earlier post detailing that revelatory show is Burchfield on my Mind.)

Everything changed when I saw his work in a full continuum. In just one day Burchfield catapulted from an obscure regionalist whose work I barely knew to one of my favorite artists. My passion for him has only increased with time.

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Burchfield’s Autumnal Fantasy

While I was in Chautauqua New York for the opening of my show, On the Surface: Outward Appearances (details here), I was able to see two exhibitions that featured Burchfield and his work. One was serendipitously upstairs from On the Surface at the Strohl Arts Center—The Paintings and Writings of Charles E. Burchfield. By comingling both visual and verbal Burchfieldisms, this show makes the best case yet for his true identity as a visionary, a nature mystic, and a channel. Once you get that it is so obvious, especially when reading the words he wrote.

With the exception of Robert Gober,* art historians have not embraced the deeply mystical aspects of Burchfield’s work. He is not included in the list of visionary artists along with the likes of William Blake, Gustave Moreau and Morris Graves. Burchfield doesn’t look the part, that’s for certain: his unpretentious midwestern demeanor just doesn’t suggest “mystic” to anyone. Visiting the Burchfield Penny Museum in Buffalo—which boasts the largest collection of his work—I found the curatorial commentary rather tone deaf to the rhapsodic quality of Burchfield’s connection with the natural world. The portrait of him that they seem to draw is one of a benign, hard working landscape artist who had a peculiar tendency towards extra swirls which they refer to as “heat waves”.

I get it. Burchfield’s ability to see the auric fields that exist around every tree, flower and star is not an aesthetic category that is easy to explain. I had the extraordinary advantage of viewing his work with my friend Linda who possesses a similar ability, so her immediate recognition of what Burchfield was up to reinforced my own intuitive sense of his gift of mystical seeing.

A few of Burchfield’s hand scrawled messages included in the Chautauqua show read like mystical pronouncements, as instructions channeled to him directly. One that I did not photograph captures the essence of Burchfield’s seminal assignment:

Give yourself up entirely to nature. Let nature woo you.

That line couples nicely with another Burchfield quote:

An artist must paint not what he sees in nature, but what is there. To do so he must invent symbols, which, if properly used, make his work seem even more real than what is in front of him.

Given the increased interest in Burchfield and his work, I am certain there are several researchers working on what will become the newly updated and definitive biography of his life. I hope any future retelling will include a more robust recognition of Burchfield’s deeply mystical and visionary nature.

Handwritten notes from the Burchfield exhibit at Chautauqua:

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“You cannot grow unless you attempt things beyond your powers.”

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“It is up to you now, to carry on. Are you equal to the task?”

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“You are completely dead – Devoid of any emotional attitude toward nature Wake up – be bold, make bold caricatures & conventionalizations.”

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*Robert Gober is the one voice that does acknowledge Birchfield’s otherworldliness. In his catalog for the show, Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield, Gober goes so far as to describe Burchfield’s work as “immersed in what he perceived as the complicated beauty and spirituality of nature…often imbued with visionary, apocalyptic, and hallucinatory qualities.”

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Charles Burchfield, “Moon and Thunderhead”

There are many craftsmen who paint pleasantly the surface appearances and are very clever at it.

There are always a few who get at and feel the undercurrent, and these simply use the surface appearances selecting them and using them as tools to express the undercurrent, the real life.

If I cannot feel an undercurrent then I can only see a series of things. They may be attractive and novel at first but soon grow tiresome.

There is an undercurrent, the real life, beneath all appearances everywhere. I do not say that any master has fully comprehended it at any time, but the value of his (or her) work is in that he had sensed it and his work reports the measure of his experience.

It is this sense of the persistent life force back of things which makes the eye see and the hand move in ways that result in true masterpieces. Techniques are thus created as a need.

–Robert Henri

This is such a simple idea but one that feels so close to my sense of how things are in the studio. It is a metaphor that applies to both the making as well as the viewing of art.

It was my sense of just that—a powerful undercurrent—that knocked me out when I saw Robert Gober‘s brilliant show* of Charles Burchfield‘s work that was on view a few years ago at the Hammer Museum in LA as well as the Whitney in New York. Gober’s selection of work made it so easy to enter into Burchfield’s paintings in a new and revelatory way, something I had never done before. Burchfield was a nature mystic, and he felt the life force in nature. Amazingly he also found a way to capture that undercurrent in his work. Since piercing through and into that sense of things, I cannot approach a Burchfield painting without feeling that energy. Some are better than others of course, but that undercurrent is so present and so there in his work.

(For those of you in the Boston area, I just discovered three new Burchfields. They are hanging unassumedly in rooms adjacent to the Addison Museum at Philips Academy in Andover. Just ask to see them.)

A note on Robert Henri: His book from which the above passage is taken, The Art Spirit, was foundational reading for me when I first became an artist. Henri is probably better known today from that collection of his teachings—assembled by a former student, Margery Ryerson—than from his paintings although many of his works are very memorable. He also left an extraordinary legacy as a teacher. (He taught at the Art Students League, still an ongoing institution in New York, from 1915 til 1927.) Some of his more famous students include George Bellows, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent and Yasuo Kuniyoshi.

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*The catalog for the Burchfield show is excellent: Heat Waves in a Swamp.

Other posts on Charles Burchfield on Slow Muse:

Burchfield on my Mind

The Artist Curator Advantage

The Intuition Deliminator

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Homage to Ucello #4, Anna Hepler (Photo: Courtesy of Karin Thomas)

I have written about Sebastian Smee’s review of Anna Hepler’s show at the Portland Museum in an earlier post but there’s another passage in that article that has continued to hold my attention. Hepler’s approach to her work and to teaching runs close to my own views, and is worth sharing here.

Meghan Brady, an artist and a friend, describes Hepler as “a question-asker and a seeker. She’s not satisfied by taking things at face value. Instead, she’s always turning the issue at hand upside-down and inside out in an attempt to see it from a fresh vantage point.’’ Hepler adds, “I do like that idea of really going with something until you reach a conclusion, or a point of exhaustion.’’

And on the subject of teaching, I found commonality in Hepler’s conversation with Smee:

She insists she would have answered questions about the sources of her work quite differently a year, or even six months ago. Why the change?

“It had a lot to do with leaving academia,’’ she says. Hepler gave up her teaching post at Bowdoin about a year ago, having taught there for six years on a part-time basis. She was given the chance to teach full time on a tenure track but, she says, “I knew I didn’t want that.’’

The pressure on her as a teacher to be didactic and to “uphold the holy mantle of authority’’ made her increasingly uncomfortable. “It pollutes,’’ she says, “and for me there’s a kind of hypocrisy involved.’’

Now she can focus, she says, on maintaining “a risk-taking state of mind’’ and on “really living something, not making work that is about something.’’

“If you’re going to embark on this process,’’ she explains, “you have to rely 100 percent on intuition.’’

That’s just about the best summation of my own resistance to teaching. While many of my friends have figured out how to do it—how to teach and be a maker—it was never an approach that rang true for me. Not every artist signs up for the “100 percent intuition” path, and perhaps, in the spirit of Robert Benchley’s famous truism*, that is the operative deliminator. But this passage from Charles Burchfield’s journals (my paean to his current show at the Whitney is here) fits well in this conversation: “The subconscious mind seemed to be in complete control—and I did unpremeditated things which later turned out to be exactly right.”

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*Robert Benchley, a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, once stated this truism: The world is divided into two groups—those that divide the world into two groups, and those that don’t.

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Charles Burchfield, Gateway to September


Tanglewood in Winter


Autumnal Fantasy (This painting was not included in the original Hammer exhibit but was available for inclusion in the Whitney show)

How easy it is to think you know an artist’s work. I’ve seen Charles Burchfield paintings all of my life, but now I know that really isn’t the case. I didn’t see or understand his work until I visited the show currently at the Whitney Museum.

Now I can’t stop thinking about Burchfield. I am sending everyone to see the exhibit so we can do the exclamatories in unison. And to think that just a few days ago I had him squirreled away—as have so many others who have crafted a cursory narrative of American art—in the Regionalist catch all art drawer.

Burchfield (1893-1967) is actually category immune. He had no interest in being part of any school and said so. (Peter Schjeldahl at the New Yorker calls him a “one-man movement,” and Whitney chief curator Donna De Salvo refers to him as an “American Modernist.”) He is definitely not a Regionalist, that embarrassingly dismissive term that dustbinned his work for years. In many ways he shares an independence that is also evident in several of his contemporaries like Edward Hopper (1882-1967) and Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1886). But unlike those art superstars, Burchfield has remained below the art alert radar for most of us.

What I discovered is that the quiet and unassuming Charles Burchfield, denizen of small towns in Ohio and of Buffalo New York, father of five and a life long partner to his one and only wife Bertha, was a visionary. While his life’s work moves through a number of styles over time, what holds his oeuvre together is his fierce struggle to represent both his perceptions of the outer world as well as those of his private inner terrain. Using watercolors as his preferred medium, Burchfield’s ethereal and “almost abstract but not quite” landscapes feel as if they have been launched from another dimension, one that is multi-sensory, layered and complex.

This exhibit was the idea of Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. When Philbin saw newly purchased drawings by Burchfield at the home of sculptor Robert Gober, Philbin suggested Gober curate a show of Burchfield’s work. Fresh from his successful adventures in curating at the Menil Collection in Houston, Gober turned out to be an unexpectedly brilliant candidate. The choices Gober made in this exhibit allow the Burchfieldian vision to unfold slowly and powerfully, and the catalog is excellent: Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield. (To hear Gober talk about his curatorial experience, here he is as part of the Hammer’s Watch + Listen series.)

Burchfield is the green man in the lagoon who sees things the rest of us miss. He said that he liked to think of himself “in a nondescript swamp, alone, up to my knees in mire, painting the vital beauty I see there, in my own way, not caring a damn about tradition, or anyone’s opinion.” He also said that “an artist must paint not what he sees in nature, but what is there. To do so he must invent symbols, which, if properly used, make his work seem even more real than what is in front of him.” Another journal entry gives this advice: “Paint the feeling, regardless of drawing. At dusk there is an ominous feeling of something huge and black about to descend upon the earth; this should be painted, not sky or clouds.”

His work is an exemplary example of the kind of art that Roberta Smith doesn’t see enough of these days: “What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.” (For more about the Smith Art Taste Test, go here.)

The most moving pieces in the show for me date from two distinct periods in Burchfield’s life. The first is the year that is referred to as his “golden year”, 1917. The work flowed out of him effortlessly, without constraint. The second period is near the end of his life when Burchfield went through a creative crisis. He returned to that earlier period of time and expanded the vision of those powerful works. His later paintings become increasingly illuminating and illuminated. As Gober writes in the show catalog, “The works from this period of Burchfield’s life are immersed in what he perceived as the complicated beauty and spirituality of nature and are often imbued with visionary, apocalyptic, and hallucinatory qualities. In these large, late watercolors, Burchfield was able to execute with grace and beauty many of the painting ideas that he had developed as a young man…And in so doing, he transformed himself and his practice, producing one of the rarest events in the life of any artist: great art in old age.”

Making great art until the end of life—that’s another extraordinary quality that Burchfield exemplifies. This passage is from his journal (which he wrote in assiduously most of his life): “How slowly the ‘secrets’ of my art come to me—it seems to me I have been searching all my life for this motif…; when I said this to Bertha, she said, ‘Aren’t you thankful that at 71 new secrets are being revealed to you?’ And I certainly am.”

I love when this happens, when a mad passion comes from something that was right there all along.


Insect Chorus, from his “golden year” of 1917


Landscape with Gray Clouds, one of my favorites of the later works (Photo: DC Moore Gallery)

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