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.
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.
*The catalog for the Burchfield show is excellent: Heat Waves in a Swamp.
Other posts on Charles Burchfield on Slow Muse: