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.