Charles Burchfield: An American Modernist revealed

 

From a local perspective, it’s easy toassume that Buffalo’s favorite watercolorist Charles Burchfield is as well known everywhere as he is here. Not so. The artist who gave the Burchfield Penney Art Center its name is surprisingly unfamiliar to many knowledgeable art enthusiasts outside the region. A number of things conspired to make this so. To some degree it’s a matter of changing tastes. Burchfield’s work is often viewed today as rather conventional, based on his mid-career association with American Scene Painting, now somewhat negatively referred to as Regionalism. Just as significant, though, are the fugitive pigments in watercolors that limit the time such paintings can remain on display, thus restricting the public’s exposure to Burchfield’s art. Even his second career as a commercial wallpaper designer for the Birge Company in Buffalo—where Burchfield labored for years to make a living—might have detracted from his status as an important American artist.

Such misguided perceptions about this artistically adventurous and historically significant American modernist are being put to rest even as you read this, and long-overlooked facts about Burchfield are coming to light. This is thanks to Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield, the first comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s work in over twenty years, and a show critics are calling fascinating, extraordinary, and breathtaking. The exhibition arrives at the Burchfield Penney Art Center on March 7 on the heels of its highly successful run at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, where it is the first Burchfield retrospective to take place on the West Coast. From Buffalo the show will travel to the Whitney Museum of Art in New York, representing something of a triumphant Big Apple homecoming for the artist. One fact about Burchfield that is finally gaining widespread recognition through this show is that he was the first artist ever to be given a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). This alone suggests how important and progressive Burchfield was considered at the time. Revealingly, the famously shy and reclusive Burchfield stayed home from the momentous 1930 MOMA opening. Heat Waves in a Swamp reunites thirteen of the twenty-seven works from the original MOMA exhibition.

There is another interesting twist to Heat Waves in a Swamp. The show was incongruously organized by the internationally prominent contemporary sculptor Robert Gober. Exhibitions curated by noted artists are popping up with surprising regularity lately as museums strive to gain fresh perspectives on existing collections. Gober’s own quirky artwork, which includes lifelike fully clothed legs that protrude from gallery walls, and sinks, chairs, and other utilitarian objects sculpturally infused with religious allusions or sexuality, seems to be light years from Burchfield’s focus on nature. Critics are having a field day trying to make comparisons between the artists, but that may be missing the point. Even though Gober put his very successful career on hold for a year to organize this show with the Hammer’s Cynthia Burlingham, the artist claims he had “no burning desire” to curate a retrospective of Burchfield. Apparently the whole thing came about by pure chance when Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin was having dinner at Gober’s New York apartment and noticed a small Burchfield drawing of a curtain blowing in a window. She suggested Gober consider organizing an exhibition on Burchfield, and the subject evidently got under the sculptor’s skin, because the project kept expanding and ultimately became very ambitious.

Parts of Heat Waves in a Swamp focus on

Burchfield’s self-declared “golden year” in 1917, one of his most creative and productive periods, during which he embraced an intensely expressionistic style. After an interlude in the 1930s and 1940s when he leaned heavily toward realism, Burchfield returned to his expressionistic beginnings. He often attached new paper to the borders of his earlier works, adding scale and complexity. Some of the largest of these works—which have not been seen in town within my memory— are included in this show. Gober suggests that his interest in Burchfield was largely with the individual behind the art. “I was interested in creating this exhibition because I wanted to take a deeper look at Burchfield: the man, the artist, and the work. How he lived his life. Where he lived his life, how he made his work, and the works themselves.”

To learn about Burchfield the man, Gober could have gone to no better source than the Burchfield Penney’s extensive archives, from which he culled large amounts of historical ephemera instructively employed in the exhibition. Included are the artist’s sketches, doodles, and pages from his detailed daily journals that spanned from age nine until near the end of his life. One sketchbook titled Conventions for Abstract Thoughts catalogues numerous semi-abstract shapes Burchfield used to represent human emotions in his work for years to come. Much has been written of Burchfield’s intense devotion to nature and small town life, his fascination with the four seasons, his apparent affinity with animism, his use of symbols, his graphic depictions of sounds, and the eerie or even frightening moods he achieved in his work that often border on surrealism. Even if you think you already know Burchfield, this exhibition promises new insights into the man and his work.

Bruce Adams is an artist, educator, and writer.