DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


Burchfield’s Force Fields

Autumnal Fantasy, 1916-1944, by Charles E. Burchfield

Charles E. Burchfield’s landscape paintings swarm with spirits.  His wild and hairy visions of the alive world are currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in an exhibit titled Heat Waves in a Swamp.  I knew a little of Burchfield before, mostly through reproductions, but seeing this show, brilliantly curated by sculptor Robert Gober, was like discovering a cache of glittering gems hidden in an old tree stump.

Burchfield grew up in Salem, Ohio and lived most of his life in Gardenville, a rural suburb of Buffalo, New York.  His talent was recognized at a fairly early age, but he had no interest in living in a big city or being part of a movement or scene.  He painted to please himself, and sold paintings to support his wife and five kids.  His life story and his words reveal him as an unassuming and unpretentious man, but so thoroughly an artist that he couldn’t stop thinking as an artist for a moment.  One room of the Whitney show is filled with hundreds of abstract biomorphic doodles that he made while talking on the phone or playing card games with his wife.  Besides doodling he also kept journals throughout his life.  A particular pleasure of the exhibit is that nearly every painting is accompanied by Burchfield’s own eloquent description or reminiscence of its creation.

Charles E. Burchfield painting in his studio in Gardenville, N.Y., 1966, photo by William Doran, Burchfield Penney Art Center

While he did oil paintings and some mixed media, the bulk of Burchfield’s work is done in the medium of “dry brush” watercolor and gouache.  Traditional watercolor technique involves using thin washes of color on absorbent wet paper, and often tries for luminous, saturated colors and a loose, spontaneous style.  Burchfield’s technique is quite different, heavily worked by watercolorist standards, and his colors are often subtle and earthy.  His work achieves a feeling of light not by a light touch, but by a fiery intensity of movement.

His work divides neatly into three periods: the first begins in his breakthrough year of 1917, when he was in his mid-20’s.  He devised a system of visual motifs that embodied different moods and energies, called “conventions for abstract thoughts“.  These forms remind me of the “thought forms” described by Theosophists Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater in a 1901 book as shapes of thoughts visualized through clairvoyant synesthesia, though I do not know whether Burchfield was influenced by Theosophical ideas.  In painting from nature Burchfield saw manifestations of these abstractions, and his paintings of this period seem to depict organic forms through drawn lines whose movement expresses their underlying forces.  Those forces sometimes seem dark, ominous, prickly, overwhelming, or explosive, but always beautiful.  The chaos that is there is fertile and creative.

The Insect Chorus, 1917, by Charles E. Burchfield

Burchfield’s description of the image above reads, “It is late Sunday afternoon in August.  A child stands alone in the garden listening to the metallic sounds of insects.  They are all his world, so, to his mind, all things become saturated with their presence – Crickets lurk in the depths of the grass, the shadows of the trees conceal fantastic creatures, and the boy looks with fear at the black interior of the arbor, not knowing what terrible thing might be there.”

In his middle period Burchfield turned to a kind of American regionalism or social realism, often depicting industrial scenes or working-class settings.  The paintings of this period have a great sense of light and space.  The example below has a deep perspective reminiscent of Breughel, with a whole town visible in the far distance.

End of the Day, 1938, by Charles E. Burchfield

Burchfield’s description:  “At the end of a day of hard labor the workmen plod wearily uphill in the eerie twilight of winter, and it seems to the superficial eye that they have little to come home to in those stark, unpainted houses, but, like the houses, they persist and will not give in; and so they attain a rugged dignity that compels our admiration.”

Sun and Rocks, 1918-1950, by Charles E. Burchfield

Burchfield’s late period begins in 1943, when he was fifty.  He had spent decades developing his craft, but felt that his work was “rather prosaic” compared with his youthful, magical approach.  He went back to early works that were not quite successful, but that had the seeds of great ideas he now had the maturity to accomplish.  He attached extra paper around these early paintings, extending them into bold compositions in monumental scale.  The late period expansions were as much as five or six times larger than the early paintings that form their cores.

While many of the middle-period works in the show are oil paintings on loan from major museums, all the late work is watercolor on paper, which can’t be kept on permanent display due to watercolor’s vulnerability to fading, and most of them are from the collection of the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, where the artist’s personal archives reside.  I assume this means most of this late work was not sold in Burchfield’s lifetime.  Perhaps in his later years he had achieved enough recognition, his children were grown, and he felt the freedom to paint for himself, for the sheer joy he clearly felt in it.

The Four Seasons, 1949-1960, by Charles E. Burchfield

Though Burchfield was a protestant, his late work expresses a pure pagan spirituality, in which clouds and rain, trees and insects, are living beings in a web of sacred life.  In one painting, the space between trees, through which the bright distant landscape is seen, becomes a golden dancing figure.  Another seems to show, as curator Robert Gober says, “the point of view of a man lying in a field of dandelions on a sleepless night”.  The late works are overwhelming in their size, their magical light and space, and their thorny, buzzing detail.  The reproductions here don’t even begin to do them justice.

Heat Waves in a Swamp:  The Paintings of Charles Burchfield is curated by Robert Gober.  It was first exhibited at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, before moving to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, where it will remain on view until October 17, 2010.

All illustrations for this post were found on the web.  Clicking on the pictures links to their source pages, which are great places to find more images and information on Burchfield and Heat Waves in a Swamp.

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