A current of his own: Charles Burchfield at the Whitney
Heatwaves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield at the Whitney Museum of American Art
June 24 to October 17, 2010
945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street
New York City, 212 570 3600
The sight of a cypress tree can suddenly flood our consciousness with Van Gogh’s stylizations. Charles Burchfield may not have the sheer transformative force of Van Gogh, but when I exited the Burchfield exhibition at the Whitney Museum and walked across 75th street, I was surprised when some foliage touching a wrought iron gate suddenly announced itself as a Burchfield arrangement poised for his trademark enhancements. Although he was the first American to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Burchfield’s visionary, and at times, treacly, modernism has kept his achievement by the wayside. I first saw Burchfield’s watercolors in a group show at Kennedy gallery around 1980 and didn’t know whether to be more astonished by his paintings or by his marginal standing. Perhaps the success of pop infused and neo-romantic landscapes by such artists as Laura Owen and Peter Doig has softened the ground for a reassessment of the mannered achievements of Burchfield during classic modernism. The smartly structured retrospective of his watercolors at the Whitney Museum, curated by sculptor Robert Gober, makes an eloquent case on Burchfield’s behalf.
Burchfield’s astonishing early watercolors of 1917-18 kick off the show. Most evocative here are the sparely composed, ominous and brooding compositions such as The Night Wind (1918). Burchfield’s flattened construction of space and bold composition employ the lessons of Ryder and Dove, as ominous clouds and blustery winds bear down on a modest human dwelling braced for a rough winter’s night. By linking specificity of locale with existential dread and alienation, Burchfield tackled themes later explored by such luminaries as George Ault and Edward Hopper. In Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night (1917), Burchfield further heightens the state of fear and dread, with visualizations of sound. One senses the impact of avant-garde treatises such as Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art and Besant’s Thought Forms. Bells peal from the totemic church tower, and clouds vibrate, ushering forth a plague of menacing black rain on the miserably enchanted houses below. Burchfield transforms doors into owls, and windows into grimaces by utilizing a set of self-styled forms he called “Conventions” that symbolize and summon states such as imbecility, evil, insanity and morbidity. The net effect of the “Conventions” is one of emotional heightening in which elements of landscape anthropomorphize and attain an animist status. A small drawing series of the “Conventions,” comprised of symbolic linear motifs and visual abbreviations, receives its own room within the exhibition. This vital, working set of motifs is deftly encoded and nearly concealed within the paintings.
In the twenties, Burchfield abandoned this early breakthrough work and settled into a Regionalist scene-painting mode that provided some acclaim. This fine but comparatively unremarkable period is included in the exhibition, boldly installed atop one of Burchfield’s own floral wallpaper designs
By the early forties Burchfield readjusted his course and faced the promise of his early watercolors. Using a puzzle-piece strategy of associative-relational composition, he began to physically expand earlier paintings by attaching new sections of paper to them and by editing less effective areas. Autumnal Fantasy (1916-44) is a clarion call heralding Burchfield’s rapidly developing mature phase. His signature sun-star, a softly emanating light, appears fully formed. Burchfield’s compositional inventions of echoing arches, receding diagonal boomerangs, and hazy atmospheric perspective of pale blues and yellows in this fifty-four inch watercolor crystallize this new period. The saturated color and layered detail of the tree, foreground area, and squawking birds provide a counter focus to the commanding rough-hewn, painterly treatment and muted color elsewhere throughout. Burchfield pushed watercolor conventions by dragging concentrated pigment, pummeling paper, and coaxing barely tinted dilutions into subtle form. His declared affinity with Chinese painting is evident in the calligraphic strike-and-respond gestures.
The fifties and sixties are characterized by atmospheric paintings of domed forest cathedrals of transparent light and color. Even Burchfield’s seemingly generic snow scene, The Constant Leaf, suddenly unfolds, captivates and transports the viewer as we eerily experience the silent atmospheric hum of the snowy environment. His occasional flirtations with magically kitchy, Shangri-la woodland settings must have strained cultivated modernist taste. But this is the period in which Burchfield hit his stride, as he painted with a freedom and responsive touch reminiscent of John Marin. Burchfield felt like “Don Quixote tilting at windmills” while executing a full seasonal cycle within a single painting in his Four Seasons (1960). But Robert Gober gets it exactly right when he writes Burchfield made “great art in old age.” Burchfield’s prescience is noteworthy; Orion in December (1959) is in tune with some recent Chris Martin paintings. And Dandelion Seed and the Moon (1965) is a standout for its large scale, pitch-perfect simplicity, soft luminosity and transcendent vantage point. Upon close inspection, it is amazing how extraordinarily absent the surface is. Using raw paper, muted grays, a few tiny strokes of green, the barest hint of yellow, and a tiny daub of orange, Burchfield summons a tremendously powerful image with great economy of means. I’m hard pressed to think of a more poetic dismissal of the chasm between landscape and abstraction within American modernist painting. Burchfield died two years later in December 1967, at the age of 75, having merged the streams of avant-garde, Chinese landscape, and American illustration into a current of his own.