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by James Panero
On “Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield” at the Whitney Museum of American Art & “Charles Burchfield: Fifty Years as a Painter” at DC Moore Gallery.
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There may come a time when postwar American painting will be regarded much as Chinese contemporary art is today—the overhyped products of national exuberance. The New York School was a charming fraternity, inheritors of the School of Paris’s little black book. Yet a dozen or so unstylish artists of the pre-war years deserve the real credit for the flowering of American modernism. Charles Burchfield (1893–1967) was one of them. His extrasensory visions of the American landscape are now on view in two must-see exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art and DC Moore Gallery.
Burchfield’s annus mirabilis was 1917, what he called his “golden year.” A promising graduate of the Cleveland School of Art, he returned home to Salem, Ohio, after burning out in his first afternoon at the National Academy of Design in New York. “A curious mental depression assailed me, and I worked constantly to keep it down,” he recalled. “Surrounded by the familiar scenes of my boyhood, there gradually evolved the idea of recreating impressions of that period, the appearance of houses, the feelings of woods and fields, memories of seasonal impressions, etc.”
Burchfield emerged an illustrator, nearly always working in watercolor and bent on capturing nature’s unseen forces—an American Edvard Munch. “My chief aim in painting is the expression of a completely personal mood,” he said. One of the first rooms at the Whitney show contains abstract doodles from 1917, emoticons of marker on paper with fantastic titles like “The escape from the banal everyday life to the world of the ideal,” “The Fear of loneliness,” “Fear, Morbidness (Evil),” and “Fascination of evil.”
Each of these drawings comes out of a notebook Burchfield titled “Conventions for Abstract Thoughts.” Taken together, they formed a visual vocabulary, or, as Burchfield called it, a “graphic shorthand of youth.” That same year he incorporated these doodles into an outpouring of landscapes. Phantom winds radiate out of familiar terrain. “As the darkness settles down,” he wrote of one painting, The August North (A memory of childhood), “the pulsating chorus of night insects commences swelling louder and louder until it resembles the heart beat of the interior of a black closet.”
In 1930, Alfred Barr singled out these paintings for “Charles Burchfield: Early Watercolors 1916 to 1918,” the first solo artist exhibition ever to be held at the Museum of Modern Art. The current Whitney show, in its opening room, has attempted to recreate Barr’s exhibition of twenty-seven works as closely as possible. Barr rightly identified a young artist in the first flush of modernist experimentation. He may have been working in a provincial town in a provincial country, but Burchfield incorporated influences ranging from Hokusai and Hiroshige—to whom he was exposed in art school—through Yeats, Rabindranath Tagore, the Ballets Russes, and Aubrey Beardsley. In his depiction of sound, Burchfield was, like Arthur Dove, a master of synesthetic vision. “It seems pertinent to me to insert here some thoughts on how interwoven music is with my painting,” he noted later in life. “To many works, and even for whole periods of time, a definite piece of music or composition seemed to belong, though there might be no connection whatsoever between the music and what I was doing.” In The Insect Chorus (1917), sounds appear to swirl and shoot out of the trees and grasses beside a shingled house. In The Song of the Katydids on an August Morning (1917), a ballet of black Vs jumps out from the grass of a country home. In The Night Wind (1918), which became the cover of Barr’s catalogue, black clouds with yellow, ghost-like eyes rise up to haunt a snowbound house.
Barr’s mid-career retrospective served to remind Burchfield of his golden year of 1917, even as he retreated through the 1920s and 1930s into a more realistic mode of landscape. His sojourn in the railyards and factory towns came to associate him with the regionalism of the American Scene, a style that was the bugaboo of postwar modern art. While the animus towards the period may be undeserved, in Burchfield’s case Barr was right. The Whitney features a few chilling examples, in particular Ice Glare (1933) of a solitary black car driving through a frozen mill town, but many of Burchfield’s paintings from the period are just dreary, ashen illustrations concerned only with a sad and silent world.
The applied art Burchfield produced during the same years is far more illuminating. In 1918 he was drafted into the army, where he was assigned to the camouflage department. The Whitney features at least one illustration from the time, reproduced on the catalogue cover—a wheeled device disguised in swirls of green, yellow, black, and blue, blowing with its own phantom wind. In 1921, he joined the wallpaper firm M. H. Birge & Sons Company in Buffalo, New York, and remained in the area with his family for the rest of his life, far removed from the art capital of Manhattan. Here he rose through the company, becoming head of design in 1927. Both the Whitney and DC Moore, which represents the Burchfield estate, feature some of his remarkable wallpaper designs. The Whitney show even salvages a couple of the printing rollers and some ad copy, as well as recreating one wallpaper pattern throughout an exhibition room.
It helped that Burchfield emerged from art school with the skills of an illustrator. He was as suited to watercolor’s practical uses as to its application in fine art. “I think any artist should take pride in being able to earn an honest living and not be dependent on a whimsical patronage,” he wrote. I would go so far as to say Burchfield’s commercial work, taking a cue from Art Nouveau and William Morris, was also some of his most advanced production, and carried him through a fallow period. “An artist I believe should have more than one outlet for his creative energies and wall-paper designing has provided one for me,” he said. “There are ideas that come to me that can be interpreted only in terms of patterns, and I derive much pleasure in working them out.” More than a way to support his family, Burchfield’s wallpaper work directly influenced his great second period of creativity.
Burchfield quit his job at Birge & Sons in 1929, but more than a decade passed before another artistic crisis gave way to new direction. Stand in one room midway through the Whitney show and the transition is clear. On one wall is Two Ravines (1934–43); on the other is The Coming of Spring (1917–43), from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum. Burchfield labored over both for years. Both feature a nearly identical motif—two mountain streams coming together in a shaded pool. DC Moore also has one study of the motif, Retreat of Winter, of Little Beaver Creek in Salem, from 1938. Yet Two Ravines, for all its illustrative detail, looks frozen stiff compared to The Coming of Spring, where the composition pulsates with life. Reaching back to his golden year of 1917, going so far as to bind earlier work into the larger later compositions, Burchfield tapped into a new animating force with The Coming of Spring. Drawing on his experience in wallpaper design, he took his original pattern book, those haunting glyphs from “Conventions for Abstract Thoughts,” and grafted them into composite masterpieces like Song of the Telegraph (1917–52), Gateway to September (1946–56), and Autumnal Fantasy (1916–1944), on view at the Whitney show, and Dawn in Early Spring (1946–1966) at DC Moore. The spread of years in each of these works indicates the range of material Burchfield folded into them, allowing earlier pieces to grow into larger, resounding visions. “How slowly the ‘secrets’ of my art come to me,” Burchfield noted in 1964. “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.”
From 1943 until the end of his life, Burchfield let the forces of nature have their way with the internal dynamics of his watercolors. Many of the results were wild, sometimes verging on synesthetic kitsch, yet today they still seem unique and vibrant, wholly apart from his genre work of the 1920s and 1930s. Burchfield recognized the need to escape his association with the American Scene, and he considered it libel whenever someone called him a practicing member. Art history has now seen fit to rescue him in the same way as well.
Today Burchfield gets spun as a psychedelic madman inside the body of an actuary. It is no accident that the Hammer Museum, from which the Whitney exhibition originated, selected the contemporary sculptor Robert Gober, whose work includes human legs and industrial sinks in dislocated situations, as its guest curator for the show. The museum also called in the shaman Dave Hickey to conjure up a catalogue essay. I wonder if Burchfield benefits from the spit-shine of a critic who recently described modern art as something that “just makes a bunch of Jews a bunch of money,” or a curator whose claim to fame is five Whitney Biennial appearances, making him the undefeated heavyweight champion of Geek Town. I would note that the catalogue from the DC Moore show, which quotes Burchfield’s own words extensively, is far more illuminating.
That said, Gober and Hickey both do well in positioning Burchfield as the hermit genius, whose true talents lay hidden away in a bog far from his peers and even, for a time, from himself. The title of the Whitney exhibition—“Heat Waves in a Swamp”— comes from a work that does not appear in the show. Gober goes further, painting Burchfield as a swamp-man by quoting this passage in his introductory essay: “I like to think of myself—as an artist—as being in a nondescript swamp, 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.”
On the back cover of the Whitney catalogue, Gober chooses to reproduce a newspaper clipping from 1966 with the headline “Artist Honored: Home Robbed.” The article reports how Burchfield’s house was burgled on the day a center for his art opened at Buffalo State College. “There was something dark and bitter and almost funny about the conjunction of the two events,” writes Gober, “and there was a metaphor embedded in that short headline that I couldn’t ignore and that I felt certain Burchfield would understand.” I doubt Burchfield found it “almost funny,” but we get it. Even in praising Burchfield, Gober seems to say, society saw fit to screw him. In reality, America’s pre-war culture served him well. Burchfield matriculated at a moment in American art that was ripe with potential. He found commercial work that sustained him and produced art for two decades that fed his family and saw him to his second awakening in the 1940s. The irony is that art pseudo-sophisticates, Gober’s predecessors, were the ones who turned their backs on this supposed provincial. Now Gober is there to say Burchfield is one of us. We should instead aspire to be one of him.
 “Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield” opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, on June 24 and remains on view through October 17, 2010.
“Charles Burchfield: Fifty Years as a Painter” opened at DC Moore Gallery, New York, on June 10 and remains on view through September 25, 2010.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 September 2010, on page 44
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