Charles Burchfield (1893–1967) has never fit comfortably into the narrative of American art. His watercolor views of his hometown of Buffalo and its surrounding countryside, rendered with near hallucinatory intensity, are underappreciated by younger artists today, although his edgy realism and visionary landscapes have strong affinities with contemporary painting.
In his day Burchfield was a key figure—a hot young painter who shared a New York gallery with Edward Hopper and in 1930 became the first artist to have a solo show at the then-year-old Museum of Modern Art. In the ’30s he was a critical and popular success, featured in Life and Time as a practitioner of American Scene painting, a designation he came to reject ever more strongly as Abstract Expressionism was appearing on the horizon.
“By 1943 he termed it libelous if they called him an American Scene painter—he thought he was so much more than that,” says the artist Robert Gober, who represented the United States in the 2001 Venice Biennale. For the last two years Gober has immersed himself in the life and work of Burchfield, whose drawings he collects, while organizing a major exhibition. “Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield,” after a run at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, will be at the Whitney Museum in New York through October 17.
In the course of a “Rust Belt tour” to seek out works in museums and private collections, Gober discovered one important reason why Burchfield isn’t better known. He worked almost entirely in watercolors, “the most fugitive of mediums,” says Gober, “and most institutions have very rigid rules about exhibiting them.” Typically a watercolor is put into dark storage for five years after three months on exhibit. “When the Whitney presents its chronological sweep of America’s story in the 20th century, the Hoppers can be there for 20 years, but the Burchfields can’t, even though the Whitney has a wonderful collection of Burchfields.”
Gober started by plumbing the artist’s vast archives—some 30,000 works, including paintings, drawings, journals, doodles, and scrapbooks—at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo. This museum, devoted to Burchfield and other western New York artists, reopened last November in a spacious new Gwathmey Siegel–designed building after being housed since its opening, in 1966, at Buffalo State College. “The Architecture of Painting,” which features little-known Burchfield works from 1920, was up at the center last fall. The show was organized by Nannette Maciejunes, executive director of Ohio’s Columbus Museum of Art, where it was previously on view. It also traveled to New York’s DC Moore Gallery, which represents the Charles Burchfield Foundation.
When Gober found a 1966 newspaper report of a break-in at Burchfield’s studio on the night of the Burchfield Penney’s grand opening, he decided to put it on the back cover of the Hammer exhibition catalogue. He thought the headline, “Artist Honored, Home Robbed,” was a “metaphor about the risk you take when you put something very personal of yourself out to the public.”
He recognizes that he and Burchfield may seem an odd pair, but Gober wants to keep the focus on his subject. “Of course people are free to bring their connections to it, because there are connections—I’ve made wallpaper and depict the American Scene to a certain degree,” he says. “But I’m much more removed and mediated about nature than Burchfield was. His favorite thing was to go out painting with his easel, stand knee-deep in a swamp, and get stung by mosquitoes.”
Born in Ohio, Burchfield graduated from the Cleveland School of Art in 1916. He was exposed in school to the modernist and Asian art that influenced his own work. Although his paintings always evolved from direct visual experience, he used highly animated lines and abstracted motifs to convey the sounds and smells of nature. These early works were exhibited by Alfred Barr at MoMA in 1930, and Gober has tracked down well over half of the 27 watercolors from that show. At the Hammer he is hanging them in a room wallpapered in motifs based on natural forms re-created from one of Burchfield’s designs for the M. H. Birge & Sons wallpaper factory in Buffalo, where he worked from 1921 until 1929 to support his wife and the five children born during those years.
Burchfield’s style shifted to a starker, more geometric realism in the ’20s. According to Maciejunes, his stint in the army, from 1918 to 1919, broke the spell of childhood nostalgia that had been a powerful influence on his early work. The modest, gritty sidewalk views in “The Architecture of Painting” reflect Burchfield’s growing interest in contemporary realist authors, such as Sherwood Anderson and Willa Cather, as he started to look at his environment in a different way.
“Burchfield was very interested in the idea that the house would look like the people that lived in it,” says Maciejunes, noting that these paintings were exhibited at galleries in New York and made the artist successful in the ’20s and ’30s. “He’s a painter of places, and his interest was in how you create a feeling for a place solely through its building.”
Although still relatively modest, Burchfield’s prices have risen in recent years. A Dream of Butterflies, a 1962 watercolor, sold at Sotheby’s in 2007 for $1,329,000.
For the Hammer show Gober devoted a room to works from the ’30s, which include a few of Burchfield’s rare oil paintings. “Burchfield himself felt that he couldn’t be considered a great artist unless he succeeded in oil on canvas, and he made a concerted effort to master oil paint,” says Gober. “They’re very good paintings, but to my eye they don’t have the magical spark that the watercolors have, and I think he himself came to realize that too.” By the end of the decade Burchfield had given up oils, although he increasingly applied oil-painting techniques to watercolor. He also started to distance himself from American Scene painting, which had taken on Fascist connotations as ultrarealist art was being embraced in Nazi Germany.
In 1943 Burchfield experienced what Gober characterizes as a creative crisis. He was turning 50 and was acclaimed for work he had begun to feel ambivalent about. He found his way forward by going back to his watercolors from 1917, enlarging the small compositions by adding strips of paper around the edges and reimagining them in large scale. “He regenerated himself through the use of these early works, when he felt he was much more in touch with nature and what was best in him creatively,” says Gober, who has reunited two hybrid works completed in 1943, Two Ravines and The Coming of Spring, for the first time since they left Burchfield’s studio. These expanded works paved the way for paintings of stunning ambition over the next two decades —ecstatic, semipsychedelic works, both moody and brilliant in palette, in which Burchfield tried to capture one season breaking forth into the next, or all four seasons in a single composition.
Burchfield died of a heart attack at age 74, a month after the Burchfield Penney Center opened. “He is among a handful of artists who did great creative work in late age, and as an artist, that’s the ultimate goal,” says Gober, who has included in the show Burchfield’s near transcendent Dandelion Seed Heads and the Moon (1961–65).
“What I picture is a 70-year-old guy at night in the dark lying down in the garden, his head on the ground, looking at the moon through dandelion seed heads,” Gober says. “I’ve decided that is the way to go.”
Hilarie M. Sheets is a contributing editor of ARTnews.