Sunday, September 29, 2013

The "monotonous, mechanical, brassy rhythms" of American landscapes by Charles Burchfield (1893-1967)

Charles Burchfield (American artist, 1893-1967) North Wind in March

1916 Charles Burchfield (1893-1967). Decorative Landscape, Shadow

Born in 1893 in Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio, & raised nearby in Salem, Burchfield spent most of his adult life in upstate New York, in Buffalo & its suburb Gardenville, where he moved in 1921.

By age 21, Burchfield had written in his journal, “I hereby dedicate my life and soul to the study and love of nature, with the purpose to bring it before the mass of uninterested public.” Working almost exclusively in watercolor on paper, his principal subject was his experience of the natural world, which led him to create deeply personal landscapes often imbued with highly expressionistic light.

Charles Burchfield (1893-1967). Backyards in Golden Sunlight.

Charles Burchfield (1893-1967)

1918 Charles Burchfield (1893-1967).

The Museum of Modern Art purchased its 1st Burchfield painting in 1929, not long after Edward Hopper's essay about Burchfield appeared in Art magazine.His works quiver with color & the almost audible sounds of humming insects, rustling leaves, bells, birds, & vibrating telephone lines. In 1945 he noted, “It is as difficult to take in all the glory of a dandelion, as it is to take in a mountain, or a thunderstorm.”

Charles Burchfield (1893-1967). A Dream of Butterflies

"An artist must paint not what he sees in nature, but what is there. To do so he must invent symbols, which, if properly used, make his work seem even more real than what is in front of him," said Burchfield, who left a trove of sketches, jottings, notebooks, journals, & ephemera to the Burchfield Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College.

Charles Burchfield (1893-1967). A Sea of Queen Anne Lace

The title of the important 2010 Whitney show, Heat Waves in a Swamp, came from the title of a Burchfield watercolor. Whitney Curator Gober wrote in his 2010 Burchfield catalogue introduction: “He loved swamps and bogs and marshes. He loved all of nature and was torn as a young man between being an artist and being a nature writer. He liked nothing more than to paint while literally standing in a swamp. Liked the mosquitoes and the rain and the decay of vegetation.”

Charles Burchfield (1893-1967). Orion

From 1921 to 1929 Burchfield worked as a designer at the M. H. Birge & Sons wallpaper factory in Buffalo. His designs, like all his art, were based in nature. Burchfield then began full-time work as an artist.

Charles Burchfield (1893-1967). Gateway to September 1946-56

Burchfield accepted commissions from Fortune magazine to paint railroads in Pennsylvania, sulphur mines in Texas, & coal mines in Virginia. Many of his paintings of this period deal with the rural & industrial worlds around him in a less fantastical way than in his earlier watercolors. By the mid-1930s, Burchfield was celebrated for his realist depictions of the American landscape.

Charles Burchfield (1893-1967).

In 1943, Burchfield faced a creative crisis, as he was approaching 50; & the country was in the middle of World War II. At that point, he began to look back at his earlier watercolors to expand them. Burchfield felt nature with all his senses. He described one piece on katydids as full of "monotonous, mechanical, brassy rhythms…combining with heat waves of the sun, and saturating trees and houses and sky."

Charles Burchfield (1893-1967). An April Mood, 1946–55. 

Burchfield created some of his most vibrant & fascinating works toward the end of his life. As Whitney curator Gober wrote, “The works from this period of Burchfield’s life are immersed in what he perceived as the complicated beauty & spirituality of nature & are often imbued with visionary, apocalyptic, & hallucinatory qualities. In these large, late watercolors, Burchfield was able to execute with grace & beauty many of the painting ideas that he had developed as a young man…And in so doing, he transformed himself & his practice, producing one of the rarest events in the life of any artist: great art in old age.”

1959 Charles Burchfield (1893-1967). For the Beauty of the Earth

In 2010, The Whitney produced a catalogue of its landmark Burchfield exhibition called Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield by Cynthia Burlingham and Robert Gober. Essays by Cynthia Burlingham, Robert Gober, Dave Hickey, Tullis Johnson, & Nancy Weekly.

Charles Burchfield (1893-1967). Noontide.

You can also read Baur, John I. H., The Inlander: Life and Work of Charles Burchfield 1893-1967, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1984. That book was produced for the 1984 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit.

Charles Burchfield (1893-1967). November Sun Emerging.

Also see Maciejunes, Nannette V. and Hall, Michael, D., The Paintings of Charles Burchfield: North by Midwest, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. in association with the Columbus Museum of Art, 1997.