Who Was Charles Burchfield?
A Burchfield Work, Everyday America
A Dazzling Survey of Burchfield's Paintings
Charles Burchfield had a long career, rich with unforgettable work from start to finish. He captured the atmosphere of the small towns and countryside where most Americans lived with a depth matched by no one else.
Charles Burchfiedl: A Quick Study
Charles Burchfield American Artist (Born April 9, 1893 Died January 10, 1967)
Having moved to Buffalo just a couple of years after this artist died until the late 1980s, I became familiar with Burchfield and his paintings because he was a fixture.
The Charles Burchfield Center, now the the Burchfield-Penney Art Center, renamed to recognize a large donor, has a trove of Burchfield's work, and I remember at least one huge exhibit I walked through while still living in The Queen City.
For the most part, Burchfield-Penney, on the Buffalo State College campus, is overshadowed by it's relatively opulent neighbor across Elmwood Avenue. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, with the Knox family (think gelatin, not fort) as a major benefactor has a breathtaking collection of modern art and is a major player in the community, hosting summer jazz concerts and considered a pillar of the Buffalo arts community.
Surprisingly, Albright-Knox seems not to have anything of Burchfield's to show, certainly not anything major, and in many ways, this sums up the reason why most readers of this article will not know much of anything about Burchfield and his work.
You might not have ever heard of him, yet early in his career, 1936, Life magazine named him one of America's ten greatest painters. Burchfield had almost a gift for staying obscure, a quality that may have freed him to work under less pressure than more highly recognized artists.
Born in Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio, Charles Burchfield was raised by his mother in Salem, Ohio. After studying at the Cleveland Institute of Art, taught by Henry Keller, a leader among Ohio watercolorists, he became recognized as a member of what is known as the Cleveland School.
Since you probably haven't heard of Keller or the Cleveland School, keep in mind that many excellent artists live and work away from the major centers, like New York and Paris, which explains nothing about their talent, only their relative obscurity.
Burchfield was an all-star who stayed in places where he would not be promoted socially.
He left Ohio to live and design wallpaper in Buffalo. Now, Buffalo is a fine town, the city where my wife was born and where I spent almost twenty very happy years, and it was growing rapidly and thriving in Burchfield's time. It just wasn't a haven for artist who usually need to promote their work to be remembered.
Burchfield lived there from 1925 until his death, married to Bertha, who seemed to be a soulmate, and died with her at his side of a heart attack, age 73.
The work of Charles Burchfield, American Painter
Charles Burchfield has been described as, "the mystic, cryptic painter of transcendental landscapes, trees with telekinetic halos, and haunted houses emanating ectoplasmic auras."
And I suppose you'd have to see his work to understand.
My own description of Burchfield's work would be New Age, vibrations included, filtered through a lot of Hopper. Thankfully, Burchfield, like the great Edward Hopper, never succumbed to the allures of cubism.
He was a realist whose work was informed by a naturalist's love of the mystical connections between things. The title of the recent exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Heat Waves In a Swamp, is taken from his writings as he described an ideal place to work, knee deep in a swamp, connected with and being filled by nature as he described it on a canvas.
Several things struck me as unforgettable in the Whitney show. The most so was a painting of East Liverpool, a Syracuse suburb, depicting the quiet small town at dusk. Having come of age in upstate New York, I connected immediately, as I did with several others that depicted nondescript upstate towns, their conventional environments accented by pulsing nature.
Although I loved the urban scenes that were an interesting contrast with Hopper, Burchfield's friend, he is better known for his nature paintings, the reasons being clearly demonstrated in the last room of the exhibit, a room filled with large canvases depicting nature with an emphasis on vibrancy and natural connection.
Quick note: Avoid guided tours. As we filtered past a tour, we heard the guide, who seemed to think the exhibit was about her, explain that he "totally abandoned representation." You're thinking Pollack, maybe, but no, she was standing directly in front of a painting chock full of natural representation. Maybe she never left town. Five bucks from me to anyone who finds a single Burchfield in that shows he "totally abandoned representation."
The only other thing I didn't think much of in the exhibit is the first room, showing some of Burchfield's earliest raw sketches, adolescent work of a young man trying to find a way to visually express his emotions. I felt the same way about it as I feel about my earliest poems and aborted novels. I loved them, but they stunk publicly.
Unlike Burchfield, I trashed my baby steps years ago.
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Catalog from the Whitney Show, Full of Great Art
© 2010 David Stone
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