The Tapestry of Artistic Convictions

By Louis A. Ruprecht Jr.

A fascinating exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan [] showcases the vastly underrated paintings of Charles Ephraim Burchfield (1893-1967). Provocatively entitled “Heat Waves in Swamp,” it will run through October 17, 2010.  

The show is a revelation in American painting. Charles Burchfield enjoyed a positively explosive year of creative activity between 1916 and 1918 (he painted more than 450 pieces in that period), and it is instructive how the horrors of war subtly and recurrently haunt the margins of his work. He loathed what he thought technology did both to workers and to the natural world (Walter Benjamin worried about much the same thing in his meditations on the new technologies of mass reproduction and mass death, in these same years). Some of Burchfield’s black-and-white landscapes look eerily similar to the bombed out crater-fields of Flanders.  

But Burchfield was also mindful of technology’s capacity for novel expressions of beauty; his locomotives weaving themselves effortlessly into elaborate and almost lace-like ironwork stations echo more familiar scenes depicted by the Lumiere Brothers’ camera just after Burchfield was born. Interestingly, Burchfield worked almost exclusively in watercolor (which may account for his being lesser known than he ought to be), believing as he did that watercolor gave him better control than oil. (This is directly opposed to most visual artists’ experience of the medium, of course, but the relatively small collection of 25 oil paintings that he produced in his long career testify to the accuracy of his impressions).   

Burchfield married Bertha Kenreich in the early 1920s. The couple had five children in almost as many years, so Burchfield had to get a job, a “real” one. He worked for many years in a wallpaper factory, leaving little time for his own painting. His wife dutifully kept every piece of paper he ever doodled over in those years, and these scraps, many of them framed and on display here at the Whitney, testify to the creativity the father brought to his playful interactions with his children–every scorecard for their card games seems to have been richly illuminated with scribbles and abstract patterns, funny little portraits and more.  

Finally, in the late 1920s, Burchfield and his wife agreed that he needed to quit, to see if he could make a go of painting, full time. The timing was decidedly off; Burchfield undertook his brave new aesthetic journey right on the eve of the Great Depression. And yet the early 1930s were a happy time for him, a time of increasing visibility and abundant success. He worked as an illustrator for Fortune Magazine. His canvases got bigger, bolder, sometimes darker, ever more vibrant.   

Burchfield also began to try to paint sound, especially in scenes taken directly from local nature, where the trees are depicted almost as if they are vibrating with the hum of the katydid and lyric birdsong. He was fascinated by the world, not just the human world (born and raised in Ohio, he moved to Seneca Falls, NY, near Niagara Falls, in 1925… hence the long interest in loud nature and big sound).  

Years later, he recalled 1916-1918 as his “Golden Age,” at least in terms of the uncanny range of work he produced and his amazing productivity.  

So he returned to those days–quite literally. Returning to the work he produced in that remarkable year, Burchfield began to take up his old paintings and to paste new pieces of paper to them, so that he could extend their range and scope. Almost like wallpaper. Big, bold canvases are now signed and dated with a nearly comical sense of their impossible temporal range:  

C.E.B. 1917-1956   

Time positively loomed for Burchfield, in his later years. No doubt in part because he’d lost a lot of time in the 1920s, and had a lot to make up for, creatively speaking. He was often unwell in his last years, so long periods of inaction were punctuated by bursts of creative energy, a grateful and enthusiastic response to the gift of restored health, always brief. His last painting in this show was dated to 1965. He completed one of his most luminous works, “Summer Solstice,” in 1966. He died the very next year, on January 10, 1967, in his 73rd year.  

Probably best thought of as a New England-style free thinker, with little use for organized religion (several canvases from 1917 recall Emerson, Whitman and Thoreau), Burchfield famously remarked in a 1936 journal entry that “the only divine reality is the unspeakable beauty of the world as it is” (July 26).  Some years later, Burchfield nonetheless converted to, or at least associated himself with, his wife’s Lutheranism–in 1944, as the Second World War dragged on interminably, and there seemed far less of beauty in the world.  You look for a trace of this in his painting, but it’s hard to tease out.  Maybe we catch a hint of it in Luther’s doctrine of the Two Kingdoms.  

Like Luther, Charles Burchfield believes in two worlds, linked by the very slenderest of spiritual grace notes; he tried to paint the one he heard, behind and beneath the one he saw.  He painted luminosity, faith in just such a world, no matter how shattered or fallen. And he did so in forms and colors of raw emotional power and singular beauty–like expressions from Luther’s Bible, or images from rock-like Lutheran hymns.  

If we are interested in the subtle and supple interplay between a certain kind of spirituality and a certain form of the not-quite-Abstract expressionism of 20th century visual arts in North America, then this show, and this artist, are necessary.  

Works in order of Appearance:  Dandelion Seedheads in the Moon, Black Iron, Childhood’s Garden, Glory of Spring, Summer Solstice, Sun and Rocks, The Four Seasons.

Filed Under: Culture & ArtFeaturedLouis A. Ruprecht


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