Charles Burchfield, An April Mood, 1946–55. Watercolor and charcoal on joined paper, 40 × 54 in.. Whitney Museum of American Art
By Kyle Gallup
Charles Burchfield was a singular, inventive artist who painted American landscapes with a deep feeling for the natural world around him. He stayed true to himself throughout his career, translating his experience of nature into watercolor paintings that reflected sounds, light and weather and his own inner emotional terrain. Throughout the decades he painted, he made changes in his imagery and art-making process to better express the monumental influence nature had in his life.
Entering the new Burchfield exhibit, “Heat Waves in a Swamp” at the Whitney Museum, I am immediately confronted by a young master of watercolor. The year 1917 is what his admirers dubbed, “Burchfield’s Golden Year of Painting.” Looking at the work, I think it must have been a fulfilling period for him. The immediacy and individuality of each image is depicted with ease. One painting after another is fluidly drawn and washed with clear light and color. I imagine that everyday he must have seen images all around him that he wanted to paint. The first rooms are full of eerie looking houses, gardens and backyards taken over by the buzzing of insects, looming churches with ringing bells, rain-filled landscapes and sunny days in the field.
By the twenties, Burchfield is painting images of what was then popularly known as the American Scene. His watercolors turn darker and more opaque as he tackles images of abandoned scrap yards, ships, foreboding industrial landscapes and lonely houses on small town streets. As magnetic as these paintings are, nothing compares to the shift he makes in the forties when he begins to expand his smaller, earlier paintings into large, ambitious watercolor landscapes.
“Two Ravines” (1934-43) and “The Coming Spring” (1917-43), beckon me to look deep into these long-evolving pictures. The experience of looking at them differs greatly from that of his earlier work. The earlier paintings seem to keep me at a distance, looking at the scene, exploring his watercolor technique through his watery brushwork and drawn line. These two paintings are bigger in scale, more physical. Burchfield works the surface with his brush, covering and modeling every area densely. When looking at the paintings, my eye travels inside the picture, over the moss and fallen leaves, over the rocks, and felled branches, up hills, through flowing water, and into the light and dark trees in the distance. These paintings feel so complete that the experience of looking at them is one of stepping into the picture itself. Now, I sense not just the insects, sunlight, the wind and dark shadows, but the artist’s own presence, as he painted and became one with the landscape in front of him.
At this point in Burchfield’s career, I suspect he must have felt less satisfied with his ability to go out into the field and create another watercolor scene. He needed to search for more, and get more out of each painting for himself. The current exhibit does a good job of explaining and illustrating how Burchfield expanded his earlier themes and paintings. With diagrams next to several paintings in the show, there is an intimate sense of the challenges he set for himself in particular works.
The painting, “The Sphinx and the Milky Way” (1946), yet again expands the boundaries of his technique and ideas. This painting moves past the conventional depiction of a landscape at night. A house is tucked behind animated foliage, flowers and flying insects, stars flicker and form constellations in a thickly brushed and mottled night sky. Again, I hear the insects buzzing and feel the thick night air. Its fantastical quality is something that the artist explores throughout the last years of his life. The last gallery in the Whitney includes large watercolor paintings like “Glory of Spring (Radiant Spring)” (1950) and “Gateway to September” (1946-56) and “Dawn of Spring” (ca. 1960s). The paintings have a sweetness that is not present in his work from earlier decades.
Charles Burchfield, Glory of Spring (Radiant Spring), 1950. Watercolor on paper, 401⁄8 x 293⁄4 in. Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York
After years of exploring and translating his deep and intimate connection to nature, he makes otherworldly paintings that reflect his quasi-religious or spiritual view that would have represented a new kind of fulfillment in his work. Burchfield’s last decade of paintings are often described as cosmic. I think these paintings allowed him to align his internal passions with a more universal and abstracted view of the natural world around him. He was less interested in the scene before him, continuing to broaden his vision while uniting his internal passion for the visual, spiritual and experiential roles nature held for him.
Kyle Gallup is an artist who works in collage and watercolor.