Working almost exclusively in watercolors, and considered one of the American pioneers of the medium along with Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent, Charles Ephraim Burchfield borrowed more from writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman and Sherwood Anderson. Burchfield found transcendental epiphanies in the approach of a rainstorm, sun playing on craggy rocks or a spring thaw because of how he understood the natural world as a filter for all of life, from the everyday mundane to the ecstatically spiritual.
The subject of the Museum of Modern Art’s first one-person exhibition in 1930, Burchfield suffers from the unfair reputation of being little more than a regional painter of landscapes, relegating him to an eccentric American art footnote if you are not an avid collector or enthusiast. Created on the occasion of a 1997 retrospective of the painter that began at the Columbus Museum of Art, The Paintings of Charles Burchfield North By Midwest is the seminal Burchfield book (woefully out of print). In its introduction the exhibit’s co-curators write, “In current histories of American art, Burchfield seems to be slipping off the page.”
Burchfield spent most of his life in Ohio or in the greater Buffalo, New York, area, and the natural world served as his primary source of inspiration. These two facts resulted in a body of work that is as exciting and innovative as that of contemporaries like Arshile Gorky, Georgia O’Keeffe and Jackson Pollock. Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield, the catalogue for the Burchfield retrospective opening at the Hammer Museum on October 4 and then traveling to the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo and the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2010 informs the uninformed of Burchfield’s rightful status as an American visionary.
Awarded a scholarship to the National Academy of Design in New York City in 1916, Burchfield quit after one day of class, leaving the city and returning to his hometown of Salem, Ohio, in November of the same year. At the time, he worried that his family would consider him a failure but he later recalled getting back out into the environment that sustained him: “One of the supremely happy moments of my whole life was when, after the days of agony in New York, I stood in the woods and listened to the wind soaring through the treetops. It seemed to me the most wonderful music I ever heard.”
Burchfield died in 1967, just as the word “psychedelic” was entering the cultural lexicon, but his paintings quake with hallucinatory glory that has nothing to do with politics or culture, or even other human beings, really. Even the renderings of industrial, working-class towns breathe with the overwhelming presence of the natural world and its impositions. Seasonal cycles take shape in studies of decay and blooming ushered by revelatory light. These are not paintings of just a “Forest Fire at Midnight” or “October in the Woods” but attempts at communicating the personal meanings of these moments. A viewer’s understanding is irrelevant; the creations stem from an individual uncompromisingly focused on his place in the cosmos, on both a terrestrial and celestial level, a place as anxious about death as it is nostalgic for it.
Heat Waves in a Swamp features major works, notebook doodles and examples of commercial projects (including “The Invitation,” an idyllic summer day as golden amber as the Johnnie Walker Black it advertises; prominent in the piece’s foreground are an unopened bottle and two glasses; a country lane yawns into town, passing thistles and trees that could only come from Burchfield, yet here they are posing, filling a role, dutifully, as opposed to exerting force).
For the uninitiated, the book’s essays flesh out Burchfield’s biography, familiar territory for those already happily lost in these trembling landscapes. But Nancy Weekly’s examination of Burchfield’s “Conventions for Abstract Thoughts” – a series of sketched shapes and forms that illustrate ideas like “fear,” “insanity,” “imbecility,” “surprise,” “nostalgia” – explores this personal symbolism by locating instances where Burchfield exploded and heightened these notebook sketches into paintings. Weekly’s “close reading” succeeds in dissecting the work more than the essay in North by Midwest that deals with these conventions, which is far more speculative (though admittedly interesting).
But speculation can also enlighten, as is the case with Dave Hickey’s assessment of Burchfield the man. An obsessive keeper of journals, studies of Burchfield mine his writings, often taking him at his word. While no one has ever doubted that Burchfield was as meticulous crafting his persona as he was crafting a painting, Hickey suggests that Burchfield’s “frenzy of pack-rat cataloguing” masked his maladies while also inflating a self-myth that, because Burchfield was rarely there in person, spread easily through the museums and galleries of New York City. As Hickey explains, Burchfield did not attend his 1930 show at the MoMA, but he welcomed all of the people that “made their pilgrimage to the master’s realm.” The magnitude of Burchfield’s relationship with nature is undeniable but Hickey argues that Burchfield’s self-imposed isolation was not so much a result of some naïve outsider art phenomenon but rather Burchfield’s attempt to handle “the unwilling dissolution of one’s identity into its environment.” The paintings “seem to be coming from nowhere and everywhere, and these are difficult places from which to return.”
No matter what drove Charles Burchfield to shun the art world as much as he reveled in the accolades it bestowed upon him, the paintings thrive off of a communion with nature that is timeless, even in our digital age. There is a totality in this work that goes beyond subject matter. Burchfield’s ideas are American ideas, a tension of ideals, of potential and unrealized potential, of nature’s limitlessness and how constricting such expansiveness can become.