Charles Burchfield at the Whitneyhttp://www.thirteen.org/sundayarts/blog/museums/heat-waves-in-a-swamp-charles-burchfield/858/
Monsters behind a tree, ghosts in the attic, heat waves in a swamp… all byproducts of an overactive child’s imagination, perhaps? Not if you’re seeing the work of Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), as wonderfully surveyed in the Whitney’s current exhibition — Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield — intriguingly curated by artist Robert Gober. By capturing fears and emotions, Burchfield takes us a step toward conquering them. His work is a staple of American art history, particularly the expressionist branch, but a small percentage of it hangs in public collections. So this assembly, drawn from public and private collections, is a rare chance to see this artist’s complexity and consistency, through Oct 17.
In his 30s, he began to create images of simple, haunting resonance. He visualized the invisible — the noise of insects, the pealing of church bells, the dagger of icy winds. He imbued nature’s inhabitants with personalities, depicting a row of sunflowers like a perp lineup, tree root systems as a macabre band of conspirators. Some of these mostly watercolor paintings look almost cartoonish, but their emotional effect is undeniable.
The Whitney show includes marginalia, literal and fascinating. Dozens of sheafs of his doodles and journal entries are on display. But Burchfield also designed wallpaper — the practical equivalent of being a fine artist, in theory — and one room is papered with a strikingly raucous saturated floral pattern of his. (He preceded Warhol by a generation or two, but they were spiritual cousins who believed in the beauty of the free market and the essential role of art in daily life, for sure.) Burchfield’s allegorical expressionism gave vision to the things that haunt us. The Whitney’s show reminds us of why Burchfield remains a key, sui generis figure in art’s continuum.
Image: Charles Burchfield, The Insect Chorus, 1917. Opaque and transparent watercolor with ink, graphite, and crayon on off-white paper, 20 × 157⁄8 in. (50.8 × 38.1 cm). Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Museum of Art, Utica, New York. Edward W. Root Bequest, 1957.
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