Burchfield explained, “To the child sitting cozily in his home , the roar of the wind outside fills his mind full of visions of strange phantoms and monsters flying over the land.” (Inscription by Charles Buchfield, Whitney Museum Catalogue, 1956)
I always thought I had special privileges when it came to the work of Charles E. Burchfield. After all, I too had weathered life in the often inhospitable place that is Buffalo, having stayed there through college before finally escaping to civilization. That child was me.
Today, after peering for a time at Burchfield’s Sun and Rocks on my tiny cell phone screen, I emerged from my studio to see my January-frozen garden suddenly take on much more color and life than I had remembered earlier in the day. Great paintings can do that: change our reality. Cold to hot, in this case. Yes, this is a feverish painting! I see a craggy landscape brilliantly alive with bleeding stumps, spiky grasses and flowing weeds. Dove-like clouds float by the blazing oriole that surrounds a star/sun. That familiar baked, dry, smell of pines strikes me as well. There is yearning and much listing, to the left and to the right, and the sense of barren lands that lay in the distance. Fronds beckon and wave, and ask me to stay. It is oddly animated and viscerally real at the same time.
To say that this serves to remind us of how vital nature is seems obvious, but there it is. In Burchfield’s essay for the catalogue from “Heat Waves in a Swamp,” the exhibition of his work organized by the Hammer Museum and later on view at the Whitney Museum in New York (2010), Dave Hickey quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald in a passage from the Great Gatsby: “…man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” I think Hickey’s choice here is apt. How many of us may still experience sublime nature today?
Young Burchfield did. He seems to have worn his wonderment on his sleeve. The painter’s youthful work, a lucid reflection of his up and down temperament and complex spiritual/physical conversation with nature, would be his salvation in later life. This work literally becomes the center of the large paintings of his last years. Sun and Rocks was finally made in 1950, but the core of this piece was a small watercolor on paper that the artist created just after his self-described “golden year” of 1917. Now in his 50’s, he had hit a rough spot and he didn’t know how to go forward. So, he looked back to his youthful epiphany, his monogamous coupling with nature. More than using them to reminisce, he literally expanded these old works by gluing each on a larger piece of paper. He could now expand out from the center (and his own past) in every direction. I find this oddly affecting and very touching, though sad too. In 1922, Burchfield said he wanted “the courage to see nature with the great graphic shorthand of Youth.” Still young when he said this I doubt he would have imagined his older self resorting to cut and paste.
Still, the new piece is fully alive. Sun and Rocks is a painting that spans much of a lifetime: painted both directly from nature in youth, churning with emotion, surprise and delight, and later, revisited with the experience and longing of age.
As a child, during the perennial school trips to the Albright- Knox Art Gallery, and later, on my own, I saw this painting often, or one very much like it. Shamefully, I didn’t spend much time with Burchfield then. I was more interested in de Kooning and his friends. Lucky for the SUNY Buffalo students, this small museum has one of the best, if not the best, selection of Abstract Expressionism anywhere. The sublime power and the frightening scale of all that paint was too tempting for the schoolgirl in me. I so loved and still love those guys, but I failed to recognize the local boy. His was a more intimate parsing of sublime terror and ecstatic beauty, always under glass and framed neatly. Harder to see in this company.
Looking at the work of Burchfield now, and in particular this painting, so poignant with its reworking years later, I realize that I breezed by the very artist who had more to sustain me in the long run than all those larger art historical figures ever could.
Catherine Howe is an artist with an extensive history of exhibitions who makes paintings in Manhattan and a barn in Columbia County. She is currently a Professor on the Graduate Painting Faculty at the New York Academy of Art, where she leads a seminar on aesthetics. www.catherinehoweartist.com