Review: Burchfield exhibition showcases nature, both real and imagined

Review by John Goodrich

Kreable Young | Staff Photographer
“The Writings and Paintings of Charles Burchfield” is on display at the Strohl Art Center Gallo Family Gallery.

Charles Burchfield (1893–1967) would count among the most intriguing and difficult-to-categorize of American artists. In his early years in Ohio, he produced works truly radical for their time: fantastical, stylized landscapes that strove to capture every sensation of nature, from the beating of sunlight to the buzzing of insects. Moving to Buffalo in his late 20s, he turned to a more conservative, realistic style, eventually gaining acclaim as a leading American Scene painter.

After an artistic crisis in his 50th year, however, he returned to the fanciful stylizations of his youth. Was he a European-style modernist, or a home-grown traditionalist? Scholars continue to debate the matter, but his art clearly reflects some distinctly American traits: a skeptical independence, a hands-on inventiveness and a romantic — even dreamy — love of nature.

Currently on view in the Gallo Family Gallery at the Strohl Art Center, “The Paintings and Writings of Charles E. Burchfield” presents nearly two dozen works by the artist, including watercolors and oil paintings, as well as numerous charcoal sketches and samples of his personal writings.

Kreable Young | Staff Photographer
“Solitude,” [1918] 1944–63.

These handwritten notes, most of them exhortations to witness and celebrate nature, add a unique dimension to the exhibition; they record, moment for moment, his working process, revealing a singular temperament in both its verbal and visual manifestations. Curated by Tullis Johnson, curator at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, the exhibition was organized jointly by Anthony Bannon, executive director of the Art Center, and by Don Kimes, Chautauqua’s own artistic director.

One of the peculiarities of Burchfield’s images is that they feel intensely populated — and not by people, but by trees, rocks and buildings that seem animated by their own joy or brooding. “Give yourself up entirely to nature,” one note advises, “let nature woo you.” Another extols the “passionate stroke done with fire and energy.” These are more than high-sounding words, because Burchfield’s disciplined line and color impart a gravity to every one of his subjects, no matter how realistically or fancifully rendered.

The watercolor “Hot Summer Afternoon” (1919) is probably the most naturalistic landscape in the show; only the dancing clouds and arcing contours of a row of buildings hint at his early, rambunctious style. But one senses the artist’s empathy for these old, worn facades, in the way they stretch, in deep, shadowed reds and browns, before the distant sky.

“Combine fantastic evil smoke shapes with clouds to create vast receding caverns in sky,” the artist jotted in the margins of a preparatory drawing of grain elevators. The sketch captures the carving of the towers by sunlight with brisk marks and rich tones. And sure enough, in the oil painting “Grain Elevators” (1932–38) hanging alongside, a knotted cord of smoke rises through vividly streaking clouds.

This painting has the somewhat somber tones of Burchfield’s American Scene period, but nature thrives within the subdued palette; the towers palpably soar before a dramatic sky, while shacks and a river expand evocatively across the dark foreground.

The best example of Burchfield’s early style is in fact a late work — more specifically, a late work that incorporates and expands upon an early landscape, a frequent practice of the artist in his last decades. This large watercolor, “Solitude,” contains a 1918 landscape, reworked between 1944 and 1963 with wide additions to its edges.

Kreable Young | Staff Photographer
“Hot Summer Afternoon,” 1919.

Up close, the original portion — a rather morbid rendering of gnarled, grayed rocks and trees — can still be made out. An accompanying note calls for a “grotesque mood” for the trees, “… the way things seem to a youth entering a new country,” while another illustrates the “frowning” and spiked shapes that were part of the artist’s private vocabulary of symbols. Burchfield’s reworkings changed this watercolor considerably: a rather melancholic and claustrophobic image has turned into a panorama of events — including a waterfall and flame-like trees — shifting vibrantly into and out of sunlight.

Such works reveal the paradoxes of Burchfield’s approach, which can seem at once fevered and reflective. While his free execution and over-the-top descriptions sometimes suggest cartoons, his works possess the pictorial weight of great painting. Though dream-like, they feel rooted in a kind of practical poetry. One note urges, “Wake up — be bold, make bold caricatures & conventionalizations.” Burchfield’s brand of modernism is, in short, like no other.

Three works hang in a small gallery at the rear of the exhibition. All depict a tree stump, severed perhaps two feet above the ground. In two of them, a slender sapling rises tremulously from within the stump’s hollow core: the regeneration of life. 

One suspects that Burchfield’s own growth was, in his eyes, inextricably tied to the natural world, and that he strove to be not just its observer, but also its vehicle. Another of his jottings declares:

“There is a reality beyond pictorial reality —

The reality of work, life — experience—

What a noon whistle means to a worker who has a hard life.”

And indeed, even the hardest life could find nourishment in Burchfield’s strange images of self-regeneration.

John Goodrich is an artist and art critic based in New York City. He is a contributing writer for CityArts and, and formerly wrote for The New York Sun.