At Whitney Museum of American Art through Oct. 17
Charles Burchfield is one of these artists I feel like I could go on about forever. I always thought of him as an American Vincent Van Gogh. That is, if Van Gogh were born in America 30 some years later, and didn't self distruct in his mid thirties he might have painted like Charles Burchfield. They both had the same kind of simplified emotionally expressive way of rendering imagery, and they both had the same enthusiastically spontaneous handling of the medium. They also both shared a near religious attraction to, and interpretation of nature. In fact, if Burchfield wasn't so schooled and sophisticated in his technique he would probably be considered an outsider, or visionary artist. There is something about Burchfield though that does seem distinctly American, and unmistakably tied to a specifically American kind of landscape painting. He had both the hands-on intimacy of a Marsden Hartley and an Arthur Dove, but the theatrical grandeur of the Hudson River School. This is one of the things that makes him such an interesting figure, that he can fit into many schools and movements , but maintained a very individual vision. Also, the fact that he managed to be both very accessible and fiercely ambitious. While he chose to work primarily with the unforgiving medium of watercolor for most of his life there are a couple of wonderful oil paintings in the show.
Oddly enough the show is curated by Robert Gober, who's known as a rather eccentric conceptual artist, and who's work deals mainly with psychological and emotional issues. This seemingly unlikely pairing makes much more sense as you learn more about Burchfield. Throughout most of his life he was plagued by a great deal of underlying fears and anxieties that seemed to fuel his work. In fact, I think it's safe to say that the content of his art is really the relationship between his inner and outer worlds, and his attempt to reconcile the two. This is evidenced in the first gallery where we see his semiabstract pencil drawings that are based on forms found in nature. They're the kind of thing Georgia O'Keefe would have done if she had his talent and vision.
Burchfield went through an extremely prolific period between 1916-1918, where he created a huge number of watercolors that I can only describe as explosively spontaneous. They display sincere emotional attempts to connect childhood memories to images in the natural world. In these watercolors you can see the influence of eastern art with his use of black calligraphic brushstrokes; something that you can find continuing throughout his later work. The thing that impressed me most about this body of work is that his technical virtuosity does not compromise the expressionism of the subject matter, and the expressionism does not compromise the abstract integrity of the image. Not an easy trick.
In the 20s Burchfield got married and had a bunch of kids, so he didn't paint as much, but worked as a designer, primarily of wallpaper. One of his wallpaper designs covers the walls of one of the galleries. As wallpaper goes it seems a little too aggressive to me, but maybe that's because he was a better painter than a designer. Then again what do I know about wall paper. Next there's a room filled with small spontaneous drawings or "doodles" that are so wildly imaginative that they look like they could have been done by Arshile Gorky.
Later, in the 1930's and 40s Burchfield achieved a great deal of commercial success, mainly with his images of factories, houses, and small towns. They were used for a great number of magazine covers, and greeting cards. Yet, in spite of this recognition he continued to be haunted by doubts and personal demons that I think helped infuse the work with certain urgency and anxiety. You can see this in the character of the buildings and trees depicted. It also saved the work from ever settling into charm or complacency. Also, while the images of streets and buildings that he was most known for have a Hopper-meets-Van Gogh quality to them, in the way that they capture the personality of the subject matter, it's when he walks into the forest that his true passion comes out. This ambition also led him to some radical technical innovations. With his expansion drawings he would attach sheets of paper to the sides of a previously existing watercolor and branch the image out , making the painting larger and further complicating the composition. This very effective means can first be seen in his nearly hallucinogenic "The Sphinx and The Milky Way" (1946).
His last work from the 1950s and 60s is his best, which is unusual in most artists. Apparently his health was lousy, but you'd never know it from the paintings. They're his largest and boldest, and are painted with a near religious fervor. They seem to be a culmination of everything he'd done up to that point and were driven by a mystical kind of confidence and urgency. Burchfield kept a journal throughout his life, and the curator has placed quotes from it next to most of the paintings in the show. Some of them apply specifically to the paintings they're next to and some don't, but they all refer to the natural world, and his relationship to it. To me they sound like they could have been written by Thoreau or Emerson for that matter, which is very revealing. Burchfield is already considered one of the great American landscape painters, but he would best be defined as a transcendentalist.