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Heat Waves in a Swamp: Charles Burchfield

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.

Charles Burchfield, The Insect Chorus, 1917In 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.

In the 1940s, after a modicum of achievement, his compositions became increasingly complex, darker, and in instances, more spiritual and cognizant of mortality. For Burchfield, in wartime, a ravine was not simply a crux in between mountains, but the encounter between the forces of good and evil, with hope and misery trading TKO punches. And yet, a work such as Two Ravines is also at heart a rich illustration of a natural setting. The Sphinx and the Milky Way tackles several  ambitious subjects, such as the dark night sky and the effluvia of the galaxy, more aerosol mist than a river of stars.

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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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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