Charles Burchfield’s large watercolors arrive as a reminder that modernity, like the ghastly world war that was one of its incubators, advanced on many fronts. Though Burchfield (1893–1967) attended the Cleveland School of Art from 1912 to 1916, he lived out most of his adult life in the Buffalo suburb of Gardenville, with his wife and five children, and was, as the critic Dave Hickey puts it, “totally heedless (or more precisely, totally ignorant) of up-to-date European practice.” But Burchfield was a gifted designer—early on, he made his living fashioning wallpaper, a sumptuous example of which adorns one gallery in the Whitney’s captivating retrospective, “Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield.” By combining his strong graphic sense with an idiosyncratic painting style and an unwavering, almost mystical worship of nature, Burchfield birthed a homegrown modernism.
The Museum of Modern Art’s inaugural director, Alfred Barr—thrilled to find an American artist who could compete with Matisse and Picasso—selected a group of Burchfield’s early watercolors for the fledgling MOMA’s first solo exhibition, in 1930. That show, partially re-created here, included works such as The Insect Chorus (1917), which blends art-nouveau-style foliage with the sturdy angles of Midwestern architecture. In these seminal works, Burchfield deployed an array of forms that he saw as “bold caricatures” of specific emotions, evocative shapes such as the hooked spiral representing “fear” that he designed for the steeple in Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night (1917). The baleful geometries (like skewed African masks) and drooping contours of the bell tower and brooding houses channel a childlike dread of howling storms. Although Burchfield’s figures were weak, he could anthropomorphize structures and weather into glowering forms, such as the dark, hollow-eyed goblin lurking in The Night Wind (1918). (One wonders if Uncle Walt—who once hired Salvador Dalí to inspire his animators—was aware of the nationally famous Burchfield when the Disney studio was working on such fanciful fright fests as 1933’s The Mad Doctor.)
While Burchfield has been simplistically labeled as a folksy chronicler of the American Scene, in 1938 he wrote in one of his copious journals of “mental debaucheries,” imagining himself as a “depraved being” and wondering if “these orgies of the imagination are all the worse because they are never relieved by actions.” Unless you count his late, cathedral-like visions of a lasciviously ripe Mother Nature. Robert Gober, the artist-curator of the Whitney show, notes that Burchfield “liked the mosquitoes and the rain and the decay of vegetation” that surrounded him as he sketched in swamps and forests. (A sense of fecund, perverse nature pervades Gober’s own sculpture.)
Burchfield painted with a dry brush, the paper abraded and scummed over with pigment, charcoal, and chalk. Not for him the lush, saturated arabesques of Homer or Turner. Yet, somehow, these desiccated surfaces convey humid effulgence: Midsummer in the Woods (1951–59) positively thrums with loamy radiance. Despite their robust subject matter and burly presence, however, these are fragile works, their fugitive pigments inexorably fading when the pieces are displayed. After the exhibition closes, they will be taken back to what curators term “dark storage” for a period of at least five years to interrupt the ravages of light.
So go—experience these visionary paintings before they return to the darkness.