If you are in New York City between now and the middle of October, you should check out two excellent Charles Burchfield exhibitions: His dramatic watercolor meditations of the natural world rarely see the light of day, much less in such quantity.
If the name is new to you, check out my review of the catalogue for Heat Waves in a Swamp, which went up at The Millions when the show launched at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles before traveling to the Whitney.
The exhibition now up at the Whitney, curated by sculptor Robert Gober, is a comprehensive exhibit that covers every stage of the artist’s career, from his first solo show at MoMA back in 1930 (recreated for Heat Waves in a Swamp) to his time in the army working in the camouflage unit, his day job designing wallpaper, and his large-scale, multi-sheet paintings that exude colorful wonder and awe of the changing seasons.
Charles Burchfield, An April Mood, 1946–55. Watercolor and charcoal on joined paper, 40 × 54 in.
I came to love Burchfield through books while living in California years ago. Being able to stroll through the evolution of Burchfield’s work at the Whitney is a magnificently overwhelming experience. With one room plastered in his heady sunflower wallpaper design and another dedicated to nothing but his doodles and sketches, the core forms and concepts the artist returned to are made very clear. And then, of course, there are the actual paintings, which exude transcendental energy.
On a smaller scale, though equally impressive, DC Moore Gallery, Burchfield’s exclusive representative, has Charles Burchfield: Fifty Years as a Painter on view through September 25. It borders on surreal when you escape the din of Fifth Avenue just south of Central Park and enter the tranquil, windowless gallery adorned with Burchfield’s work, which has absolutely nothing to do with city life.
For me, the standout piece of this exhibit is “Moon and Thunderhead” (a study of the work is on display at the Whitney), which contains a distinctively different visual perspective compared to the other work. Typically, Burchfield looks across fields and through forests and cranes his gaze skyward to take in the trees. But “Moon and Thunderhead” floats us up above the wind-rustled canopy to bask in the glory of a brooding cloud scudding through the early evening sky.
With the museum’s emphasis on contemporary, multimedia art the Whitney strikes me as a strange venue for Heat Waves in a Swamp. The advantage to the strange juxtaposition of Burchfield with the more performance-based exhibitions is that his work lunges and writhes off the paper in a way that photographs, videos, and sculptures do not, at least not to my eye. In a time when so much contemporary art, no matter the medium, comes off as painfully derivative, this show and its setting establishes Burchfield as a true American original.
[Related: Print contributor John Canemaker wrote an early preview of the work as well, noting the painter’s fascination with animated movies.]