Charles Burchfield is probably one of the more important 20th Century American artists that most people have never encountered.
Burchfield’s work went through several phases. His early watercolors can have a simple, almost naive feeling. He went through a time when he settled into rather straightforward representations of landscapes. But his mid-career paintings, after he appears to have experienced some kind of transformative event, and later ones in which he returned to some of the same themes, are strikingly visionary and have a sophisticated graphic power.
There can be something of a Van Gogh like quality to his visionary work, in the simplification and intensification of pictorial elements. In his more prosaic pieces, he conveys some of the direct, blunt observation of everyday scenes found in the work of his friend Edward Hopper.
The mystical, visionary quality to Burchfield’s most interesting work is sometimes ecstatic, sometimes haunted — an edge of transcendent meaning vibrating just under the surface of the commonplace, where he saw God’s expression in nature. In that respect, I see parallels to the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich.
Burchfield mixes ink and gouache with his watercolor, also mixing painting and drawing conventions in the same image to wonderful effect. Objects dance, shimmer and vibrate, both with light and color and with linework and graphic effects.
He studied art for four years at the Cleveland Institute of Art, and then when on to the National Academy of Design in new York, but dropped out on the first day, apparently in embarrassment at being asked to draw from the nude model.
He returned to Ohio, secured a job designing wallpaper, and began to paint watercolors on his lunch hour. He then moved to Buffalo, New York, continued his work as a wallpaper designer and eventually quit to become a painter full time.
Burchfield suffered from some kind of emotional imbalance, prone to episodes of highs and lows, and at one point in his career experienced a dramatic episode that changed his work for many years after.
He was already inventive in many of his pieces, incorporating influences from botanical illustrations, Japanese prints, illustrators like Arthur Rackham and Romantic artists like William Blake and Samuel Palmer; but after the event he began to incorporate a system of graphic symbols into his work that he had invented to convey specific negative emotions.
He eventually came to grips with his emotional states, seeming to balance out his life, but he also subdued the mystical aspects of his art for many years. He later returned to his earlier subjects and styles with renewed confidence and control.
There is a Burchfield Penney Art Center affiliated with Buffalo State College, supposedly dedicated to the art of Charles Burchfield and other artists of Western New York; but the museum’s website is inexplicably bereft of images of any sort, and therefore useless in determining if the institution is worth a visit.
The Whitney Museum in New York is currently displaying an exhibition titled Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield, that runs from now until October 17, 2010. There is a selection of images from the exhibition online. There is a review of the show on the NYT.