Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967) chose to focus his nature-based art on the ground beneath his feet. Working almost exclusively in the medium of watercolor, he made his primary subject the landscape around his home outside of Buffalo, often depicting his immediate surroundings: his garden, the views from his windows, snow turning to slush, the sounds of insects and bells and vibrating telephone line, deep ravines, sudden atmospheric changes, and the experience of entering a forest at dusk. He frequently imbued these subjects with highly expressionistic light, creating a clear-eyed depiction of the world or, alternatively, a unique mystical and visionary experience of nature. Although aware of the art of his time, he spent his working life immersed in his local landscape, trusting and challenging his own instincts, often looking backward to go forward, steadfast in his belief in what he once described as “the healthy glow of everyday life.”
His paintings vibrate with color and sound like visual symphonies where the humming of insects, rustling leaves, bells, moonbeams, and vibrating telephone lines are woven together to reveal the beauty and power of the American landscape. Side by side with his journals and notes these paintings explore both physical and psychological terrain. Edward Hopper, fellow artist and close colleague, once said that Burchfield’s work “is most decidedly founded, not on art, but on life, and the life that he knows and loves best.”
The exhibition begins with work Burchfield created in 1916 while living in Salem, Ohio and follows his career with special attention to transformative and often reflective moments in his life and work. For example, drawings from a 1917 sketchbook entitled “Conventions for Abstract Thoughts” represent human emotions with semi-abstract shapes that would appear in his work for years to come. This is followed by an entire room dedicated to the 1930 Burchfield exhibition at MoMA, which was the first solo artist exhibition in the museum’s young history. About half of the twenty-seven watercolors originally featured in the MoMA show will be exhibited alongside the correspondence between Burchfield and then-MoMA curator/director Alfred Barr. This early period of Burchfield’s career also features a room with wallpaper from his time as a wallpaper designer combined with watercolors of industrial landscapes from the same period.
More than a decade later, Burchfield returns to his early expressionistic watercolors for inspiration. He begins to make monumental pieces created by literally transforming a number of small-scale watercolors from 1916-1918 -- pasting large strips of paper around the early watercolors to increase their size and reworking these new compositions into unusually large ecstatic watercolor visions. This return to his roots results in an explosion of color and the exhibition culminates in the late, transcendental watercolors of the 1950s and 1960s. These monumental paintings are accompanied by a central vitrine containing some of the 10,000 handwritten journal pages that Burchfield kept throughout his life, from a young teenager until his death from a heart attack in 1967. These rich and complex journals demonstrate the extent to which this artist was continually immersed in rigorous self-reflection and the documentation of his artistic process.