Columbus Underground

Art| Published on March 10, 2013 10:25 am

Charles Burchfield: An American Visionary (1893-1967)

By: Jeff Regensburger

First, let’s do away with – once and for all – the notion that Charles Burchfield doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. It’s a specious claim; one that’s easily refuted by even the most cursory glance at his resume. During his lifetime Charles Burchfield was lauded as one of the great American painters in both Life magazine and Harper’s magazine. He participated in the Venice Biennial. He was afforded numerous opportunities to exhibit his work in established museums, including retrospectives at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. He even had a solo show at the newly christened Museum of Modern Art in 1930.


Since his death in 1967, Burchfield’s work has been recognized with exhibitions at the Columbus Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Hammer Museum and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Books have been written, journals have been published, and today Burchfiled’s paintings are a staple in every major collection in the United States.


So, recognition for Burchfield? Well, there’s been plenty.


I suspect Burchfield’s perceived status as one of the 20th century’s great unsung masters is a problem rooted more in classification than appreciation. Think of it this way: art history is a discipline that relies heavily on linear (and progressive) narratives. It thrives on timelines, hierarchies, innovations, and movements. It has a tendency to reward those artists that fit neatly into the story and punish the artist who doesn’t, and Charles Burchfield doesn’t.


In fact, Charles Burchfield’s narrative within his own career is something of a muddle, always careening between realism and abstraction, between the nature he saw with eyes and the nature he knew in his heart. It’s a tension that regularly plays out at the micro level in the same painting as abstract brushstrokes live side by side with naturally rendered flowers and trees. Even scholars note three distinct “periods” within Burchfield’s career. Was Burchfield a modernist? Sure. Was he a traditionalist? Yeah, he was that too. Did he hold fast to romantic 19th century ideals regarding nature? Absolutely. Did he embrace elements of 20th century abstraction? Without a doubt.


It’s these contradictions (or seeming contradictions – I suspect a false dichotomy might be at work here, even as I write) that have made Burchfield not so much unappreciated, but rather unwieldy. He’s a singular force; not easy to compare and not easy to contextualize. Fortunately, even as much as context matters, visual art remains more or less about the act of seeing, and when it comes to seeing, Charles Burchfield’s work offers a feast for the eyes.


This month the
Keny Galleries provide a wonderful opportunity to view works by this Ohio native and American master. The exhibition, Charles Burchfield: An American Visionary (1893-1967) presents two-dozen pieces highlighting the artist’s most inventive and expressive periods. Focusing on Burchfield’s early and late works the exhibition demonstrates perfectly the artist’s delicate balance between realism and abstraction, between naturalism and expressionism.


Nature is the star attraction of this exhibition, whether it’s the luminosity of Row of Sunflowers (1916) or the dense atmosphere of November Wind at Dusk (1946-1959). To say the natural world served as a kind of religion for Burchfield isn’t necessarily over-stating the case. Both his journals and his work (see Winter Sun through the Poplars (1916)) suggest an appreciation of the natural world that borders on the transcendent.


While Burchfield blazed a singular path, it’s clear from this exhibition that he was not untouched by the art world around him. Art Nouveau flourishes appear in many of the early pieces. An appreciation for Japanese prints is evident in others. The emotive sweep and visual complexity of much of Burchfield’s work is reminiscent of the Romantic poet and painter William Blake. Nods to American modernists like Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley are clear. Similarly, the scale and brushwork of Abstract Expressionism is reflected in a number of Burchfield’s later works. While the finished paintings, drawings, and prints are all Burchfield, these are not the works born in isolation.


Charles Burchfield remains an exceptional American painter; exceptional in talent and exceptional in his willingness to stand apart. Charles Burchfield: An American Visionary (1893-1967) offers a well-curated opportunity to appreciate Burchfield at his best. I’d suggest readers take advantage.


Charles Burchfield: An American Visionary (1893-1967)
is on view at the Keny Galleries, March 1 – April 5 2013. For more information visit the Keny Galleries at www.kenygalleries.com.




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