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Charles Burchfield: A master of American Modernist watercolor

An exhibition at the UCLA Hammer Museum includes works from his beginnings as a wallpaper designer, his solo exhibition at the just-opened Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan and more.

October 11, 2009|Christopher Knight

CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT — Arguably, watercolor was the most important medium sustained by American painters struggling with the new demands and untried possibilities of Modernism in the first half of the 20th century.

Georgia O'Keeffe, John Marin, Charles Sheeler, Marsden Hartley, Max Weber, Charles Demuth -- whatever artistic achievements they and many others certainly had are unthinkable without their work in pigments suspended in water and laid down on paper. And for some of them, watercolors represented the pinnacle of their accomplishments.

Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) is among them, somewhere near (or perhaps even at) the top of the watercolor heap. If his name is less well-known today than it was during his lifetime, the fugitive nature of watercolors, which cannot hang permanently on the light-saturated walls of the many museums that now own them, is one reason why.

A breathtaking exhibition newly opened at the UCLA Hammer Museum -- the artist's first major West Coast survey -- demonstrates the extraordinary power he was able to coax forth, while also suggesting why the watercolor medium was so critical. It includes a few oil paintings on canvas or board, American Scene landscapes of gritty village streets at twilight or in winter that, when juxtaposed with scores of exceptional watercolors, mostly suggest competence.

There are pencil drawings too -- including a compelling series of small works from 1917 that he called "Conventions for Abstract Thoughts" -- plus a room encircled with 26 framed assemblies of scores of paper scraps covered with sketches.

Burchfield unceremoniously described them as doodles. In their densely packed fields of whirling forms, spidery shapes and repetitive organic patterns, they recall the Surrealist inventions of Joan Miro.


'Aimless brooding'

Among the 1917 "conventions" is a pair of upright ovals, reminiscent of seed pods. Lightly shaded at the bottom and darkly marked at the top, the forms oscillate between solid form and hollowed-out space, like a biological, nature-based Cubism. Burchfield wrote "aimless brooding" in pencil across the bottom, an indication of the way his drawings functioned as a species of incubation.

The presence of these many open-ended pencil drawings and smattering of tightly rendered oil paintings is instructive. Watercolor emerges as a critical juncture between the two. The fluid paint application incorporates the immediate record of unfolding artistic thought characteristic of drawing, which is usually unavailable to the more measured, formally regulated demands of oil painting. Yet it also embodies traditional painting's capacity for careful composition and chromatic deliberation.

For Burchfield, a sheet of paper emerges as a membrane stretched between the outer world of nature and the inner world of the artist's emotional life. Think of it as an aesthetic skin, separating different domains that are both in constant flux. His story as an artist is the lifelong odyssey of reconciling the two -- of finding the means by which to bring them into harmony or its semblance.

Burchfield gave the spiritual intuitions of 19th century American transcendentalism a Modernist reverberation.

He was born in the bustling Lake Erie coal-port town of Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio, and moved south with his family to the small village of Salem in 1898, when he was 5. In 1921, following odd jobs taken after studies at the Cleveland School of Art, he relocated to Buffalo, N.Y., to work as a wallpaper designer at M.H. Birge and Sons. He was an immediate success.

Within a year he was married, soon moving into a house in suburban Gardenville. There he built a studio out back, raised a family and lived the rest of his life. (The Burchfield Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College has the largest collection of his work.) Starting in 1929, on the brink of the Great Depression, he began to make a living selling his art -- experiencing the toughest times during World War II, when sales not surprisingly ground to a virtual halt.

The Hammer show, "Heatwaves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield," reminds us that the artist had an unusually successful career. In 1930, shortly after the Museum of Modern Art was founded in Manhattan, it was Burchfield rather than a European artist who was the subject of the ambitious new institution's first solo exhibition.

About half the watercolors from that show are in the Hammer's second room, labeled "A Golden Year?" It refers to 1917, the pivot of the MOMA exhibition.

As was typically the case, MOMA was less interested in new art fresh from the studio than in cataloging the history of Modernism. Director Alfred Barr looked back to the roots of Burchfield's evolving aesthetic. The painter made some 450 watercolors in 1917 while still living in Ohio -- a proliferation that would dwindle to one or two a month when he reached maturity and the size of individual works greatly expanded and their complexity deepened.

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