Critics’ Picks

Charles Burchfield, An April Mood, 1946–55, watercolor and charcoal on joined paper, 40 × 54”.

Charles Burchfield, An April Mood, 1946–55, watercolor and charcoal on joined paper, 40 × 54”.

New York

Charles Burchfield

Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort Street
June 24–October 17, 2010

One might expect the painting of Charles Burchfield—since forming the subject of MoMA’s first monographic exhibition, in 1930—to loom large in the annals of American art. But like the retiring Burchfield himself, who painted for decades in a quiet garden studio near Buffalo, his work has remained mostly on the margins of larger historical trends. Curated by fellow artist Robert Gober, this sprawling survey of Burchfield’s patient research goes a long way in restoring the dimensions of a career that refused the pigeonholes of various aesthetic schools and commonplaces. (Notably, one is hard pressed to find any trace of Gober’s own sensibility in the exhibition).

Having worked both as a camouflage designer in the US Army during World War I and as a wallpaper designer of some renown, Burchfield displays a sensitivity to abstraction that subtends his uniformly figurative oeuvre. From The Insect Chorus, 1917, which schematizes the proverbial chant of nature into a series of calligraphic patterns, to An April Mood, 1946–55, with its prominent fireflies and fallen leaves set in a stormy scene of bare trees, Burchfield approaches landscape as a storehouse of temperamental meanings. Many of the works are too overwrought and heavy-handed in their symbolism. The most successful images are those in which formal elements take on a pictorial life of their own—as in the shadow haunting a house in The East Wind, 1918. Here, as in the bulk of Burchfield’s early work, his painting envies little of his more renowned American contemporaries.