New York

Charles E. Burchfield, Autumn to Winter, 1964–66, watercolor on joined paper mounted on board, 50 × 75".

Charles E. Burchfield, Autumn to Winter, 1964–66, watercolor on joined paper mounted on board, 50 × 75".

Charles E. Burchfield

In a typewritten letter to one Mrs. Randolf, dated August 23, 1962, and displayed in a vitrine in Menconi + Schoelkopf’s modest but enlightening exhibition devoted to the art of Charles E. Burchfield (1893–1967), the venerable watercolorist reflects on a summer vacation forty-seven years earlier, when, seized by Romantic afflatus, he began ecstatically painting impressions of the woods around Salem, Ohio, where he grew up: “This artist in me was in the process of being born. . . . The beauty of the world almost drove me wild.”

The young Burchfield’s work—a deft metabolization of William Blake, Arthur Wesley Dow, and Katsushika Hokusai—achieved a preternatural sophistication and intensity in 1917. The same year, he devised a catalogue of hierographic symbols to represent birdsongs and insect noises, as well as angsty postadolescent emotions such as “aimless brooding,” “dangerous brooding,” “morbid brooding,” and “nostalgia.” A handful of gems in the exhibition hail from this annus mirabilis, including the ukiyo-e-inflected idyll In a green dale and Summer Rain, a love letter to wet glistening frondage. A year after Burchfield quit his day job designing wallpaper to paint full-time, Summer Rain was included in a 1930 show of his early watercolors at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the institution’s first-ever exhibition dedicated to a single artist. Alfred H. Barr Jr.’s accompanying catalogue essay waxed on the “Spencerian flourishes” and “‘Gothick’ moods” of Burchfield’s modernism, which, innocent of Cézanne and van Gogh, seemed to have sprung parthenogenetically from the soil of his native Ohio.

By the time of his MoMA show, Burchfield, now a married father of five living near Buffalo, had moved on from his youthful expressionism to focus on gritty scenes of industry, labor, and urban infrastructure. (While such imagery might seem to resonate with the collectivizing impulses of many Depression-era culture workers, he maintained a romantic and individualist view of the artist, whom he believed “should be left alone to do his work and never should be dictated to as to what and how he shall create.” In 1935, Burchfield would intervene in debates about state sponsorship of culture with a letter published in the American Magazine of Art, arguing that the commercial “dealer-artist” system was the ideal safeguard of free expression: “What the artist most needs is to find a market for his wares. . . . ,” he declared. “History shows us that such emergencies as the present one are always temporary, and that being so, let the Section of Painting and Sculpture be likewise temporary.”) Sadly, the compelling austerity of Burchfield’s so-called middle period was barely evident in this presentation; the best pieces were all examples of the artist’s mature production, works in which, beginning in World War II, he revisited the dryadic passions of 1917, often expanding on his early compositions by carefully pasting new sheets of paper around them.

Yielding work grander in scale and ambition than the synesthetic fugues of his youth, Burchfield’s late style vibrates between Thoreauvian excess, unreconstructed kitsch, and astonishing sublimity. Depicted space becomes baroque, crammed with competing perspectives and temporalities. In The Fragrance of Spring (Bee Hepaticas), ca. 1962, an areola of pink and purple flowers laid atop a bed of crunchy amber leaves frames an eldritch vision of a defoliated birch forest and a white owl flying through encroaching darkness. The writhing curtain of fall flora, birds, butterflies, and gnarled boles in Autumn to Winter, 1964–66, is pierced by the jagged outlines of two white conifers, rising from the scrub like cathedral spires. Worlds away from the Christmas card evergreenery depicted in the nearby Hemlock in November, 1947–66, they are not ordinary trees, but—as Burchfield scholar Nancy Weekly writes—“portals to a mystic North Woods” aglow in white light and blanketed in shimmering snow. Puritan pantheist, apocalyptic wallpaperist, and eulogist of the American wilderness—Burchfield, at his best, takes you there with him.