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A year ago, Licata became the fourth member of a group of garden bloggers with an attitude. Garden Rant one of my favorites: A blend of gossip, news, crusade and, yes, raw rant, it blows the cobwebs out of gardening's mustier corners.

–Adrian Higgins,
Washington Post

... co-curators Elizabeth Licata and Amy Cappellazzo have magnificently transcended the limitations of what is, at bottom, a show of books. ...Preciousness—the bane of such exhibitions—is nowhere in evidence.

–Richard Huntington,
Buffalo News

"Garden Walk Buffalo: A Celebration of Urban Gardens," is a tour guide into dozens of gardens during the annual event held the last full weekend in July. It's knowingly written by Buffalo Spree editor Elizabeth Licata, and packed with gorgeous photographs...

–Mark Sommer,
Buffalo News

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Art Writer

"Charles Burchfield: A Burning Vision,"

I like to think of myself--as an artist--as being in a nondescript swamp, alone, up to my knees in mire, painting the vital beauty I see there, in my own way, not caring a damn about tradition, or anyone's opinion.

Charles Burchfield's Journals (2/8/38)

For most of his professional life, American watercolorist Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) lived a middle-class existence in Gardenville, New York with his wife Bertha and his five children. Cocktail parties, black tie openings, and art world intrigue were anathema to him. He frowned upon excessive drinking and was "bored and disgusted" when conversation verged on the risqué. In the few existing photographs of this shy, somewhat repressed artist, he always seems completely bewildered at finding himself the center of attention. Burchfield did not easily reveal himself in casual interactions. His fierce devotion to portraying the "inner life" of the outer world was nourished--and guarded--in relative seclusion.

In celebration of that devotion, the Burchfield Art Center in Buffalo has organized a retrospective exhibition, The Sacred Woods, opening at the Drawing Center in New York City this month. Earlier this year, the Center published a sumptuously illustrated edition of Burchfield's lifelong writings, Charles Burchfield's Journals (SUNY Press), edited by J. Benjamin Townsend. Although the exhibition will probably attract more art world fanfare, Townsend's careful distillation of Burchfield's more than 10,000 notebook pages--18 years in the editing--is the ultimate key to a full understanding of this artist: his obsessions, his influences, and his beliefs.

In 1915 at the age of 23 Burchfield wrote:

I despise my life. My contact with others only fills me with repulsion. My art is the only redeeming feature of myself. If I can bury myself completely in it, I will have attained some peace of mind. In later years, the artist wasn't quite so apocalyptic, but was still capable of writing (in 1939), One is driven by self-disgust, to produce indifferent work, just so as to be doing something, in the wild hope of redeeming one's unworthiness.

Even the most cursory perusal of the Journals yields dozens of such anxiety-ridden passages. As an artist, Burchfield was continually frustrated by his inability to capture what most fascinated him in his beloved natural landscape. The intensity of Burchfield's lifelong connection with nature is awe-inspiring, almost frightening. It began early. He drew constantly during his childhood in Ashtabula and Salem, Ohio, going on to study at the Cleveland School of Art (now the Cleveland Institute of Art). The watercolors that he produced immediately after finishing this training were radical for their time, distortions of the natural world which attempted to portray moods and sounds as well as forms and color. In 1916, Burchfield invented graphic symbols to express sounds such as the chirping of insects--a series of triangular parentheses--or moods such as "the fascination of evil"--an upward curve, shadowed like a ghostly grin. His determination to present a holistic view of nature which depended little on naturalistic depiction was reflected in his journal entries for that year:

Paint the feeling, regardless of drawing. At dusk there is an ominous feeling of something huge and black about to descend upon the earth; this should be painted, not sky or clouds...(9/21/16)

This period is now identified as the point to which Burchfield would return with various degrees of intensity throughout his career. Although the "realist phase" of the nineteen twenties and thirties produced some highly regarded industrial landscapes and scenes of farm and village life, most Burchfield connoisseurs point to his luminous expressionist fantasies as the culmination of his art. Works such as WindBlown Asters (1951), The Moth and the Thunderclap (1961), and The Four Seasons (1949-60) revitalize Burchfield's earlier symbolic motifs of 1916-20 with sinuous force; they are seamlessly integrated with the mature artist's portrayal of solid forms in an uncluttered vista.

The struggle to achieve this final triumph, to keep his balance during his lifelong tango with the natural world, was an agonizing process for Burchfield, a process often impeded by the necessity to maintain his family and, later, his career, which began to take on a rather annoying life of its own. In 1921, after moving to Gardenville, a small community near Buffalo, New York, Burchfield took a full time job as a designer with the Birge and Sons wallpaper company. Although the Birge wallpapers which have survived are finally emerging as a potent element within Burchfield's creative output, the job itself was a nerve-wracking grind, filled with the sorts of interpersonal power struggles Burchfield would take great pains to avoid throughout his later dealings in the art world. In 1929, after Frank Rehn, a New York dealer who handled Burchfield's work until his death in 1967, assured the artist that he could afford to quit Birge, Burchfield was free to paint full time. But the distractions--which Burchfield deeply resented--continued. Again and again in his journal entries, the artist lamented the necessity to hobnob and to chit-chat, to attend openings and fulfill the duties which his growing fame forced upon him:

Why does no-one seem to realize that these affairs, far from tickling the vanity of an artist, are only a source of boredom and irritation? That they take much more out of him than he can possibly get back-- (4/19/41)

During such social functions as he forced himself to attend, Burchfield often made his reluctance painfully obvious. In 1941, at a formal dinner, he absently-mindedly replied "Oh sure, absolutely," to the woman sitting next to him only to realize that she had asked him if she looked her age. Later that year, Burchfield asked his journal, is it possible to make people understand that artists are not interested in art?

Burchfield kept up in a desultory manner with the progression of Modernism, and was enthusiastic about contemporaries such as John Marin and Edward Hopper and predecessors such as J.M.W. Turner and Jean-Francoise Millet, but he was too engaged with his own aesthetic and spiritual demons to enter into the debates over abstraction which still raged during most of his career. Burchfield served on several important juries and committees at the Guggenheim, the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo(now Albright-Knox) and the Carnegie in Pittsburgh. Although he rarely critiqued his contemporaries in his journals, some choice bits appear from time to time:

A disturbing incident: Huge canvases (submitted) by [Franz] Kline whose "art" consists of swiping a six inch brush across a white canvas. Henry [Varnum Poor] said his "sponsors" all took the same line i.e.--that here was the greatest artist produced by the 20th century.--One of the men was Thomas Hess of the Art News--and the other Andrew Ritchie. Both men know better so their attitude must be one of the aim to destroy painting--but why? (3/10-11/55)

This attitude of honest bewilderment never went further into rancor or polemic. For as much as Burchfield disliked most of the abstraction of his time, he hated the narrow-minded chauvinism of the American Regionalist rhetoric even more. "'Regionalism'--it makes me sick", he wrote to Frank Rehn in 1938, resentmentful at being constantly grouped with Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and John Steuart Curry. What the label-happy critics of this period missed was the inherent romanticism of Burchfield's portrayal of the man-made landscape. Although during the nineteen twenties and thirties he often painted "sordid" scenes of run-down shacks and neglected village neighborhoods, he chose these subjects for the same reasons he was drawn to certain meadows and ravines. Burchfield saw moods and personalities in individual structures, and often exaggerated architectural features to the point of grotesquerie in order to vividly express such ambiance. In planning paintings of the Buffalo harbor scene, he fondly referred to the ships, freight cars, and grain elevators with jocular familiarity:

Going south along the peninsula between two canals, I found my old friend the "Maruba" (of Plague-Ship fame!). It has been prettied up a little with dark gray paint, but its fine lines could not be spoiled & it still had the look of a lean hungry wolf. I felt a warm friendly glow as of seeing an old friend. (1/25/24)

Burchfield's view of the world, formed by Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century naturalists John Burroughs and John Audobon, and the music of Beethoven and Sibelius (to name some of the more important influences), was too all-encompassing to allow nationalist turf warfare to inform it. Even though he never set foot in Europe, he liked to imagine that the horizons he painted somehow caught the atmosphere of the distant unseen as well as the immediate seen:

With the aid of my imagination, I conjured up to my mind's eye, the whole northern landscape (as I thought it might be) from Northern Russia & Finland, to Northern Canada & Alaska,--I conceived it as a vast upland country with hilly pastures, deep wooded hills, and barren rocky mountains, lit up by low southern December sun, whose light it shut off from the great bleak Arctic ice--wastes beyond--lying in my bed here, I felt as tho I were sitting on the extreme southern edge of this vast ledge, and not merely in a little village in a localized flat country; the sun, and wide spreading southern sky, therefore took on an elemental grandeur it would not otherwise have had. (12/7/42)

It was Sibelius, a Finnish composer, who inspired this reverie, but Burchfield's internal compass always guided him northward, towards the complete absence of not only civilization, but also towards an imagined cessation of natural growth and seasonal change. At times, nature's cacophony was too much for Burchfield to absorb. Each flourish of the passing seasons presented dozens of picture possibilities to the artist; he often longed to hold back time long enough to sort out the rush of ideas:

I feel more and more unhappy that I am failing to paint the fresh late Spring season. The magic hour of the Summer Solstice is fast approaching--I must somehow do something of this great moment when the sun and earth meet in their greatest intimacy--a truly mystical event. (6/16/64)

Even the grimmest Buffalo winters enchanted Burchfield. Once, after gazing at a bleak January landscape of spongy, greenish-black vegetation and bare trees, he wrote, I stand spellbound, unable myself to move for the power and wonder of it. He was continually frustrated by the impossibility of pinning down a bright spring day, and after attempts at encapsulating hourly changes in the appearance of a landscape from dawn to dusk in his "all day sketches," eventually Burchfield decided to place more reliance on memory rather than subjecting himself to the distractions of reality. This strategy also allowed him to develop an abstract vocabulary of slashing brush strokes and angular distortions to represent drama, while undulating lines and atmospheric veils of paint suggested mystery and mood. Not unlike the late Joan Mitchell, whose work he probably would not have appreciated, Burchfield filtered his moods and feelings about a scene through the analysis of memory. In the Journals, this process becomes Proustian in scope, as Burchfield uses one sound to leap across a host of temporal and emotional boundaries:

A few moments ago I heard a long-sustained blast of a factory whistle, low in tone, and coming as it seemed from some mysterious distance; it brought to mind a long-forgotten mood from boyhood, of a still hot afternoon, when a factory-whistle would be blowing, perhaps actually to warn the town of some calamity such as the death of a president, or a fire; and which my boyish imagination magnifies into an ominous portent of some vast doom, such as war, or some unnamed and therefore worse disaster. At such a moment even the pure blue of the sky and the brilliantly lit up plants and bushes assumed a hostile or terrifying appearance--It struck to the core of my being, as some terrific cataclysm, that was endangering the whole human race...the whistle stopped, and there followed an intense breathless moment; then a white butterfly would zig-zag across the meadow, and the spell would be broken. (7/7/48)

When Burchfield first returned to his early fantastic visions of nature, in the early forties, memory alone could not evoke their spirit. He had to go back to the works themselves. In paintings such as Autumnal Fantasy (1916-44) and Song of the Telegraph (1917-52), Burchfield reworked the older watercolors, adding strips of paper or whole panels to enlarge upon the scene, if necessary. Later, as he realized that his older style was not entirely compatible with the additions, he strove to "escape from realism" without using the 1917 works as a foundation. This was a period of extreme exuberance for the artist, in spite of the physical problems--lumbago, arthritis, diabetes, and prostate trouble--which had begun to trouble him throughout the 50s:

I feel an unsurge of power; my major works seem ahead of me, and I will have the time and energy to complete them; God is good to me, so far, far beyond my deserts. (8/20/53)

Burchfield was indeed prolific during the final decade of his life. He completed 33 paintings in 1959, and during the early 60s commenced work on an ambitious series celebrating the transitions of the seasons. Only Autumn to Winter (1964-66) was completed, but it and other works from this period, including Solitude (1963) and Orion in Winter (1962), are considered among the most mystical and evocative of his career. Throughout these final years, Burchfield's curiosity and joy in any natural manifestation continued unabated. He made the most of the few outdoor sketching trips he was still able to take:

We went down to the country (the Big Woods) for the day...This was truly a fine hour--The snow-bank like an enormous white bird, fallen on the earth--The snow was bathed in a pale aura of golden sunlight, tinged with salmon pink; melting snow formed into rivulets, sparkling in the sun...As I sketched, the wonder of the idea, of a snow-bank melting under a spring sun, with little cataracts, took possession of me; and I felt all over again, my youth renewed by the discovery of a brand new event of nature; (4/3/63)

Severe asthma attacks often left the artist completely bedridden throughout the 60s, but he held them at bay with cortisone, living long enough to attend the dedication of the State University College at Buffalo's new Burchfield Art Center in 1966. He died of a heart attack on January 10, 1967.

The Sacred Woods, the current exhibition (June 10-July 30)at The Drawing Center is curated by Nancy Weekly, and travels to the Minnesota Museum of Art (September 10-November 7), the Burchfield Center(December 11-February, '94) and the Hunter Museum in Chattanooga, Tennesee (April 3-May, '94). Burchfield's mature "transcendent" works from the '50s and '60s will be on display side-by-side with a wide selection of watercolors from 1916-20. The exhibition, which totals 86 works, includes few of Burchfield's more conventional landscapes and none of his industrial scenes. Some paintings, drawings, and etchings of religious subjects from various stages in his career are shown to emphasize the importance of spirituality throughout his oeuvre.

Although many of Burchfield's critics have diagrammed his aesthetic progress as a triangular movement--moving away from fantasy and then back--both The Sacred Woods and the Journals will be a revelation to those who had classed Burchfield with the Regionalist group, or to those who prefer to think of an artist's development as always moving in a lockstep linear fashion. Throughout his career, Burchfield was not so much obsessed with forward movement and unceasing innovation as with spiritual development and the reconciliation of his love for nature with his desire to portray it.

Charles Burchfield would have been 100 years old this year. As commemorations of that centennial, both the exhibition and the book eloquently demonstrate that whatever he appeared to be on the outside, this quintessential "average guy" artist could have vied with Van Gogh or Pollock for inner turmoil and emotional complexity. Such compelling evidence of the relentlessly critical introspection which guided Burchfield's spiritual and aesthetic existence can only enrich our appreciation of his achievement.

Art & Antiques, Summer, 1993

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