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“Still Life — Scrap Iron” by Charles Burchfield at the Rockwell Museum

Watercolorist Charles Burchfield (1893–1967) occupies an idiosyncratic but vital place in the history of modern American art. Based lifelong in Ohio and Western New York, he was often pigeonholed as a Regionalist or “American Scene” painter — labels he vehemently rejected.

In fact, he was a sophisticated cosmopolitan: abreast of the New York City scene and influenced by East Asian painting and an emerging European and American modernism. Largely eschewing oils, he partook of a strong national watercolor tradition while using a layered dry brush technique at odds with the spontaneous fluidity associated with the medium. Alternating between the ecstatic expressionism of his early and late periods and the somber realism of his middle years, he remains elusive.  

On view currently at Corning’s Rockwell Museum (through May 9), “Blistering Vision: Charles E. Burchfield’s Sublime American Landscapes” aims to track his vision of a mythopoetic struggle between industry and nature. 

Curated by Tullis Johnson, the exhibition originated at Buffalo’s Burchfield Penney Art Center, marking the museum’s 50th anniversary in 2016. Dedicated to Western New York artists, the Burchfield Penney maintains a specialty in focused thematic presentations of the artist’s work. A scholarly, specialized effort like this one is a less natural fit for the Rockwell. 

A smaller museum, the Rockwell has limited space for special shows. Unfortunately, this one is scaled-down, shorn of supplementary materials, with pieces hung tightly around a one-room gallery. The result is a display that feels flattened out, with interesting but aesthetically slight sketches sharing comparable billing with major works.

Born in Ashtabula, Ohio, into an era of rural decline, Burchfield moved with his family to nearby Salem when he was five — into a house he occupied into his late twenties and an anchoring location for much of his early work. A student at the Cleveland School of Art between 1912 and 1916, he achieved artistic maturity early. (His works of 1916–1918 were shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1930 — the fledgling New York institution’s first one-person show.)

The selection of early watercolors here is modest but rewarding. Burchfield developed a unique style, often incorporating synesthetic evocations of sound and emotion into quotidian scenes of rural and small town life. “Untitled (The Ravine)” and “Bozzert’s Dam, Salem, Ohio” (both 1916) display a coloristic warmth rare in his later work and a radical near-abstraction.

Burchfield moved to Buffalo in 1921, starting a family and finding success as a wallpaper designer before striking out as a full time painter eight years later. He remained in the Buffalo area for the remainder of his life. 

More so than Regionalism, his work of the twenties and thirties recalls the unsentimental modernity of painters like his better-known friend Edward Hopper and the industrial documentarian Charles Sheeler. “Still Life — Scrap Iron” (1929) brings the traditionally indoor genre outside, echoing something of Sheeler’s dispassionate precision. The dour palette is typical of the period: thin patches and strokes of rust and mustard accenting a world in gray. “Roadside Stream” (1939), in sharp perspective, memorializes an ordinary country scene with its rhythmic interplay of trees, telephone poles and short posts. 

Beginning in 1943, Burchfield returned to his experimental early approach. Working at an expanded scale and sometimes piecing his early sheets into new compositions, he achieved a grand, if eccentric, late style. 

Like several of these paintings, “Early Spring” (1966-1967) — an obvious highlight here — seems to translate the gothic ruins of Northern Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich into a worship of nature. A copse of barren and evergreen trees occupies the center, rising like a mighty cathedral above a field of acrid yellow flowers. The light is harsh, bright, and the season indeterminate: blooms matched with what appears snow. 

One appreciates seeing a show dedicated to an artist of Burchfield’s caliber and significance close to Ithaca. Although I did not see “Blistering Vision” in its original venue, a fair amount appears to have been lost in translation. Aside from the smaller size and absence of key paintings and archival materials, the current rendition suffers from a lack of context. 

The Rockwell, though aiming to present “art about the American experience” following its 2015 designation as a Smithsonian Affiliate, retains its founding focus on Western and Native American art. This emphasis is clear enough, walking around the third floor permanent collection galleries that form the heart of any visit. (While up there, viewers interested in Burchfield might pull their eyes from the epic Hudson River School landscapes and heroic cowboys to take in one of the side galleries. Here are Burchfield’s true peers: mostly NYC-based realists and modernists of the early twentieth century.) 

Burchfield ends up somewhat stranded. Still, this is a substantial, occasionally gripping, presentation and well worth a trip to Corning — particularly for enthusiasts of early American modernism and lovers of visionary, animistic nature scenes. 

 

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