Beauty in winter? Look through this artist's frame of mind

"Song of the Telegraph" (1917-52) by Charles Burchfield. Burchfield Penney Art Center / Collection of William and Rose-Marie Shanahan

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- When I was 14, I discovered winter.

School, at the time, was a satanic misery, so I spent most of my life alone and came to enjoy that condition more than any other. I owned a pair of skis and began to use them, exploring the woods near an old apple orchard in upstate New York. Most often, this was in the late afternoon, when the winter light reduced everything to a dull palette of brown and gray.

Or so I thought at first. In fact, the woods were a spectacle of different browns and grays, ochers and ecrus, with notes of dark pine and a rare hint of blue sky peaking through the leafless canopy of wiry branches above. I don't know if I was aware of these colors at the time, but about five years ago I rediscovered them, and with them winter once again, in the paintings of Charles Burchfield.

Born in 1893, Burchfield is among this country's greatest artists, and in 1930 was the first American to be given a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His paintings sold regularly during his lifetime and in 1956 he was the subject of a major Whitney Museum retrospective. And yet, today, he is no longer a marquee name; instead, he the subject of passionate yet scattered adoration.

My regular work as an art critic is mostly determined by the schedules, and interests, of professional curators working at large museums or galleries. They determine what I must read and study and endeavor to appreciate. Pursuing a personal attachment to a particular painter, especially one such as Burchfield, whose works are mostly encountered in group or thematic exhibitions, is a sideline. But last month I decided to indulge my own inclinations and visit the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo.


On Dec. 13, the museum (which has a large collection of his work and his archives) opened a new exhibition of his watercolors, "Charles E. Burchfield, A Magical Rebirth, 1943-1967." The show surveys the last decades of the artist's career, when he threw off any trace of obligation or restraint, and painted with a freedom and emotional intensity rarely matched by other artists of his generation. In these watercolors, the landscape of Upstate New York took on synesthetic power, seeming to hum, buzz and wail with operatic intensity, and Burchfield pursued an idiosyncratic and deeply personal language of landscape painting to the edges of pure abstraction. The work he made during this period is astonishing, and sometimes terrifying.

Burchfield was a precocious artist who made an astounding amount of work when he was still in his 20s. Although he lived most of his life outside of Buffalo, he exhibited in New York, was friends with Edward Hopper and, by his 30s, was fully independent as an artist.

Around 1943, Burchfield began a remarkable transformation, returning to themes, subjects and impulses of his early years, sometimes reworking paintings he had made decades earlier. After years of work that charted small town and urban life, industrial sites and the waning architectural landscape of 19th-century America, he embraced an ecstatic animism, painting the natural world as if it were fully sentient and conscious.

I knew his work from the here and there of art catalogues and occasional exhibitions. But at a Phillips Collection exhibition of American art in 2014, I found myself unable to move away from his "December Moonrise." The 1959 watercolor shows the moon just edging above the horizon with the sky so cold that the stars seem to have frozen to the firmament like hoarfrost on a window. It left with me chills.

After a lifetime of careful self-deracination, I felt suddenly tied to a place, to a time, to a particular field in much the same light as Burchfield painted it more than a half-century earlier. I am wary of this kind of response to art, the sense that the natural world looks just like the vision the artist presents, and therein lies the supposed genius of the artist. It is unfair to other artists, who paint worlds you haven't seen and who paint them in ways you've never experienced.

Artists who are canny about using the natural world to seduce the viewer can get by with a limited repertoire of tricks, dappled clouds, voluptuous sunsets, mists in the gloaming, and their work is often manipulative, like calendar art or the pictures on old postcards. There is nothing more tedious than listening to someone tell you that no one can understand the art of (insert famous artist's name here) without visiting (insert beloved natural landscape here).

Burchfield wasn't that sort of painter. He wasn't sentimental and there is a ferocity to his work, even in the gentlest landscapes, that suggests a fight against loss or death, a desperation to hold on to particular images and sensations. We know from his copious journals that he not only loved music but loved the music of Jean Sibelius, an aural painter of winter landscapes. Sibelius, like Burchfield, captured the dark side of the sublime, the engulfing danger of it. And, like Burchfield, he did it without resorting to old conventions of romantic landscape. There is no wanderer standing lonely above a sea of clouds in Sibelius, or Burchfield; just the memory of gray light, the silhouette of a tree or the smell of mud in April.

Burchfield was a great painter of winter, and though he painted all the other seasons, it was the abundance of winter in upstate New York that seemed most to inspire him. He was particularly good at finding the edges of winter, its early onset and its late retreat, especially that interval sometime in March when the season is threatened by a fickle sun and the snow melts in patches, making the world seem ragged and half-dressed. Among the most moving works in the Burchfield Penney exhibition is "December Storm," which he began in 1941, the day before Pearl Harbor was bombed. It shows a violent blast of wind, and streaks of rain, beating a dun-colored landscape, as if a summer thunderstorm had missed its cue in June and blustered in six months later.


Because I love Burchfield's work, I want him to be a smart painter, a painter who was more than a maker of pretty things. And he is. He plotted his work thoroughly, reworked it, updated it, expanded it. He intricately mapped his watercolors and filled voluminous sketches with a continually evolving critique of their development. He was aware of the environmental changes of 20th-century America, the loss of elms and chestnut trees, the depredations of industrialism and the cruel expendability of human beings caught in its maw. He read widely, listened widely, wrote extensively and kept up with the work of other artists. He chose a kind of isolation, in Buffalo, but was never isolated from the larger intellectual and artistic world.

I admire all of that. But mostly, I am thankful that he was, like his "December Storm," a painter out of season. He worked mostly in watercolors, which is a fragile medium, so his work doesn't hold up to continual exhibition in major museums.

"There is no 'Nighthawks' that is on permanent display," says Dennis Kois, executive director of the Burchfield Penney center, referring to the image of a cafe that helped make Burchfield's friend Edward Hopper by far the more famous artist. "Burchfield's work is media specific."

But he was also out of season when it came to the art that was being retailed as quintessentially American in the middle of the last century. At times, Burchfield's work can be as abstract as the dynamic canvases of America's name-brand abstract expressionists working in New York in the 1940s and '50s, but Burchfield was not part of that world, and didn't want to be. His abstraction was personal and specific, the result of a lifelong quest for a language sufficiently expressive to capture the nuances of the little patch of the world he called home. His abstraction wasn't remote from representation, merely a heightening of its expressive power.

And he seemed to live out of season, too. As an older man, he took up where he had left off as a young man, returning and reinventing. He was fond of weather-beaten things, half-plowed streets, roofs fallen in, and the world seen in light that could be early or late, spring or fall, waxing or waning. I'd like to say that the work of Burchfield makes me happy, but it doesn't. The sensation is more wintry. Burchfield makes me feel out of season, too, with the uncanny sense that I am experiencing someone else's memories intermingled with my own, and with no hope of disentangling them.

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