Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Burchfield at the Whitney

In NYC for a wedding, we went to the retrospective of Charles Burchfield at the Whitney. As an Ohioan -- no, a northern Ohioan! -- I had known of Burchfield and have seen his watercolors before. But THIS exhibit: what an eye-opening set of rooms!

Burchfield makes of watercolor -- normally a pastoral medium -- a stage for the tragedies of nature. His trees are vital, scary, independent of humans (as I guess he might have been as well). They have their own agendas.
This little back yard is so fraught with danger and with life! Look at the little buzzy verticals above the bush: I think they represent insect songs.

I can't find images of most of the pictures I saw. One was a swamp in the afternoon (he loved swamps, apparently). What watercolorist would position himself IN A SWAMP, in the AFTERNOON, looking INTO the sun! but here was the sun, glowing, its super-nuclear fires evident in the normally-placid medium of watercolor: the medium that in Burchfield's hands, vibrates with fear, anger, awareness...

He did attend to the great depression, though he really loved nature, and produced a great body of realist, regionalist work about the thirties. Here's his image of an equinoctial storm -- nature beating down on shabby workers' houses as it did on the bald head of King Lear.

One particularly bizarre piece: the front of a house stands alone, a movie-facade, while builders take down everything behind it. It is ONLY the front, nothing else.

He wrote about one piece: "Astonishment and wonder are the keynotes of hte picture -- Eliminate all else." What a mantra for an artist to live by!

This is an Orion picture -- December Ohio sky.  Aren't these stars and these trees astonishing and wonderful???
I think of the great American poet Theodore Roethke -- like Burchfield, he grew up in the midwest (Michigan) -- and knew the connections of nature's insistence and the soul's obsessions. His father ran a greenhouse -- who better to know of how nature's pressures are to grow, and grow, and grow?

Here's Roethke's famous and wonderful poem about the roots in a root cellar. I think I knew these roots when I was 13 years old, too.
Root Cellar by Theodore Roethke
Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch,
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,
Shoots dangled and drooped,
Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,
Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.
And what a congress of stinks!
Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.
Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.
One last Burchfield: he called this "Decorative Landscape," but like Roethke's roots, these are far from decorative. He must have been a great ironist!

1 comment:

Mary VN said...

connecting Burchfield's art with Roethke's poetry -- another fascinating coupling on your part. Thanks, Nick.