Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) is an American original, a maverick wallpaper designer who stood apart from the artistic currents of his time, and through perseverence and integrity of vision became one of the most remarkable painters of the 20th century. Born in Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio, at age five he moved with his widowed mother to Salem, Ohio. He studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art from 1912 to 1916 under Henry Keller. He received a scholarship to study at the National Academy of Design in New York, but quit in embarrassment after his first day of drawing from a nude model. He returned to Cleveland to take up work as a wallpaper designer, painting during lunchbreaks and on weekends. He moved to Buffalo in 1921 to work as a wallpaper designer for N.H. Birge & Sons, then in 1925 to the Buffalo suburb of Gardenville where he lived the rest of his life. He married in 1922 and eventually raised five children, but quit his job in 1929 to work on painting full time. His work became widely known and fairly popular during the "regionalist" movement of the 1930's, and was handled by the Frank K.H. Rehn Galleries. In 1943 he was elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and after 1949 taught mostly summer art courses at schools in Buffalo, Cleveland and Minnesota.
Burchfield's earliest paintings, many of them painted on weekends and during his lunch breaks from the wallpaper factory, are technically unsteady but often show an extraordinary visual imagination. Decorative Landscape, Shadow (Willows on Vine Street) (1916, 50x35cm; in the collection of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Museum, Utica, NY) is a perceptual puzzle and a poem of transfiguration. From the horizon downward the painting shows two trees along a rural street beside a rural house; color notes are written within the heavily drawn pencil outline. Cover the top of the picture with a sheet of paper, and there is nothing that any talented weekend painter might not have done. But as the trees reach the sky the visual symbols change to black and white patterns. The branches thin as if backlit by intense light or etherealized by a mystical rapture, and the crown of leaves dissolves into strange semaphors. Is it daylight, or dark? The black form at the upper right reads like the crown of a dark tree, but has the impact of a sky spangled with stars there is no color to tip our perception either way. The cluster of black dots at the upper right and the chevrons of small strokes that indicate leaves are like the symbols of a topographical map, or notations of force or movement rather than form. The picture presents the kind of impossible double perspective that is more familiar in the works of J.C. Escher, but Burchfield pulls it off without any geometrical distortions through his idiosyncratic and uninterpretable rendering of perfectly familiar objects, and a stylized transfiguration that hints at spiritual energies, or ominous subconscious urges, or a mind that can grasp a transcendent dimension within the everyday world without making one seem more real than the other.
In 1917 Burchfield experienced some kind of mental crisis or spiritual event that entirely transformed his painting style. He developed a detailed system of personal signs, linear forms rather like letters or alchemical signs, that denoted basic emotions such as fear or despair and that could be woven into his pictures as decorative patterns or the outlines of everyday objects. He also settled on a variety of everyday symbols birds, stars, sunlight, moonlight, trees, flowers, dark pools of water to represent aspects of himself, his body, his spiritual yearnings and emotional states. In this early mature style, natural forms are rendered with abstract, nervous outlines more suitable to a wood block print or an ikat rug from Tashkent; the colors are flat, without nuanced washes or diffuse shadows. Some paintings even record the tapping of woodpeckers or the chirping of crickets as synesthesic vibrating lines and auras. Starlit Woods (1917, 85x57cm) shows how Burchfield wove his signs and symbols into stylized but representational images of astonishing poetry. The soaring straight tree might represent Burchfield's life, strong but also shorn of branches and undercut by a gaping dark hole. The profile of this hole has the "M" shape (repeated in the branch fragments at the top of the picture) that was Burchfield's sign for fear or anxiety. Beyond the tree a brilliant star and the brightening horizon stand as natural symbols of hope and renewal, brought home by the inverted "V" shape of two trees leaning together in a kind of gothic arch, Burchfield's sign for hope and redemption. But this simplistic allegory is enriched by the beautiful night scene itself, the transition of color from the cool sky to the warm grays of the ground, the fireflies that repeat the swarm of stars. Burchfield is still trying to present two realities at the same time, but more emphatically and legibly, through the use of signs and symbols on the one hand and a more thoroughly detailed realism on the other, both fused in images of natural animism. Quite often Burchfield's watercolors have an obsessively brushed or muddy appearance, as if amateurishly worked too long, but he gets exactly the same appearance in his oil paintings as well, so the effect is intended. This peculiar and unmistakable Burchfield preference for velvety or leathery brushed textures reappears on a larger scale in the patterned rendering of the knobby grasses and thatchy branches.
After a decade of painting in this vatic style (as well as in a lyrical realism of small town buildings and country nature views), in the late 1920's Burchfield changed again into a kind of "American Scene" realism that I find dreary and dispiriting. It seems Burchfield was intentionally capitalizing on the fashion in "regionalist" painters in the late 1920's and 1930's, bringing his style toward something more comprehensible and appealing to art critics and collectors: he had a family to support and was determined to make a decent living with his art. It worked perhaps too well. He achieved wide notice as the "Sinclair Lewis of the paintbrush," and was lauded as an exponent of a uniquely American art, and to my eye never painted anything that showed a glimmer of joy or humor. But in 1943 with his family raised, his success assured, newly elected to the National Academy and feeling the willful liberty of late middle age Burchfield had another revelatory episode that turned him back to his youthful style, his old symbols and signs, and his nature animism. In this last phase he often took up his youthful paintings and reworked or completely repainted them, sometimes adding paper around the edges to substantially enlarge the sheet. Hot September Wind (1953, 99x74cm) is a lovely work from these late years. The yellow patterns over the gray sky symbolize both the heat of the late day sun and the oncoming blast of hot wind. The downward twist of the flowers along the bottom of the picture shows that the wind is striking us in the face, bringing with it all the dry smells of late summer; the flowers' curving backs suggest a visual pattern that is repeated in beautifully varied earth tones into the dry grasses and the distant hump of trees. And centered in the picture, hovering like the dry sound of swishing grass stalks, ragged like the ripples of gusts in the wheat or the pressure of wind against the eyes, is the old "M" symbol of fear, the winnowing fear of life about to enter its inevitable decline. But the fear is tempered by the warmth and richness of the natural world, the cycle of seasons, and the harvest of a lifetime spent in art.
Burchfield is among the most difficult 20th century American painters to approach intimately. It is tempting to cast his paintings as the work of a provincial, quirky and sometimes mentally disturbed talent following its own inclinations. But this ignores Burchfield's attentive response to contemporary art trends, his rewriting and manipulated release of his diaries to fabricate a public artistic persona, and his obvious ambition and hard work. Burchfield may have capitulated to art trends in his "regionalist" paintings, but his early and late works show a brilliant visual imagination restlessly seeking the artistic equivalents for a transcendental and highly individual vision of the natural world.
There is no comprehensive reference to Burchfield's work, which is scattered across many collections and has not yet been definitively catalogued. The Paintings of Charles Burchfield: North by Midwest by Nannette Maciejunes & Michael Hall (Harry Abrams, 1997) contains a large selection of paintings and 9 essays by art scholars, and is probably the best single introduction to his range. Charles Burchfield by Matthew Baigell (Watson-Guptill, 1976), now out of print, is an interesting survey and appreciation of Burchfield's work, marred by the large number of black-and-white reproductions and a superficial grasp of the paintings. The Whitney Museum's Charles Burchfield, the catalog to its 1956 retrospective exhibit, is a brief overview and appreciation of his work while he was still alive again with too many black-and-white reproductions.