Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield

Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
October 4, 2009 – January 3, 2010

Black Iron, 1935. Watercolor on paper, 28 1/8 × 40 in. (71.1 × 101.6 cm). Private collection.

Above all else, Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles serves to disrupt the demons that long lay dormant in Burchfield’s legacy. The exhibition was curated by Robert Gober, an artist known for destabilizing the iconography of the everyday, so his attraction to Burchfield might suggest some political affinity buried beneath a bygone America. Burchfield (1893-1967), who achieved commercial success in his lifetime (including a Time magazine profile), is today best remembered for his primarily watercolor depictions of small-town America and its breakdown at the hands of industrialization, which earned him an association in the 1920s and 30s with American Scene painting. Several paintings from this period are included here. But Burchfield’s work was no more a provincial campaign against industry than is Gober’s simply a critique of the bourgeoisie. As an artist’s retrospective, Heat Waves begins at the source: the psychology of Burchfield and, by extension, of Gober.

Burchfield was born in 1893 in Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio, and raised in Salem, a small town about midway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. After graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1916, he returned to Salem, where (apart from a brief service designing camouflage for the Army) he remained until 1921, when he took a job designing wallpaper at the Birge Wallpaper Company in Buffalo, New York. Four years later he moved to the suburb of Gardenville, New York, working there as an artist until the end of his life.

Freight Cars under a Bridge, 1933. Watercolor on paper, 24 × 34 in. (61 × 86.4 cm). The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. George Kamperman.

The work in Heat Waves is organized into three periods: his early, impressionistic watercolors, socially themed works of the 20s and 30s, and a late-life revival of his early style. Throughout, the paintings are supplemented with explanatory texts and ephemera, including newspaper stories, correspondences, and entries from a journal that Burchfield kept for most of his life and in which he detailed equally the day’s events and his emotional states. One remarkable room is entirely covered in a Burchfield wallpaper—a move that points directly to Gober’s own politically charged wallpapers, and strips the myth of curatorial neutrality that often clings to museum shows. It’s the early works, though, that conceptually structure the exhibition, particularly those from 1916-1918, which were the subject of a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1930. Burchfield called 1917 his “golden year”; he produced works like the stunningly ethereal “The Insect Chorus,” a swirling farmhouse scene owing as much to Fauvism as to the heavy air of the Ohio summer. The period also introduced a series of recurring visual motifs, which Burchfield called “conventions.”

Burchfield used his motifs as visual representations of emotions, which he catalogued in a journal dating from 1917 as “Conventions for Abstract Thoughts” (included in the exhibition). Simple forms symbolize specific, and often morbid or melancholic, conditions: a sort of smile with a curling upper line is labeled “fascination of evil,” a rounded form with two vacant oval “eyes” is “imbecility,” a row of mountainous peaks and curves is described, elaborately, as “The escape from the banal everyday life to the world of the ideal.” The conventions unravel representational space into the mutable architecture of memory by introducing abstract forms into the compositions. Yet as Burchfield explains in his journal, “Altho these ‘conventions[’] seem on first glace like pure inventions, most of them actually evolved from a visual experience.” The exhibition catalogue cites the artist’s interest in Chinese art, along with the shadows of draped clothes and bedposts in a 1917 work, “The Salem Bedroom Studio.” Thus for the viewer, the forms are familiar enough to register as an interplay of symbols, but one that opens the images to the shadows of the psyche.

By the 1920s and 1930s, Burchfield diverged from his early style in favor of increasingly social and political themes. The paintings from this period are both larger and more austere than the earlier ones, and a handful are oils. Burchfield himself preferred the earlier and later works. But his discomfort with the identification of his middle-period pictures with American Scene (or Regionalist) painting betrays a greater psychological complexity to these pieces than he, or Gober, explicitly acknowledges.

Orion in December, 1959. Watercolor and pencil on paper, 39 78 × 32 7/8 in. (101.3 × 83.5 cm). Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc.

The fluidity of Burchfield’s watercolor (and of his slippery oils) makes it nearly impossible for the painted image to embody its message, as it does in the virile Americana of artists like Grant Wood or Thomas Hart Benton. Instead, the content seems to dissolve into the paint. The landscape of withered brown grass and lumbering machinery in “Black Iron” (1935) feels less like a moment in time than an unfolding process, coming apart just as it asserts its physicality. This isn’t the alienated cityscape by Burchfield’s friend Edward Hopper; it’s an interior monologue made manifest by an artist unwilling or unable to achieve the artistic distance that subjugates life as a thing to be recorded and judged. This may be Burchfield’s undoing as a Regionalist but it’s the nerve center of his art. Buildings appear to bend under the weight of their entropy; the rusted solitude of “Freight Cars Under a Bridge” (1933) is fraught with Burchfield’s ghosts.

From the mid-1940s until the end of his life, Burchfield determined to return to his early style. The works from this period include elaborations of older paintings, along with monumental nature studies like “Orion in December” (1959) and “The Four Seasons” (1949-60), some of which almost prefigure psychedelic art.

Heat Waves is an extensive portrait of Burchfield. It lets the artist speak for himself, but it poeticizes his darkness and fears. Gober’s focus on this aspect of Burchfield’s work provides an obvious thread between the artist and the curator. Here, Gober is equally a co-conspirator, allowing Burchfield’s paintings to awaken the skeletons of American culture with the same unsettling grace as something like his own “Wedding Gown” (1989). Burchfield was no All-American boy; in a 1938 journal entry he writes, “I shudder when I think of the bestial impulses that so often flood my imagination.” The impulses may have been buried in his mind, but they surface in the exhibition. In 1918’s extraordinary “The Night Wind,” two yellow ovals peer from the darkness like gleaming eyes, a phantom rising on a cold air to unfetter us from all we know as real and true.


Natalie Haddad