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Charles Burchfield grew up in a small town in Ohio and studied at the Cleveland School of Art. He spent most of his life as an “inlander,” living in Salem, Ohio, and Buffalo, New York, far from the East Coast art world. Early in his development as an artist, Burchfield experimented with different styles, including everyday scenes and industrial subjects. He worked mainly in watercolor, developing a signature technique with heavy, overlapping strokes of color. Like the Hudson River School painters before him, Burchfield found spiritual meaning in nature, and by the late 1910s, he began painting visionary, deeply individualistic landscapes.
In 1921, Burchfield and his wife moved to Gardenville, outside Buffalo, where he worked as a wallpaper designer before quitting in 1929 to concentrate on his art. In the years that followed, Burchfield’s stark images of small towns and industrial landscapes earned him renown as part of the American Scene movement, together with his close friend Edward Hopper. In 1943, as he was turning fifty and as World War II was intensifying, Burchfield went through an artistic crisis, unsure of how to develop his work. He started experimenting with the lyrical, expressionistic watercolors that he had made decades earlier, enlarging them by adding pieces of paper where he felt he needed more space for an image and cutting away parts that he thought were no longer necessary. In this way, the smaller works became large watercolors that more fully expressed the beauty and spirit of nature as he saw it.
Burchfield used nature as a vehicle for expressing his inner life—his dreams, fears, fantasies, and regressions. He greatly admired the work of Flemish artist Peter Brueghel, the Italian masters, and the landscapes of French artist Gustave Courbet, traditional Chinese landscape painting, and the writings of the naturalists Henry David Thoreau and John Burroughs. In his middle age, Burchfield began suffering from lumbago brought about by his habit of painting outdoors in difficult conditions. He worked vigorously right up until the day he died of a heart attack in 1967, shortly after the opening of his eighteenth solo exhibition at the Rehn Gallery in New York. The New York Times reviewer said of that show that Burchfield “has never painted with a surer touch or a more delicate one. He has never caught us up more effectively into his poetic vision of sunlight (or moonlight), skies, wind and flowers (or winter trees).”
Patterson Sims. Charles Burchfield: A Concentration of Works from the Permanent Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1980), 5.
Celebrated by critics and known to a broad public audience during his lifetime, Charles Burchfield is curiously under-appreciated today. Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield provides the most comprehensive examination to date of this modernist master. In this conversation, Robert Gober, acclaimed sculptor and curator of Heat Waves in a Swamp, and Donna De Salvo, Whitney chief curator, discuss Burchfield, the exhibition, his subjects, and his process.
Charles Burchfield reveled in the sounds, sights, and sensations of nature. He often wrote about his experiences in his journals, and his close study of nature is apparent in his paintings. Listen to a reading of excerpts from Burchfield’s journals by Jonathan Rosen, author of The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature, paired with a performance of songs by Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater who will be joined by Andy Stack of Wye Oak. Rosen and Meiburg both share Burchfield’s enthusiasm for nature, particularly birds. Discover the wonders in paying attention to the backyard bird.
How do artists find ways to support their careers? Inspired by Charles Burchfield’s experience working as a wallpaper designer while simultaneously trying to maintain and further his art career, this roundtable conversation explores the challenges and successes that contemporary artists have faced balancing their art and the jobs that support it. From fashion photography to an Alaskan cannery, artists Marilyn Minter, Matthew Brannon, and Amy Sillman discuss the varied experiences they pursued in addition to their artistic practices. Moderated by Katy Siegel.