Charles Burchfield's retrospective at The Whitney Museum of American Art affords a rare opportunity to see one of Americas most under appreciated artist. Burchfield's always had a special place in my heart. He's a strange figure that refuses easy catagorization. Part iconoclast, part visionary and part kook, he's an artist who seems at once anachronistically romantic and vigorously contemporary. But, regardless of these distinctions there is no denying that the work is beautifully weird. It's as though someone slipped Casper David Freidrich a couple of tabs of acid before letting him loose in the Hudson Valley with a set of watercolors.
Burchfield committed himself to a personal vision of the world wholly at odds with the current trends of the day. It's a vision of ecstasy mingled with mortal dread. For Burchfield, nature personifies spiritual interiority that is visionary in nature. As with Friedrich, the contemplation of the natural world is seen as a religious experience ultimately leading to self awakening.
Indeed, both artists would paint cathedrals in the forest, Friedrich paints an actual structure surrounded by mist and ancient oak trees. Burchfield paints a forest whose trees form the open windows of a stained glass facade, giving way to a vision of the four seasons. In each case the most important thing for the artist is not simply to communicate an idea, or even convey an impression but to wholly immerse the viewer in a vision. To put the viewer in a state of contemplative wonderment giving way to a sense of temporal transport.
Themes of life, death and re-berth predominate and one ultimately gets the feeling that, for Burchfield, these are not just themes but heartfelt truths he struggles his whole life to communicate. In fact, this very earnestness is perhaps the one attribute which most clearly betrays Burchfeld as a painter of an older generation. There is no irony here, no cynicism, just a kaleidoscopic intensity that at times is almost too much to bear.