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Out of Salem, a Lot

Note: This exhibit at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center closes Sunday.

A half-century after his passing and the opening of his eponymous art center, Buffalo is still working to fully understand her most famous artist. At the same time, we work to make his legacy as an environmentalist relevant to a new generation beset on all sides with the effects of environmental degradation even more horrible than those Charles Burchfield depicted in his earliest work. That side of Burchfield was deeply explored in last year’s Blistering Vision exhibit at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center, curated by Tullis Johnson. Did you see it?

Now, just a year later, the Center has mounted an exhibit that is also critical to understanding the artist, exploring his explosion of creativity a century ago this year, in his hometown of Salem, Ohio. Titled A Dream World of Imagination: Charles E. Burchfield’s Golden Year, it closes on November 26, so hustle.

Like the Cambrian Explosion, in which nature tried a variety of new forms, during this period Burchfield experimented with form, technique, and genre. Some he set aside, while some recur in his work up to his death a half-century ago. In the exhibit, you can see work influenced by the master of Japanese prints, Hokusai, and his signature work The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, and also an experiment with Chinese scroll painting.

The Coming of Spring

These influences on Burchfield’s work may be so subtle that even exhibit curator Nancy Weekly, who has spent a career studying and sharing Burchfield, can find something new. On a tour of the exhibit, she showed me one of his best-known works, The Coming of Spring – traditionally seen as the season on the left displacing the season on the right – hung on the same wall as his experiment with scroll painting. When viewed right to left, like the scroll painting, The Coming of Spring reads differently. Given that it was originally painted not long after the artist dabbled with scroll painting, what can we conclude?

The exhibit is full of such Burchfieldian mysteries, including devotion of considerable attention to his unique abstraction of thoughts, feelings, sounds, and even nature in his work. His burst of creativity a century ago included evolution of his “Conventions for Abstract Thoughts.” Once you’ve seen them in the exhibit, you’ll recognize them throughout his work. To convey the sounds of things he saw – Weekly makes a good case for Burchfield being synesthetic – he developed signature “Audio Cryptograms,” or what Guy Davenport, author of a book on Burchfield, called “agitrons, squeans, and blurgits.”

Audio Cryptograms

Taking a page (literally) from the center’s archives, the exhibit shows how Burchfield abstracted a cricket, as he did other insects and birds in his paintings. Seeing the cricket grow increasingly abstract sketch by sketch reminded me of the evolution of public figures in Tom Toles cartoons. Over years of drawings, they become just the angle of a nose or a tuft of hair, yet we recognize them immediately. But Burchfield did this in a single sitting, on a single sheet of paper.

By combining archival material such as this with important representative works, Weekly shows us that Burchfield was always abstract and expressionistic. Yet unlike his contemporaries displayed in the gallery across the street, he was never an expressionist, abstract or otherwise. He created at their level, yet defied characterization and eschewed pigeonholing.

Conventions for Abstract Thoughts

In this and many other ways, this exhibit not only helps us understand Burchfield but also reminds us just how rich a legacy he gave us, not just in his art but in his journals and his archives and even his studio. This is the first of a series of centennial shows that will draw widely from that legacy. Don’t miss them, or you’ll have to wait until they come around again as bicentennial shows.

While this show is essential to understanding the evolution of Burchfield’s style and work, I wish it had taken the obvious next step: to inspire. To not explicitly attempt to do so strikes me as a missed opportunity.

Catalog cover, Burchfield MOMA exhibit, 1930

Why? Because what is most astonishing about Burchfield’s golden year is not that this creative burst erupted in such a short time, but from the smallest of places: Salem, Ohio, and a small circle of houses and family there. The exhibit’s signature work, View from Our Front Porch, Salem, Ohio, perfectly illustrates (see lead image). In the watercolor, a surprise snowburst emerges from a blue sky with a glowing fall sun, its winds driving away the autumnal tranquility and dislodging leaves clinging to a past season. This is a visual symphony composed of simple ingredients and seen from the simplest and humblest of porches. It must have been painted at just this time of year, exactly a century ago. Did Burchfield relate the work to his own life? With 2017/1917 hindsight, we can.

The burst of creativity in this period was so important that over a decade later it was selected for the first-ever solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. MOMA’s very perceptive founding director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., found more significance in Burchfield’s 1916 – 1918 work than in the later American Scene paintings for which he was most noted at that time. In a way, the current exhibit provides documentary justification for Barr’s perception. He would certainly urge you to see it.

In last year’s exhibit, Tullis Johnson and the center showed, convincingly, Burchfield’s lifelong devotion to nature. Early in life, he discovered a love for perceiving and sharing nature visually, the way the others did through writing and scientific investigation. The current exhibit shows him cultivating and developing that gift a century ago.

Like last year’s exhibit took steps to communicate Burchfield’s environmentalism to a new generation of environmentalists (although I wish it had done more, and more explicitly), this exhibit could send a message about creativity. It has what it needs to speak to us about the need to develop our own perceptions and our own voices, and to share them. Burchfield learned unique ways to share the unique way he saw the world. That changed the way others see the world, and in turn that changed the world. If the exhibit falters, ironically it may be in finding its own voice to tell us this, despite credibly amassing the evidence on the walls.

It seems to me that an institution devoted not only to Burchfield but to regional artists and affiliated with a college should not only give us that message, but practically beat us over the head with it at every turn. Burchfield’s beloved teacher at the Cleveland Institute of Art, Henry Keller, used to tell him repeatedly, “Go ahead, Burch, you make your own world.” A century later, it’s still a message that bears repeating.

Wheatfield and Tower (Burchfield’s Salem, Ohio, high school)

And it bears repeating not just to the young. Burchfield was enjoying new bursts of creativity even late in life, even as health issues took their toll. Late in life his work seemed to enter a “Fourth Period,” in which abstraction and expressionism played larger roles, perhaps epitomized in The Moth and the Thunderclap. In that way this exhibit, although ostensibly about his early work, can’t help but also be about Burchfield’s late work. All his life, he returned to earlier themes and works, often attaching paper and literally expanding on earlier works, as he did in 1943 with 1917’s The Coming of Spring. As Burchfield created abstractions to help us hear nature, this exhibit in a way helps us to hear Burchfield telling each of us to find our own voice – and that it’s never too early or too late to start

But more than anything else, this exhibit takes us back a century to show us from what very little such a lot of creativity came. After his father died, Burchfield’s family lived very simply in Salem, Ohio, with relatives. In many of his early works his subject was his own house, his family, his yard, his neighbor’s house, and his school. Just outside of town were the woods and fields, and the abandoned mines and environmental degradation of an extractive economy that had extracted what it wanted from Salem and moved on. Unlike us, he didn’t live in a place with galleries and a symphony and dotted with cultural institutions. Burchfield wouldn’t hear Beethoven until the year after his “golden year,” and Mozart until two years after that.

Although Burchfield had attended art school in Cleveland, and ever-so-briefly dipped his toe into the New York City arts world, his creativity was composed of simple ingredients, stewing on a simple cast iron stove in a simple house in the simple town of Salem, Ohio.

This exhibit steeps us in Burchfield’s creative stew and its humble origins. Having seen it, no one can have an excuse for not marshaling whatever ingredients they have at hand, cooking up their own creative mix, and sharing it with the world.

James Burke concluded his popular public broadcasting series on the history of ideas, The Day the Universe Changed, this way: “If, as I’ve said all along, the universe at any time is what you say it is, then say.”

In 1917 a young Charles Burchfield was learning to say. A century later, will you?

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On view through Sunday, November 26, 2017

Note: while the Burchfield-Penney Art Center is closed Thanksgiving Day, the gallery and gift shop are open regular hours Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Written by RaChaCha


RaChaCha is a Garbage Plate™ kid making his way in a Chicken Wing world. Since 2008, he's put over a hundred articles on here, and he asked us to be sure to thank you for reading. So, thank you for reading. You may also have seen his freelance byline in Artvoice, where he writes under the name his daddy gave him [Ed: Send me a check, and I might reveal what that is]. When he's not writing, RaChaCha is an urban planner, a rehabber of houses, and a community builder. He co-founded the Buffalo Mass Mob, and would love to see you at the next one. He represents Buffalo Young Preservationists on the Trico roundtable. If you try to demolish a historic building, he might have something to say about that. He is a proud AmeriCorps alum.

Things you may not know about RaChaCha (unless you read this before): "Ra Cha Cha" is a nickname of his hometown. (Didn't you know that? Do you live under a rock?) He's a political junkie (he once worked for the president of the Monroe County Legislature), but we don't really let him write about politics on here. He helped create a major greenway in the Genesee Valley, and worked on early planning for the Canalway Trail. He hopes you enjoy biking and hiking on those because that's what he put in all that work for. He was a ringleader of the legendary "Chill the Fill" campaign to save Rochester's old downtown subway tunnel. In fact, he comes from a long line of troublemakers. An ancestor fought at Bunker Hill, and a relative led the Bear Flag Revolt in California. We advise you to remember this before messing with him in the comments. He worked on planning the Rochester ARTWalk, and thinks Buffalo should have one of those, too (write your congressman).

You can also find RaChaCha (all too often, we frequently nag him) on the Twitters at @HeyRaChaCha. Which is what some people here yell when they see him on the street. You know who you are.

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