The modest first gallery of the Hammer Museum’s Robert Gober-curated retrospective of Charles Burchfield’s paintings, ‘Heat Waves in a Swamp’, announced quietly the objectives of this justly lauded exhibition. The small room was hung sparely with a group of mercurial early drawings, all vaguely archetypal in character and reminiscent of works on paper by the likes of Lee Bontecou, Barbara Hepworth, Eva Hesse and Henry Moore. Executed in 1917, when Burchfield was in his early 20s, the drawings are known collectively as ‘Conventions for Abstract Thoughts’. Each sheet features an image and a corresponding word rendered in florid script, comprising what Burchfield referred to as ‘abstract motifs […] for emotions.’ Following the Chinese convention of using standard imagery to represent elements of nature, Burchfield conceived these drawings as a catalogue of motifs that, taken together, formed the beginning of a completely autographic, symbolic language conceived to inflect his watercolours with highly subjective emotional content. The word ‘abstract’ is somewhat misleading here and, indeed, Burchfield was clear in his disavowal of the term as it relates to the existential concerns of the American Abstract Expressionists. Rather, each motif – morbidness, dangerous brooding, imbecility, fascination, insanity – is a rendering of an object extracted from its context, invested with a particular emotional property, and inflected accordingly. From Salem Bedroom Studio (1921), Burchfield’s earliest painting to incorporate these abstract conventions, we can deduce that the drawing Morbid Brooding (1917), a sinister, mask-like silhouette, takes its form from clothes hung casually over the back of a chair also featured in that painting, while the clownish Imbecility (1917) is elaborated from two porcelain knobs on an open closet in the same work.
The logic at play in these drawings lays bare the cerebral thread through Burchfield’s singular body of work. Burchfield’s career was defined by his desire to develop a system of gestures and symbols that synthesized and gave form to sentient perception in all its dimensions. Although this system was deeply idiosyncratic, through repetition, Burchfield’s language opens up to the viewer, becoming familiar, legible and resonant. One of the many virtues of this sprawling retrospective of dazzling watercolours was that it permitted this understanding to unfold in a slow progression from gallery to gallery so that when one encountered the late, monumentally scaled watercolours that were the capstone of this exhibition and the pinnacle of Burchfield’s career, what began as a hermetic, eccentric index of personal symbols in the first gallery, felt in the end like a shared language.
Burchfield referred to 1917 as his ‘Golden Year’, and Gober devoted the second gallery to exploring this period and the beginnings of Burchfield’s naturalist mysticism. The Insect Chorus (1917), for example, shows a mundane backyard suffused with gaseous energy, the trees and bushes enlivened by invisible forces that compel them to dance, wilt and contort, assuming uncanny forms that imply the existence of a mystical connective energy. This work typifies Burchfield’s wildly imaginative brand of plein air painting. Various properties are held in taut balance: mysticism encroaches on mimesis and vice-versa; imagination holds temporary sway over observation; and, all the while, Burchfield toys with watercolour as a depictive tool, occasionally allowing his materials to exert their own will, further distorting and complicating this almost psychedelic image.
After this intense and notably short-lived period of creativity, there followed a relative dry spell for Burchfield that lasted at least until the 1940s. Though the exhibition did offer a chronological account of Burchfield’s work, Gober found various ways to animate these more prosaic passages in the artist’s career, when his work tended towards a more pedestrian form of realism. Most notably, the third gallery covered the eight years (1921–9) Burchfield spent working as a wallpaper designer. Though the paintings in this gallery were among those that fit most snuggly into the pejorative category of regionalism, the effect was mitigated by Gober’s decision to clad the walls in wallpaper designed by Burchfield himself. The sheer garishness of the design, and the extent to which the paper intruded upon the integrity of the paintings, was clearly calculated to introduce greater interest to the experience of these works than the paintings themselves generate.
The relatively unremarkable character of Burchfield’s work from the 1920s and ’30s, in particular, makes the artist’s eventual re-emergence as a singular creative force beginning in the 1940s and culminating in the 1960s all the more remarkable, and that effect could not have been achieved had Gober deviated from his commitment to flesh out the arc of the artist’s career in its entirety. The exhibition closed with an enormous airy gallery devoted to the paintings Burchfield produced during the last decade of his life, all of which evince a wholesale return to and amplification of the mystical, hermetic language of gestures and symbols he developed in his 20s. The Four Seasons (1949–60) is emblematic of Burchfield’s achievements. As the title denotes, the subject of the painting is, as was so often the case with Burchfield, the natural world, but here the modesty of a steamy backyard in the summer is replaced by a more totalizing impulse. As befits a work that unfolded over the course of 12 years, The Four Seasons offers, quite literally, a summation of the artist’s sensory experience of the natural world in all its facets: a hallucinatory forest scene, at once optical, tactile, aromatic and abuzz with life, is rendered at four times of the day simultaneously, incorporating elements of each season, to offer an impossible glimpse of a day within a year in the life of this particular place. Looking at a painting like this one, it is easy to forget that, in 1960, Burchfield’s American peers – albeit distant and disassociated – included champions of the avant-garde such as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. This exhibition did not argue that Burchfield deserves a seat at this table, but it did open up the very real possibility that a long-dormant, mid-century voice is ready to be heard again.