Heat Waves in a Swamp
on a Steamy NYC Day
With temperatures outside nearing 100°F and humidity to match, the chilly galleries of the Whitney Museum of American Art  seemed like the perfect place to spend the afternoon. Even more inviting were the rooms filled with the doodles, drawings, designs and watercolor paintings by the master craftsman Charles Burchfield.
Exiting the stairwell (or elevator) into the introductory gallery, one was greeted by Autumnal Fantasy, a large watercolor (39″ x 54″) completed in 1916 and augmented in 1944. In this landscape, the warm yellows and oranges of the leaves falling on the water and carpeting the ground contrast with the cool blacks and blues of the tree trunks, water, and the two white-breasted nuthatches that frame the scene. Light from an almost-white sun touches everything in the picture. Reverberating boomerang-like black shapes picture the songs of birds, both seen and hidden.
Odd, though, that this first painting was not the eponymous Heat Waves in a Swamp. In the catalog (p. 9) Robert Gober, an artist in his own right and curator of the show, explains that he chose the title because he felt it best represented Burchfield’s interest in nature and particular fondness for swamps. The watercolor, known only by its listing in several earlier catalogs, remains lost, but the many other, chronologically arranged, pictures offered plenty of insight into Burchfield’s process.
Lest anyone misunderstand this artist’s intentions, Charles Ephraim Burchfield left behind 72 volumes of journals (some of which were displayed in a vitrine in the last room of the show), starting at age 16 and continuing until his death in 1967. Containing thoughts about all aspects of his life and work, they provide unusual access to his interior life.
Born in 1893 in Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio, Burchfield had this to say about his childhood: “Father died when I was four and a half years old, leaving the family destitute. Mother moved with her ‘brood’ (four boys and two girls–I was the fifth child) to Salem, Ohio, her home-town…” (p. 21) As a left-handed child, living in poverty in a single-parent home, the boy overcame great hardship to grow into the mature artist he eventually became.
Burchfield encapsulated his recollections of that time in the watercolor-and-graphite Childhood’s Garden, dated August 22, 1917, for which a preparatory conté crayon drawing exists (Nostalgia) from the same year (p. 28, 29). In the painting, a green figure, suggestive of both phantom and tree, occupies the space beneath an angled roof that in the drawing contains a haloed woman in a doorway, silhouetted against a dark interior. In each image, a lush garden blooming with flowers threatens to swamp the house; in the painting, menacing trees press in against it. Burchfield described the artwork as “based on childhood memories of our garden at Salem, O.” (p. 28)
Among the many flowers in that garden, six stand out for their sad faces, suggesting the unhappiness of fatherless children. One, probably representing Burchfield, is grouped not with his five siblings but with an orange flower, perhaps their mother. Isolated beyond a growth of yellow and white vegetation, another orange flower hints at the impossibility of reunion with their father, as does the ghostlike phantom/tree that blocks retreat into the home.
The death of Burchfield’s father and the space left empty by it reappears in various forms throughout much of the artist’s work. Images of frightening weather depicted in several 1918 works like The Night Wind, The East Wind and Rainy Night capture the terrors he experienced as a child. In another watercolor of that year, White Violets and Abandoned Coal Mine, the entrance to a mine occupies the center of the painting while in the foreground grow three white violets in various stages of bloom. The choice of a flower at times associated with death and resurrection, coupled with the big black hole of the abandoned mine, leads the viewer directly into the depths of Burchfield’s unconscious.
Along similar lines, in a collection he called Conventions for Abstract Thoughts (not to be confused with the art form of the same name, he cautioned), the 22-year-old artist devised an iconography of dark moods that included: “Fear, Morbidness (Evil), Melancholy/Meditation/Memory of pleasant things that are gone forever, Dangerous Brooding, Imbecility (opposite), Fascination of evil, Insanity, Aimless Abstraction (Hypnotic Intensity) and (untitled) Fear 1″ (p. 22), most of which were on display. A great addition would have been a crib sheet containing images of all of them to help viewers decipher Burchfield’s visual code.
Wandering from one room to another at the Whitney, one could appreciate the ebb and flow of Burchfield’s creative process. After what he called his “golden year” of 1917, he did a stint in the Army where he ended up creating camouflage designs, then moved to Buffalo where he worked at a wallpaper company. Samples of both kinds of design were on display although an entire gallery papered in orange and yellow sunflowers amid blue and yellow leaves against a grey-green tangle of stems distracted from the other artworks hanging there and produced reflections on their glass.
Continuing to pursue his own art even as he worked to support his wife and five children, Burchfield eventually attracted gallery representation and quit his day job. During the years that followed, he painted realistic watercolors of trains, bridges, industrial scenes, townscapes, and woods and gardens, work that sold well and brought him widening acclaim.
When he turned 50, Burchfield began to yearn for the freedom he felt in his 20s when he produced his most daring work. Revisiting, quite literally, some of those earlier pieces, he carefully attached paper to accommodate expansions on the original ideas. The preparatory sketches included in the exhibit, as well as the paintings themselves, demonstrate the artist’s uncanny ability to tap into the adolescent energy still active in one’s 20s, when the brain has not yet finished the work it began in its teens.
Able to pick up where he had left off in his youth, Burchfield spent the rest of his life producing ever more fanciful celebrations of nature. The last gallery of the show contained an array of large, colorful watercolors, most of which incorporated earlier works. More than a few viewers could be found playing the game of find the joins of the add-ons.
One stunning transformation occurs in Song of the Telegraph (1917-52). To a considerably smaller painting of telegraph poles receding into the distance, Burchfield affixed paper on all sides. At the base, a new foreground of greenery now supports another vibrating pole on the right and the appearance on the left of a corralled stand of trees haunted by dark, ghostlike figures in front of which, perched on a prominent fencepost, sings an eastern bluebird surrounded by a halo of yellow and white light. The broader expanse of sky hosts a flock of unidentifiable winged black creatures heading left, into the past, backed by a huge grey-winged cloud shape, also facing in that direction, in contrast to the blue and orange bird that faces right, toward the future.
Although dark patches still appear in Burchfield’s late paintings, as evident in the rain-drenched Night of the Equinox (1917-55), that he found his way to the bright and colorful creations of his last decades speaks to the power of art and nature as transformative forces in one person’s life. The watercolors he left behind resonate with the exuberance one imagines he felt when setting up his image-making gear in his beloved swamps, surrounded by the sounds of birds and other calls of nature.
Heat Waves in a Swamp:
The Paintings of Charles Burchfield
Whitney Museum of American Art 
945 Madison Avenue (at 75th Street)
New York, NY 10021
All page numbers referenced are from the catalog:
Heat Waves in a Swamp:
The Paintings of Charles Burchfield
Cynthia Burlingham and Robert Gober, editors