To Copy a Burchfield…

Charles Burchfield, “Fantasy of Heat” (1952-58) 40” x 30”

…is not easy though I thought it would be. Of course Fantasy of Heat is a watercolor: it is painted transparently with easy fluid brushstrokes and I can’t paint that way. I put some paint down and add and edit, not really knowing what I am doing until there is something to see on the canvas.

For example I painted the sky between the purple clouds way too light. I had nowhere to go to in making the light in the tree or the even lighter tones above the foreground flowers. I repainted all that several times and then I had to make the purple clouds darker and so forth.

And now, it seems I have made the light in the tree too bright—it doesn’t recede enough into the purple haze so it doesn’t shove the foreground flowers into the sharp proximity that Burchfield achieved, and understanding how he did that was my main aim in copying the painting. How did he achieve that jump? By making the distance pale purple, the line of the river bank a dark yellow ochre, the top of the flowers white and painting the larger black strokes and brighter colors of the extreme foreground. There is no window—he has an uncanny ability to physically place the viewer in the landscape.

The combination of harsh blacks and subtle color also drew me in. It registers in the mind as two paintings, one black & white and one in color, an idea I am also interested in. I don’t know whether the color or the ink was painted first; I’ve never seen the painting in person. Noticing the date on Fantasy…, it seems to have been painted over a period of 6 years—he was known to rework paintings years later.

Hopper said, “The work of Charles Burchfield is most decidedly founded, not on art, but on life…”
What was Hopper’s work “decidedly founded” on?  An uneasy relationship exists between artists whose work is seen as based on art and artists seen as “visionary” —alluded to but never quite talked about. Sometimes the supporters of the “visionaries” like Van Gogh and more recently Alma Thomas defend them by proving they were sane and/or quite aware of art history. A letter of Van Gogh’s in which he talks about his use of complementary colors (like purple and yellow) is often quoted to prove the man had an intellectual understanding of color and was not a crazy person—or at least not just a crazy person.

I see a very fluid boundary between art and life. The more intense your visual experience of the world is, the more painting will mean to you and painting expands the power of sight. I thought everybody understood that.

Actually, it was the crisp clear air of Brooklyn during the lockdown that made me think of Burchfield. One day after spending an hour looking through a Burchfield book, I left the house and out of the corner of my eye, I “saw” a Burchfield: two linden trees framed a more distant tree bed planted with giant sunflowers.  Like the vision of a bee or a bird, unphotographable; it doesn’t see the cars or the street, just where the nectar is, or the seeds. And somehow just looking at his paintings had made my eyes move more freely in space.

Burchfield’s work is also called passionate or ecstatic. I suppose the way a normal person looks at a meadow would be more realistic—they might calculate the yield per acre or the land-to-value ratio formula.

Here are a couple of earlier states:

A friend of mine recently expressed the thought that the art world seemed to be moving in a utilitarian direction. On the commercial side, artists seem to be favored for their ability to fill mansions and corporate spaces and create new, yet recognizable product. On the institutional side, the preference is for those who state a political or moral imperative, assuming ignorance on the part of the viewer.

An essay that showed up in the pocketfeed, On Tact in Dark Times by Corina Stan,* gave me some ideas about why both of these manipulative utilitarian modes are so oppressive. They presuppose that the viewer will be awed by wealth and by assumed moral superiority. I’m horrified by their arrogance and, tautologically speaking, lack of modesty.
The philosophies of Adorno and Barthes regarding human community are explored in On Tact

“The closest Barthes came to a substantial determination of tact [délicatesse—defined as delicacy] was in his insistence to pay attention to nuance; his course, he explained, was an ethical project: living attuned to nuance.”
Adorno wrote:
“…denying…the ‘strangeness’ of another person – their difference, what we don’t know about them, their life, their interiority – amounts to a ‘supreme wrong’.”

It seems to me that Burchfield never denies the strangeness of others, nor the strangeness of life itself. He epitomizes what Barthes characterized as “living attuned to nuance.”

Cathy Nan Quinlan, “A Fantasy Of Heat” (copy) (2020) 24″ x 32″

I darkened the light in the tree. Maybe I’m done—or is the sun too bright?


On Tact in Dark Times by Corina, Aeon, September 2020