Saturday, October 16, 2010

Work and the Word: Charles Burchfield at the Whitney

Song of the Telegraph Poles, Charles Burchfield, painted 1917–1952

"Listen long to the singing of the telephone poles. It sounds more weird and beautiful by moonlight… Each pole has a distinct tone. A steady throbbing sound—the poles, once trees, still are full of life which is expressed in this pulsating sound. Seems a voice from the center of the earth."—Burchfield, 1914

First: If you (1) happen to be reading this today (Saturday, October 16, 2010) or tomorrow (Sunday the 17th), and you (2) live in NYC or nearby and you (3) haven't seen the Charles Burchfield exhibit ("Heat Waves in a Swamp") that's up at the Whitney, please try to make it over there. The show closes end of day tomorrow, and according to a tour guide I overheard, these works will then be cooling out in storage for a few years.

The paintings themselves are unreal. Many of them proto-psychedelic nature scenes (created from the 1910s through the ’60s, in the vicinities of either Salem, Ohio or Buffalo, NY), where the actual stuff that's depicted—trees, rivers, stars, houses, telegraph poles, etc.—shares space with these kind of aura squiggles or visual vibrations. It's as though everything in the paintings were quivering and radiating humming sound and gleaming light. A very strange sensation to look and almost half-hear sound, and I'm not sure I can really compare it to anything.

But there's a whole other aspect to this show that helped solidify my sense that it was one of the most impressive and enveloping museum shows I've ever seen. I don't have the data in front of me (re: actual pages logged, years begun and ended, notebooks filled), but basically, Charles Burchfield kept meticulous journals his whole life and reflected ceaselessly on his work. You know that feeling of museum fatigue, when you've read your 30th wall text and you wish the curator would just shut up so you can experience the paintings on their own terms? Well, there's really no sense of that at all here, because a good 70 percent of the text in this show is by Burchfield himself.

I'm not enough of an art-historian to know how common this is, but in, say, music, there are tons of creators who talk eloquently about their work—in interviews, biographies, etc.—but not a whole lot who do so just as a matter of course, without being asked to. (Incidentally, I think this is one reason why Ethan Iverson, a true musician/critic, seems like such a blessing.) Burchfield's commentary on his work is every bit as sensitive and wondrous and insightful as the paintings themselves. To see an image like the one at the top of this blog post and then to glance over and read something like the text reproduced under it… It was like having your mind blown twice each time you walked up to a new work. I must've looked over at Laal in stunned, delighted disbelief something like 15 or 20 times.

And crucially: the marvel at coming upon an artist so intensely analytical and reflective and self-critical in method and so natural and visionary in creation. You see these paintings and they look like the breath of God—the result of some highly attuned man speaking in visual tongues. And then you see these sketches, dissecting the works endlessly; paintings completed in youth and then dug back out in middle age and augmented with huge new sections; and notes-to-self that seem mystical but are really just straightforwardly instructive, like: "Astonishment and wonder are the keynotes of this picture—Eliminate all else." And even, as my friend Kyle put it, actual emotional "glyphs," a pictorial vocabulary, i.e., weird little shapes corresponding to things like "Imbecility" or "Morbidness (Evil)" and gathered together as "Conventions for Abstract Thoughts."

It all seems almost superhuman—to both do and reflect, more or less in real time. Often these two pursuits look a lot like opposites: You're either doing or you're thinking about the doing. And that's why critics and journalists and scholars and whatever else you want to call them flock to art, and why, at least some of the time, they're welcomed (or at least tolerated!) by artists and enthusiasts, because they make explicit things about the work that the creator might not have had the time or the inclination to point out.

But man, to see that intermediary process completely obviated? It's like Martin Luther's whole "Abolish all clergy and deal directly with the Word" idea. That's what you get to do here: deal directly with the Word, alongside—of course-the Work. Because Burchfield had enough juice in him for both activities, the making and the telling, and the effect is rather mindblowing.

P.S. Metal fans: Look alive. There are quite a few paintings in this show that brilliantly reckon with blackness and storms and scary old houses and the terror of night, and if you're anything like me, you'll practically hear Sunn O))) reverberating through the museum. The texts contain many meditations on evil and sinister-ness and very metallic observations such as "I put into the sun all the devastating destroying power of that 'star' that I feel on a March sap day." YES.

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