Monday, October 12, 2009

Dancing at a Wedding




I myself started out as an abstract painter in the late 1960's. This was a good thing as I couldn't yet draw very well but still wanted to at least get started learning the language of painting. My first year painting I probably pumped out some 80 colorful abstract canvases. I learned a lot in the process. To this day some of the color combinations I most enjoy came from what I discovered that first year.

After a while I wanted to add something more to the mix. It seemed reality outside my studio beckoned to me and I started a serious, years-long program of teaching myself to draw the human figure. It was hard work but terribly exciting to me. The very tall stack of drawings of the nude I produced made it possible for me to be the painter I am today. But also valuable I know were the early abstract experiments I did. They weren't great paintings, but they let an inexperienced teenager feel he was embarking on a great journey.

One of the painters I've always admired worked not far from the little town of Oberlin in northeast Ohio where I first started painting. He was Charles Burchfield (American 1893 - 1967). He had graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art (which I also attended briefly) majoring in textile design. Shortly after graduation though he drifted back to painting, creating in watercolor a remarkable body of work. One can see in his watercolors an ability to set up a rhythm that moves across the whole surface of the painting, pulling many individual forms together into a disciplined group.

Last weekend my wife and I attended the wedding of her young co-worker Laura. I didn't know most of the guests and clung to the comfort of the few I did know. Then the music started to get good and a few people got up to dance. Fortified by wine, my wife and I got up there too with an assortment of 20 other strangers ranging from two 2 year old twins to people in their 70's. You can lose your self consciousness and just fall into the waves of music at a time like that. Looking at the faces of the other dancers I saw genuine smiles of people honestly enjoying themselves. Everyone had their own style of moving, some more elegant than others, but we were all more or less doing it in time to the same beat. The music is an abstract force invented by an artist that washes over the crowd. It took individuals who were strangers and gave them a rhythm to be together on the same page just for a few minutes. It made a lot of people happy.


Burchfield, Night of the Equinox, watercolor

Burchfield is one of the painters whose work is most often related to sound and to music. You can see why. If the task of painters is to show people how seemingly unrelated objects can be made to talk to each other, Burchfield is a go-to guy. What I like about his work is he doesn't sand down all the eccentricities of his objects, but unites them by turning the volume up on his rhythmic "music." Painting after all is in large part just a dance done by an artist's hand. The actual painting is the pattern of colored footprints left behind when they're done.




Burchfield, Late Afternoon, watercolor

I don't paint very much like Burchfield myself. He's so distinctively himself that's probably a good thing. But he was an artist who taught by example that abstraction isn't some rarified conceptual creation but rather something embedded right in the heart of the world. To me he blows the pants off some of the other modernist American painters who seem to get more attention. Maybe its because he looks like he was having too good a time.



Burchfield, Moon Flower, watercolor

3 comments:

  1. I'm very fond of Burchfield's work too. There is a large exhibit of his work right now here in Los Angeles at the Hammer Museum. I'm looking forward to seeing it soon.

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  2. Maybe you'll come to LA and see this Burchfield show Philip! If you do let me know, I'll buy you dinner. I saw a major retrospective of his watercolors maybe 15 - 20 years ago at the Boston Athenaeum, simply divine.

    Arthur Dove is another painter in a somewhat related way I would think you would like.

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  3. If one of you can come and pick me up in your private jet, I'll start packing my toothbrush.

    There's a very strong Dove down in the Phillips Collection in DC I've always liked. Burchfield seems to me to hold on a bit tighter to the realist tradition than Dove did, so I find Burchfield's modernist tendencies especially interesting (I confess I've never really looked into Dove on my own).

    I also like the idea that Burchfield, Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent all went to art school together-now that must have been quite the class.

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