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Burchfield and Cornell: a summer of Buffalo in New York City

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Left: Charles Burchfield's watercolor "The Four Seasons." Right: Kate Burton as Katharine Cornell and Bobby Steggert as the young Pete Gurney star in A.R. Gurney's play "The Grand Manner" in New York City.

Last summer, New York City played host to a major exhibition featuring artists who got their start at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, the Buffalo gallery whose mid-70s founding is the stuff of art world legend. This summer, Buffalo's dramatic and artistic legacy is again the subject of two well-received projects now on offer in the Big Apple.

The Whitney Museum of American Art is displaying the work of the late Buffalo watercolorist Charles Burchfield, who painted nature in his own mesmerizing, singular style in the small hamlet of Gardenville (in West Seneca). Meanwhile, in Lincoln Center Theatre's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, Buffalo-born playwright A.R. Gurney's new show about fellow Buffalonian Katharine Cornell, "The Grand Manner," opened on Sunday.

The reviews are in, and they're generally glowing.

The Burchfield show, "Heat Waves in a Swamp," which has drawn critical praise from its previous exhibitions in Los Angeles' Hammer Museum and during its run at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, recently received a pair of excellent reviews.

Here's an excerpt from the first, by The New York Times' Holland Cotter:

Summer, which can be hard in the city, could be heaven to the painter Charles Burchfield, the 20th-century mystic of American light. Because he spent most of his time in a leafy suburb of Buffalo, to him the season meant trees aureoled in noonday sunshine, afterglow skies as cool as the song of a thrush and gardens pulsing with the music of crickets in moonlight.

Yet he was never at ease. Even with nature he was tense and agonized. Early on, Burchfield concluded, as God once had, that Paradise meant no people, and he rarely painted any. He also learned that Hell was a society of one: himself. A natural ecstatic, he was also a chronic depressive: not a passive shut-down case, but a lamenter and yearner. “Oh God — How to get back there!” he wrote in his journal, “there” being childhood, innocence, home.

A mood-swing dynamic seems pronounced in the survey called “Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, maybe in part because the show was organized by Robert Gober, the contemporary American artist whose own work mines the neurotic underside of the American psyche. Yet even while emphasizing certain aspects of Burchfield’s career, Mr. Gober gives us nothing but Burchfield himself. The peaks and valleys are all right there in the art.

And in today's issue of The New Yorker, critic Peter Schjeldahl offers his take:

...His increasingly popular realist work—including my personal favorite, the spatially complex “Ice Glare” (1933), which depicts a car on a dreary street transfigured by winter light—got him associated, wrongly, with the nativist American Scene movement of the time. Burchfield was a one-man movement. He differed from the likewise singular Hopper, a painter of synthesized fictions, in that he usually worked directly from observed subjects, and almost always in watercolors or gouache—with a nearly dry brush, allowing for revisions. (His few oils tend to be stilted.) Then, during the Second World War, he experienced a rush of nostalgia for his “Golden Year” and resolved to pick up where his youthful delirium had left off—quite literally, adding sheets of paper to old pictures, and expanding them into new ones. Formerly embittered against religion, he embraced his wife’s Lutheranism and gave himself over to contemplating nature with spiritual conviction. At this point, Gober’s taste shines. I used to resist the mystical Burchfield, but the sheer quality of the show’s climactic selection of late works overwhelms.

The word on "The Grand Manner" is also fairly good, both from The New York Times's Ben Brantley and from Terry Teachout of The Wall Street Journal, each of whom praise the play for its insights and overall tone but call out its anachronisms and historical inconsistencies. Elisabeth Vincentelli gives the show three out of four stars, but John Simon, writing for Bloomberg, is not so kind.

--Colin Dabkowski




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