Robert Gober’s presence looms large. I’m obsessed with his work. Thus, the draw of Gober pulls on my imagination in a way that Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), a curious figure in the history of American modernism, might not have otherwise. I can’t easily decide how productive it is to the work of Burchfield to have Gober curate a retrospective of his work.
This dilemma, for me, is written into the context of the show: How does Gober interpret and present this material? Why is Gober interested in Burchfield and for what reason? Is there a connection between the two? Why should I care about Burchfield at all? Furthermore, how does the curator flavor the exhibition, is it too much salt in a thin soup? Of course everything is interpreted, but the pull of thinking about the interpreter rather than the interpreted might prove too much.
Since I could not necessarily help it, I imposed Gober onto Burchfield throughout my viewing of the exhibition. I did not fight it. Let’s take a room full of strange, elusive drawings entitled Conventions for Abstract Thoughts, essentially a series of visual symbols that Burchfield developed to represent certain emotions and feelings that serve as keys to many of his watercolors (visually unremarkable, I must admit). I, in turn, thought of Gober’s repeated symbols—water drains, butter, severed appendages, crosses, dollhouses—all of which reference Gober’s biography, each an opening to the strange, hidden meaning of his work, all symbols of an intense inner life made manifest.
When I saw case after case, wall after wall, of letters, notes, doodles, journals, quotes, and pictures, I thought how much it seemed like a biographical installation of Burchfield, like one might find in an American history museum of Lincoln or another daunting personage of lore. The stories from Burchfield’s life were so present that I again invoked Gober: his tortured Catholicism, his complex and dark vision of home, his private struggles, rife with meaning, that the public can hardly access. Gober and Gober’s presentation of Burchfield suggested a number of sweet, earnest affinities between the two artists. It’s hard to know if this is a good thing.
Then the wallpaper. Gober (an artist known for his use of wallpaper) placed a number of Burchfield’s watercolors on a wallpaper pattern that Burchfield designed between 1921 and 1929. The union of domestic décor and Burchfield’s most ardent, most earnest expressions is something that Gober employs to similar effect. Like in a work by Gober, Burchfield’s life and work subsume one another, expression and revelation emerge from reality, a reality shaped by his artistic vision. The two cannot be separated. For critics that discount biography in the interpretation of an artwork, this should be sobering. Gober brings us close to Burchfield’s life and strangely brings us closer to his own work in the process.
Ultimately, I could not complain about the Gober-effect in the exhibition. Burchfield thickened and became more rich in the process, and in many dazzling ways, came out of the past to trump Gober’s presence. Burchfield looked great, fresh with his thin washes and effusive, buzzing landscapes. Like Gober, Burchfield’s work is based on deep, fervent doubts and beliefs, authentically felt and never forced even at their worst instances of execution. In the end, I was able to focus on how genuinely powerful some of Burchfield watercolors, in fact, were.
For instance, End of Day, 1938, simply aches with resilience. Men carrying lunch pails trudge up an unplowed street in Steubenville, Ohio, and the path they pound slides down into a valley out from under their feet. A row of houses attend the march, observing the gait of death in a funeral procession. The houses brood and slump and do not contrast the sprawling landscape in the background, cropped tight with a cold, stark sky. Times are tough. It is the Great Depression, but though we can’t see the men’s eyes, we know they’ll make it, and it is difficult to know why. My theory is that it might have something to do with the cable brace holding up the power line pole to the far right of the painting, maybe it is the corrective strength of this hard triangle that gives weight to the men, a weight that outdoes the melancholy of the scene.
(All images courtesy the Hammer Museum: Charles Burchfield, The Night Wind, 1918. Watercolor, gouache, and pencil on paper, 211⁄2 x 217⁄8 in. (54.4 x 55.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of A. Conger Goodyear, 1960.Two Ravines, 1934–43. Watercolor on paper, 361⁄2 x 611⁄8 in. (92.7 x 155.3 cm. Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga,Tennessee. Gift of the Benwood Foundation. End of the Day, 1938. Watercolor on paper, 381⁄4 x 581⁄4 in. (97.1 x 148 cm). The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Joseph E. Temple Fund, 1940.)