Before abstract art took hold throughout the United States, Charles Burchfield (1893–1967) employed color, form, and symbolism to express universal emotions and moods. His preferred subject was the midwestern landscape, especially northeast Ohio. Born in present-day Ashtabula, Burchfield and his family moved to Salem, about 70 miles southeast of Cleveland, in 1898; he attended the Cleveland School (now Institute) of Art from 1912 to 1916. After returning to Salem in 1917, Burchfield embarked upon what he called his “golden year,” painting more extensively and experimentally than ever before. He developed an innovative style that defined his work, even after he moved to Buffalo in 1921.
Burchfield’s years in Cleveland and Salem are the focus of Charles Burchfield: The Ohio Landscapes, 1915–1920. The exhibition presents around 30 drawings from the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, private collections, and the Cleveland Museum of Art, which has strong holdings of the artist’s works on paper. The majority are watercolors—a medium Burchfield studied in Cleveland and remained drawn to throughout his career. The medium was portable and allowed him to explore the landscape, experiment avidly, and rework his compositions.
A centerpiece of the exhibition is Burchfield’s Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night, which is also a highlight of the museum’s drawings collection and of Burchfield’s “golden year.”Using dark, evocative tones and looming, sinister forms, he translated onto paper his childhood fear of northeast Ohio’s winter storms. The work’s innovative composition and symbolism appealed widely to viewers, and the artist revisited the subject in numerous sketches, also on view in the exhibition. Like the other works on display, these drawings invite visitors to connect with the local landscape in a new and reconsidered way.
Cleveland Art, November/December 2018