The Radically Mundane
Charles Burchfield at DC Moore Gallery; Robert Henri at Gerald Peters Gallery; Elizabeth O’Reilly and Maryam Amiryani at George Billis Gallery
NOT TO KNOW CHARLES BURCHFIELD (1893-1967) is to miss the originality and breadth that American artists brought to an imported modernism. Nothing else quite prepares you for him, not even the regionalists with whom he is often—erroneously—grouped. On show at DC Moore is a seminal collection of watercolors and drawings spanning Burchfield’s entire career. His work has not been so generously or thoughtfully displayed in New York since the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition in 1990.
Biographers divide his career into three periods, each represented here. His first, dating from 1915 to 1919, produced exuberant views of his surroundings in Salem, Ohio. These scenes of an enchanted natural world presaged his last and most ecstatic work. If sight were sound, “April Landscape” (1917) would become the opening movement of Aaron Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring.” New growth, like white light, springs with lyrical abandon from the tender pinks and pastels of a warming earth. In “Landscape with Rain” (1916), a heavy black cloud sags under its own weight, dropping dark rain in the center of a melancholic landscape sketched in brooding tones excited by darkness.
He second, so-called realist, phase was centered on the urban environs of Buffalo, New York. Working there as a wallpaper designer to support a family of five children, Burchfield sharpened his sympathies for the lives of ordinary people. Houses were surrrogates for the people who lived in them. He depicted them with an empathy directed toward the lives under their roofs. Expressive, slightly canted contours animate the worn architecture of “Little Italy in Spring” (1927). The organ grinder, the fish monger and his cart, old women in their old country weeds, laundry on a line—all depicted with a solicitude so gentle it takes on qualities of humor.
From 1943 until his death, he created jubilant landscapes and fantasias that flicker with realities that ought to be. The majestic gloom of “The Dark Ravine” (1946) alternated with creations like “The Butterfly Tree” (1960), its black-outlined butterflies hanging like fruit from an incandescent tree. An undulant wave of rhyming contours, “North Otto-Thunderhead” (1964) shapes a gathering storm that rises like a rhapsody into endless skies. More keenly than any other painting here, it expresses Burchfield’s stated awe before “the agonizing mystery of Infinity.”
He distinguished his own abstract tendencies from the abstract movement. “It is as if there is a veil between me and the ultimate in painting and only bit by by am I allowed to penetrate the mystery behind the veil.” Man is a praying animal; and Burchfield worshipped in watercolor.
ROBERT HENRI (1865-1929) is possibly more eminent as a force—a teacher and crusader—than as a painter. His brusque rejection of Beaux-Arts refinement made him the spear carrier for a generation of American painters intent on revitalizing the realist tradition. With an evangelical sense of mission, they sought the vernacular: street scenes and ordinary people, depicted with gritty naturalism. A passionate reformer in his time, he enjoined his students to “respect all for the truth that is in them.” The artistic battles of his era are over and we are left with the silent witness of the paintings themselves. They reveal an artist who expressed ideals more convincingly in words than in works.
“Robert Henri: The Painted Spirit” at Gerald Peters Gallery is an exhibition of 35 portraits from every period of Henri’s career plus several nudes, on loan from private and public collections. Anyone who loves his book “The Art Spirit,” still in print, will want to embrace the show unreservedly. But it simply is not possible.
Impediment lies in the superficiality of many of the portraits despite brilliant paint handling and his own rhetorical emphasis on seizing the truth of the sitter. Henri’s fascination with ethnic types had a reductive effect. The more exotic the sitter—an Indian in war paint, a Chinese girl in a kimono, gypsies, foreigners—the more the individual surrenders to the type. Absorption in color and costume overpowered his address to the character of his subject.
This number of paintings provides opportunity to view Henri’s debt—and inferiority— to Manet (the bull fighter; the black laundress) and the society portraits of Whistler and Sargent. He was at his finest in those moments when he answered the self-disclosure of his subject. Several of the children painted on Achill Island have the guarded look of the poor performing for a benefactor. The portraits of Charles O’Malley are particularly suggestive of the fragility of childhood innocence. These, and the stunning “Agnes in Red” (1921), emerging from shadow, are among the strongest paintings here.
Henri’s brushwork never disappoints. Sumptuous textural effects are created with brio and subtlety. The flesh of his nudes suggests underlying structure with enviable simplicity. Regrettably, in his hands the radically mundane was a category before it was an epiphany.
A FELICITOUS DOUBLE HEADER is playing at George Billis Gallery. Plein air painter Elizabeth O’Reilly and still life painter Maryam Amiryani exhibit in separate rooms. While their styles are different, their sensibilities are similar. Each seeks the odd beauty in close views of ordinary places or things.
The Iranian-born Ms. Amiryani departs here from her characteristic velvety paint surface, scraping canvases to simulate the wear of old textiles. The result, plus her instinct for pattern, is unabashedly, even proudly, decorative. Ms. O’Reilly snatches the essence of fleeting sights: the flicker of night lights on water; shadow play across snow. She has an eye for what Robert Henri described as “knowing the miracle when it happens.”
“Charles Burchfield: Paintings 1915-1964” at DC Moore (724 Fifth Avenue, 212-247-2111. “Robert Henri: The Painted Spirit” at Gerald Peters Gallery (24 East 78th Street, 212-628-9760).
“Elizabeth O”Reilly: Black and White” and “Maryam Amiryani” at George Billis Gallery (511 West 23rd Street, 212-645-2621).
This review was published first in The New York Sun, November 17, 2005.
Copyright 2005, Maureen Mullarkey