Water is the elixir of life. We cannot exist without it. Scientists monitor the rise and fall of global bodies of water and warn us of depleting resources while engineers and environmentalists try to devise ways to conserve the precious commodity.
Water’s importance and fear of its loss have been expressed in literature, science fiction, and film, exemplified by The Man Who Fell to Earth, a 1963 novel by Walter Tevis made into a 1976 film by Nicholas Roeg, starring David Bowie as an extraterrestrial searching for water for his planet. Artists also have created compelling images to inspire the world. Among them, Charles Burchfield rises as exemplar. Water in its many manifestations from rain to landscape waterways is an element that permeates Burchfield’s landscapes—both literally and figuratively. As an aesthetic vehicle, watercolor—basically a mixture of water with pigments—became his medium of choice. Boldly, Burchfield took watercolor painting to an advanced stage of complexity and realization that has remained completely unique to this day.
Foreshadowing Marshall McLuhan, who in 1967 asserted “The Medium is the Massage,” Burchfield took command of the watercolor medium to expound his ideas about nature, humanity, sound, and the cosmos. He was not without a sense of humor, revealing in an interview: “I am often asked by people ‘Just what is your style of painting?’ I baffle them by saying ‘I hope it is strictly Burchfieldian’.” Not only did he paint what he saw; he also painted what he heard. You will be taken places where rippling brooks soothe the soul, blustering storms strike terror, and shallow ponds provide haven for peeping frogs and chirping insects. Leave it to Burchfield’s quirkiness that he would focus on sketching clouds at Niagara Falls instead being mesmerized by the powerful, mammoth waterfalls that have attracted millions of visitors.
This exhibition, curated by Head of Collections and Charles Cary Rumsey Curator Nancy Weekly, presents a look at the nexus of water as subject and as the unifying vehicle for the watercolor medium. It features artworks from the Burchfield Penney Art Center’s collection and studies from the Charles E. Burchfield Foundation Archives, as well as a newly discovered work on loan from a private collection. Paintings and drawings depict many of Burchfield’s favorite idyllic haunts in Ohio and Western New York; ways he represented the weather effects of rain, sleet, snow, and ice; and examples of vulnerable, endangered, waterways polluted by destructive industrial practices.