A Certain Kind of Genius? Burchfield’s Retribution

He is “the sort of genius that

communities usually massacre and then afterward revere,” wrote the great

American art critic Henry McBride of the

fine American painter Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), whose watercolors and

drawings are the subject of an exhibition at Kennedy Galleries. McBride’s

statement has to it a mock-dramatic flourish that is typical of his wit. His subsequent

commendation of Burchfield’s pictures-that they were “songs of hate”-did not.

That the latter remark was a curious plaudit is obvious, yet McBride was a bit

off the mark in making it. Certainly “hate” conveys the severity of

Burchfield’s vision. It also implies that the work is utterly subjective, and

that isn’t the case at all. What’s illumined in the pictures isn’t the artist’s

emotional temper, but that of his subject-the natural world.

Burchfield’s portrayals of

farmland and forests evidence mankind only through its artifacts: train tracks,

shacks and rickety fences. Nature is the animating force of the pictures, a

nature as unforgiving as it is independent. The tranquil moments in Burchfield’s

pictures are few; the nestling flowers of Bloodroot

(Black Ravine) and the storybook embrace of Snow Scene (both 1917) are peculiar in their calm. More typical is Sunburst After Spring Storm (1951),

wherein the land betokens an optimism and an order only as preparation for

admonition. This is a song of retribution, not hate. Think of Burchfield as kin

of Clyfford Still, another intransigent loner whose vision was as dour as his

gift was narrow. Then ponder the permanent berth the God of Jonathan Edwards

has taken in the American countryside. Charles

E. Burchfield: The Imaginative Landscape is at Kennedy Galleries, 730 Fifth

Avenue, until Jan. 19.

His Surfaces Sing,

His Forms Do Not

The surfaces of Ken Price’s

sculptures, seven of which are now on display at Franklin Parrasch Gallery, are

breathtakingly abraded. Mr. Price layers acrylic paint onto his ceramic

biomorphs and then wears it down, removing some of it; in the process, he achieves

a luxurious veneer of nubbly color. His palette ranges from psychedelic

mottlings of orange, green and blue to less flamboyant shimmers of aquamarine,

yellow and rust. Elbow grease has been invested in the work’s hard sensuality,

and it is to Mr. Price’s credit that the pieces never feel labored. His

surfaces sing. His forms, unfortunately, do not.

The sculptures bring to mind the usual suspects informing

biomorphism-microscopic life forms, vegetation, sea creatures and the like-and

that’s the problem with the work: its usualness. Imagine a Hans Arp enamored of

cartoons and taxidermy rather than the unconscious and nature, and you’ll have

an idea why Mr. Price’s blips and blobs feel freeze-dried and stilted. Lacking

a vital autonomy, the pieces engage us primarily as displays of artistic

know-how. We note how the artist keeps our eye engaged by making the pieces

various from every conceivable angle; we smile at the droll, groping comedy his

specimens engage in; and we drift back to those super surfaces.

Those for whom surface is

paramount will fall in love with Mr. Price’s work. The rest of us will respond

with an appreciative bemusement and move on. Ken Price: New Work is at Franklin Parrasch Gallery, 20 West 57th

Street, until Dec. 22.

The Internet Show?

Here We Go

The first rule of art criticism is that an exhibition must be

seen before it is written about. So why devote 200 words to a show I haven’t

seen and don’t intend to? Because Artists

of Brücke: Themes in German Expressionist Prints , which has been organized

by the Museum of Modern Art, isn’t real. It’s the museum’s “first exhibition

created exclusively for the [W]eb.” One understands why MoMA selected German

Expressionist prints for their initial Internet showcase. Prints are, by their

very nature, removed from the directness of touch, and prints by the

Expressionists are renowned for the punch they pack. The implication is that

the work is sort of virtual already, and that its graphic potency will,

nonetheless, make itself felt over the glare of the computer screen.

The fundamental truth that

MoMA is traipsing over is that a work of art is an object whose

physicality-whose thing-ness-is essential to the experience of it. It’s there

or it’s not. This goes for prints, too: Who could deny the brusque force of a

line that’s been put into shape through the gouging of a wood block? It is of

some small reassurance, then, that the claims made for Artists of Brücke have less to do with aesthetics than with

accessibility, “fluidity” and education-the usual bromides about the Internet.

So maybe I’m a nervous Nellie

peering down a slope that’s not as slippery as I think. Maybe the physical

integrity of art isn’t being undermined. Maybe ventures such as Artists of Brücke will go the way of the

eight-track tape. In a culture as tech-happy as our own, don’t count on it and

worry. Artists of Brücke: Themes in

German Expressionist Prints is at http://www.moma.org/brucke and will remain

online indefinitely.