The Laws of Nature

Sunday, June 20, 2010


I was reading the New York Times this morning and noticed an article about a Burchfield retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. This, of course, caught my eye because I’m a fanatic for the works of Charles Ephraim Burchfield. In my opinion, no artist expresses what the senses perceive better than this artist. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Burchfield was an American watercolorist (1893-1967) who commented in his work not only about nature, but also about the effects of industrialism. Edward Hopper once said "The work of Charles Burchfield is most decidedly founded, not on art, but on life, and the life that he knows and loves best." Yes, this is personal expression at its best.

I wish I could see this fifty-year retrospective, and maybe I will since it’s up until October 17th. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the possibility of helping an artist friend of mine with her own fifty-year retrospective. Her work hangs in museums around the world, and now that she’s very advanced in years, it’s important to do this soon so she can appreciate it. One noted gallery is hanging a retrospective of her work next summer and has already printed out the first copy of a hardback book of her work that will be sold at the exhibit. I was delighted to find in it a quotation of my analysis of one of her sculptures!

Anyway, discussing this retrospective with the artist I found that she had mixed feelings about it. She’s delighted and intimidated at the same time. Who wouldn’t be? More than that, she’s now seeing through “fresh eyes” her works that she hadn’t seen in decades. They were either stored away or in some museum no easily accessible to her any more. Viewing her reactions to seeing these works again for the first time has been enlightening. She’s thrilled; they’re like old friends that have returned to embrace her.

I would like to reach that place one day. Now, when I look back at my work I want to change it. They don’t return as old friends, but as developmental stages that are half-baked and need improvement. This is a sign of my own growth, but will I ever look back at my work with satisfaction? That remains to be seen.

What are your thoughts?


Dan Kent said...

Well, I'm still at the half-baked stage, looking forward to when they'll be fully cooked! lol.

Stan Kurth said...

I feel the same about work done in the past. In "retrospect" it was developmental, it had to happen to get where I am. I'm making inroads, getting closer to a less obscure objective. Not sure if this will ever cease to be the case.

RH Carpenter said...

I find myself right now in a place of feeling a bit uncomfortable and anxious, and not knowing why. My older works are definitely just works in progress! But that's okay. I've only been painting since 2003...not long at all as far as an art journey goes. I have a few paintings I can look on today that were painted a year or more ago...and still be happy with them. But I can't imagine enough of those for a retrospective in my lifetime of my work!

hw (hallie) farber said...

At an exhibit last year I included one of my paintings from 1968 (before I spent 35 years sculpting). I was disheartened because it was as good as the recent ones. Then I realized the 1968 painting was copied from a photo in National Geographic--an elderly Basque woman. Recent paintings have been in my own voice (sometimes my own elderly face)--big difference.

At your retrospective, you will greet your old paintings as friends. Haven't we all had half-baked friends who've contributed to our lives? I'll be there in spirit. I'm not sure we should ever be satisfied.

I was not familiar with Charles Burchfield. Thanks.

Four Seasons in a Life said...

Dear Katharine,

Thank you for introducing us to an artist I was not aware of and now I am very curious to know more.

I also appreciated your thought about the your friends reaction to a retrospective, considering I am getting on in age myself and facing a birthday next week.

There are a couple of paintings of mine that are not only marking the different stages of development, but are like old friends to which I have become very attached to.

They remind me of of a time when things were different and reflect a moment in my life I treasure as a memory, one which has no significance to someone else. It is after all a secrete between friends and friends do not tell.

Wishing you all the very best and good luck with your exhibit,

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy, The Burchfield exhibit sounds exciting! It would be fun to see.

You don't look at your work and say "hmm, but there is something worthwhile in my early works"?

Sometimes I like looking at early works to learn a little about myself.

Anonymous said...

Such great comments! They are always as fun to read as the posts. I really like what Hallie said about half baked friends- that meant a lot to me.
I'm newer at this probably than any of you- so I don't really feel I have a history of work (yet) BUT... it's easy to be negative about ourselves- so perhaps we need to find the things in our work that we can laugh about, feel positive about, and as Peggy says- learn from ourselves.
The artist friend of yours Kathy- seems to have reached that phase of self acceptance of her own work. That's beautiful. I agree with Hallie- that the goal isn't to be fully satisfied. In the end- we owe it to ourselves to feel good about our work. Anything done with fortitude, dedication, love and authenticity deserves respect- whether it's a masterpiece or not.

Casey Klahn said...

This brings to mind a quote by Edgar Degas, who said in his later years that he wished he had enough money to buy back all of his prior paintings. How disturbing to see some of my own older works as a case in point.

I think it must require a good deal of courage to mount a retrospective of the scale you describe.

M said...

You need time behind you to have a retrospective - I won't be having one any day soon!

As a viewer I love retrospectives because they allow you to get inside an artist's head to a certain degree. It's the development that interests me. What led to what etc.?

I would personally dislike having earlier work (that I now find embarrassing) placed next to newer work. I won't have that particular worry for awhile.

Eva said...

Oh do I understand about not wanting to look back. Very few of my pieces stand up to my judgment.The artist the I want to be rarely emerges.I'm always amazed that I actually made a living at this :O)

Unknown said...

Great conversation, everyone!! Wow - lots of insight. I'm grateful to you.

Mark Sheeky said...

I've not heard of that artist but the picture you posted is pretty amazing! I don't look back much but I'm no more unhappy with my earliest pictures than my latest one. I can see an evolution of technique over time, but I wouldn't change an old picture any more than I'd change an old master. I'm thinking only of the next one (two, three, five, ten!)

I can make the next painting better than any before. I can't make an old painting better than itself.

Celeste Bergin said...

I can see the Burchfield influence in your work