The Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey is a half hour’s drive from New York City. Its permanent collection includes works from Native American heritage, and the museum enthusiastically specializes in landscape painting and Americana. This lineage makes a foundation for promoting American artists who use traditions in order to fearlessly explore the present. In the museum’s exhibit on landscape artist Charles Burchfield the artist uses landscape paintings to express wonderful abstract emotion. In a second exhibit, artist Philomena Williamson uses the historic possibilities of the United States as a way to communicate possibilities in the present. A third exhibit from the museum’s permanent collection shows how American artists interpreted French artist Henri Matisse and expanded his philosophies of color and shape.
Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) was an American landscape artist. His paintings, often in watercolors, have spiritual resonance and sometimes but not always veer towards abstraction.
In the 1800’s, landscape painting was important in the United States because the absence of photography meant the potential of the land could be communicated with paintings. The absence of European or Middle Eastern ruins inspired American artists that the United States could be that much more free. An antipode would certainly be genre painting from the Dutch Golden Age of painting around the 1600’s, because genre paintings were realistic, but because of their commitment to realism, often stayed small. American painters such as Thomas Cole used landscape painting as a way to talk about complicated themes such as optimism or the benevolence of nature.
Burchfield was born at the very end of this tradition, and it shows. In a drawing, “Sun over Wheat Field,” (1950), the artist draws a circular sun blasting over waves of grain. Wheat is the least of the problems in this drawing, as the clouds around the sun struggle and agitate. Bunting, which is various shades and abstract scribbling, could easily come from a Jackson Pollack sketch. Grain and the sun are loaded in symbolism – they appear as proxies for work and people. Farming represented daily work for farmers in America, and represented people themselves, because the people doing the work had such a close association. This appears in Judaism and Christianity frequently, and both religions have emphasis on bread as a meditation on transformation and energy.
Similar conflicts with the sky are easier in Burchfield’s, “Sunburst” (1929), where the artist turns toward realism in the bottom half of the watercolor, and drifts into bright pink and salmon washes of a sunburst coming out from the clouds, which haze around blue and gray clouds. Burchfield might be symbolizing how nature can be gentle and loving with his light blues yellows and grays, because the conflicts people have disappear over the course of time, and all that remains are loving memories regardless of passing conflicts. This is why the philosopher Kierkegaard wrote love is the only thing that lasts. There was certain technical prowess involved with this painting, and the curator’s notes here mention the artist used “all day painting” in order to see how weather changes the views of a particular landscape over time. Thus Burchfield was both a realist and a symbolist in this painting.
A separate exhibition, Philemona Williamson (b. 1951) shows paintings in an exhibit titled, “Metaphorical Narratives”, and these paintings shock and amaze. The artist paints liminal beings in different intersections of moral and social identity. Transitional figures include androgenous people and children on the verge of puberty, but other subjects here include race and the problems of innocence versus responsibility. Williamson had a friendship with legendary 20th century artist Romare Bearden, who’s collages probably explain why Williamson frequently frames the action by cropping out limbs or certain figures. Williamson has control over a fair amount of art history, and Kerry James Marshall’s giant paintings come to mind here. Exactly where Marshall is stoic and maintains themes across his pictures, Williamson’s characters are dealing with grayer moral areas, and Williamson’s backgrounds include day-glo yellows, pinks, and oranges, where Marshall’s paintings have blue or green backgrounds.
In one of Williamson’s paintings, a dreamlike sequence shows two androgynous adolescents falling against a crepuscular background. The yellow greens of the foreground push the falling characters toward the viewer. In the painting’s focal point, the characters knees themselves arch toward bending – if this dangerous play is scary or harrowing instead of fun and exciting, this character hasn’t decided at this moment. The viewer of this painting has to make these decisions, that falling is right or wrong, that falling off of the tree is perilous, and that the audience doesn’t want her to do it. This painting has references to themes of “flying or falling,” which showcase artists’ commitment to figure drawing. Nevertheless, because the context is not clear, Williamson forces the audience to consider the situation in the way that her character here does not.
The Montclair Art Museum is a true treasure for anyone to see and should not be missed.