I took the artist Rafael Ferrer, who is the subject of a career retrospective at El Museo del Barrio, over to the Whitney Museum to meet Whit director Adam Weinberg and see the Charles Burchfield retrospective there. My purpose was to address a problem in my own life: how, through a series of optimistic mistakes, I ended up living, for the last four years, in a forest that I was ill prepared to exist in.
My reference point was two specific bodies of work, the dense landscapes which Ferrer painted in the Dominican Republic over a ten year period beginning in the 1980s and the pulsating landscapes which Burchfield produced at the end of his life in the 1960s around his lifelong residence in Gardenville, N.Y. What concerned both artists was the alien nature of all surroundings, however much we might wish that they become comfortable for us. For Burchfield, this began with one painting, Orion in December, a 1959 winter landscape, in which the artist’s anxieties (as expressed in his diaries) over the Russians’ launch of Sputnik melted away in a winter vision of the planet Jupiter, one I witnessed myself this past winter.
Linked spires of bare trees pulsate in the Burchfield picture, as the stars drop down into dangerous proximity as if weighted down by the sins of the viewer. The encroachment of desolation seems to answer a particular human desire, as seen in Ferrer’s 1988 painting Rio Balata (in the mountains there you are free), the price of freedom being a dense tropical forest smothering the beach in order to expel the viewer. Robert Gober, who curated the Burchfield show, included a single framed oak leaf, preserved by Burchfield’s wife, in the exhibition, which brought to mind Ferrer’s most famous performance piece from the 1960s, in which he emptied various bags of fallen leaves in gallery spaces across Manhattan. In the summer woods, I can no longer look up through the elms and oaks on my own property without imagining the piles of fallen leaves, under my mournful rake, that are too soon to come.
As such nature is not so much a cycle, as a heavy accumulation of foreboding occasionally laced with wonder. Ferrer again captures this subjective, trapped condition in La Puerta Abierta (The Open Door) (1987), a shack on the beach crisscrossed by the heavy shadows of palm trees in the foreground, with a hint of blue ocean (the painting is reproduced in the catalogue, but is not in the show). So inviting is this abandoned space, with promise of perhaps an assignation, yet it remains fundamentally empty, like much of life. Burchfield’s 1962 painting Landscape with Gray Clouds (Heat Lightning) is similarly fraught with the threat of change with which nature unsettles the human mind, always an accident of the weather over the horizon.
I watched Rafael Ferrer get close to the particular pieces which Burchfield left in his studio for decades, adding layers of intricate fungus and explosive color, never to really be finished, and reflected that restlessness itself had driven Rafael into every corner of creation. His beautiful painting from 1991, Sombrero de Palma (Palm Leaf Hat), summarized the exuberant disturbance of Rafael’s mindset perfectly, the backward view of a man under a hat which roils like a small volcano, the other man, magically relaxed, legs drifting over the side of an outrigger, looking back at the artist, as the canoe drifts towards an untamed shore.
This is the shared conceit of Burchfield and Ferrer’s approach to nature, to give the outer world the facility of looking back at you. Burchfield accomplishes this spectacularly in Dandelion Seed Heads and the Moon (1961-65), in which the eyes of nature override assumptions of scale and become one hydra-eyed Cyclops, an exploding harvest of vision that asks you why you even dare to think that you can look. Ferrer’s El Sol Asombra (The Sun in Shadow/The Sun Astounds) (1989) also demands that you stop looking, that the landscape would be better without you, throbbing in its own light and life, unencumbered by interpretation.
It is a dilemma I face every day in the alien habitat of my last years in the woods, one for which the work of two great artists, enjoyed in a morning, provided a palliative. One stood beside me, the other stands beyond. Their work abides.
"Retro/Active: The Work of Rafael Ferrer," June 8-Aug. 22, 2010, at El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10029
"Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield," June 24-Oct. 17, 2010, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).