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Burchfield's art: the scale is small, the impact huge

Sheer size and power still score major points in contemporary art. Bigness itself has become a virtue, as was the case with pop artist James Rosenquist's huge canvas shown this past fall at the Leo Castelli Gallery here, and with Roy Lichtenstein's even larger painting exhibited more recently in the same gallery. The fact that both seemed as large as football fields, and revealed as much delicacy of feeling as could be expected from two football teams crashing into each other, was not incidental. Size, power, and blatancy are what this kind of art is all about.

True enough, it often is effective and impressive, but then why shouldn't it be, considering how beautifully it articulates that aspect of American culture that insists anything new must be bigger, taller, faster, louder, and more powerful than what preceded it?

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Now, I wouldn't mind such work (in fact, I found the above-mentioned paintings quite remarkable), if constant respectful exposure to it did not tend to overwhelm the gentler and more lyrical aspects of human creativity, and to make us a bit contemptuous of art that is more modest, delicate, quietly celebratory, and intimate in scale.

In general, we prefer art that is expansive and explosive over art that is concentrated and distilled. After all, Picasso and Pollock, not Mondrian and Klee, are this century's most representative painters. Individually, we may respond favorably to the profoundly intimate and interior paintings of such artists as Mark Tobey and Morris Graves, but culturally we don't quite know what to make of them.

This is also true of Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), one of America's most remarkable and rewarding of all recent painters. I have yet to hear a critic speak ill of him, and yet very few have written about him without some degree of evasion or embarrassment.

I've never understood why. Are we ashamed to admit publicly that we can respond so easily and directly to his life-exulting and deeply romantic vision? And that we can enjoy and find meaning in an art that simplifies and releases feelings and emotions rather than obscuring them behind esoteric theories or complex ideologies?

I really don't know, although I do know that our current passion for complexity and ambiguity in art isn't altogether a good thing. That truth in art , as Van Gogh proved so brilliantly a century ago, often is as clear as a bell.

These, at least, were my thoughts as I returned to the Metropolitan Museum here for a second look at its current Burchfield retrospective. And they were still on my mind when I left an hour later more convinced than ever that Burchfield ranks among the best American artists of this century.

There may be others (Pollock, Calder, de Kooning) who are more ''important,'' and some others who are more ''major,'' but when it comes to sheer quality and authenticity of vision and voice, Burchfield must be ranked among the very best.

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This retrospective is the largest exhibition of Burchfield's art to be mounted since 1956. Its 130 watercolors, oils, and sketches were carefully chosen by John Baur and give a clear accounting of Burchfield's range and depth. The viewer moves chronologically from the artist's symbol-charged early works, through his more somber and straightforward paintings of the late 1920s and '30s , and to his openly romantic, exultant, and somewhat expressionistic works of his last period.

The progression is clear and logical. We watch as the artist's youthful enthusiasms of 1917-29 are tempered and deflated by the stark realities of the Great Depression and World War II, but then burst forth in an expanded and more powerful form once the war is over.

His first paintings of the early 1940s were often enlarged and more dramatic versions of images he had worked on in the 1917-29 period. Most were successful - so successful in fact, that they, a half dozen or so of his earlier works, and roughly two dozen of his even later and more ecstatic paintings have ensured Burchfield's place in American art history. Like Samuel Palmer before him, Burchfield will best be remembered for his intensely personal, magical, and lyrical watercolors in which nature's forms and moods became the perfect transmitters for profoundly interior passions and enthusiasms.

His later watercolors are a joy to behold. With few exceptions, they are modest in size and temperate in color, and derive their effectiveness from Burchfield's uncanny ability to distill nature's realities into a simple but provocative pictorial code. This code, energized and projected by his painterly skills, is highly effective in triggering the desired emotional responses in his viewers, and in giving his paintings the sense of immediacy and freshness he wanted.

In these paintings, nature is almost always active and celebratory. Flowers, weeds, insects, birds, trees, clouds - even the sun and moon - pulsate, hum, and resonate with life. Trees snap or whip about in the wind, burst into foliage, buzz with the sound of insects, or reach for the sky. Everything is dynamic and transported by the sheer joy of being alive.

Even his most ecstatic feelings find their pictorial form as highly generative symbolic images. Their energy is distilled and ''packaged'' for the viewer's benefit, and is not permitted to explode and dissipate on paper for the artist's - and no one else's - benefit.

But then, Burchfield belonged to a more modest period in American art. It's obvious he had enough creative passion and energy to fill a succession of enormous canvases, but he preferred to ''condense'' that passion and energy into a few nature-drenched forms and colors on smallish sheets of paper. His intention was to trigger feelings and emotions in the viewer similar to his own, not to impress him with painterly pyrotechnics.

He was more concerned with what he was communicating than in how he did it. But he also knew very well that if he wanted to share his deepest feelings, the avenues of communication had to be as clear and open as he could possibly make them.

Other attitudes toward the creative act and communication may have taken precedence in the world of art since Burchfield hit his stride in the late 1940 s. He and his art may appear a bit old-fashioned as a result. But no matter. His best work is art - and it will be around for a long time to come.

After its closing at the Metropolitan Museum on March 25, this excellent exhibition travels to the Milwaukee Art Museum (April 20-June 17), then to the Oklahoma Art Center in Oklahoma City (Sept. 14-Nov. 11).

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