In the mid-1950s, watercolorist Charles Burchfield painted a perfectly beautiful scene, marked by his trademark trees and blooming fields under a sky of wobbly gray clouds.
But something wasn't right.
Over the next eight years, Burchfield worked on a larger painting, using his original landscape as the centerpiece and adding strips of paper above and below to create an arched blue dome beneath sunlit clouds. Although he abandoned the piece, titled "Blue Dome of June," before his death in 1967, it still exudes a captivating sense of awe and a particular kind of heavenly light that Burchfield set out to capture. In his journal, he described his intent to portray "a sacred promised land into which one could step from the edges of the rounded clouds."
But "Blue Dome of June" was a step Burchfield couldn't quite complete, and it and several other unfinished paintings make up "Ecstatic Light," a modest exhibition that opens tonight at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center and runs until Sept. 23.
The exhibition reveals Burchfield as a constant and consummate editor, always working, reworking and cutting off entire sections of his paintings and storing them away for later use or integration into new works.
"He had developed a very unique kind of style," said Nancy Weekly, a longtime Burchfield-Penney curator and the head of its collections department. Her book on Burchfield is slated to coincide with the opening of the new Burchfield-Penney Art Center next July.
"In 1943, he took small paintings that he did in 1917, and then he built a new painting around them," Weekly said. "It's as if the original painting had some kind of nugget of truth or something. Instead of starting all over, he used the original."
Burchfield's innovative technique sometimes resulted in paintings that took decades to complete. Placing utmost importance on the dynamism of nature, the cycle of the seasons and fluctuating atmospheric conditions, he would wait for the perfect confluence of factors to drag a painting out of storage and set to work. Sometimes, as this exhibition shows, that confluence never occurred.
In one incomplete painting, titled "Dawn of Spring," phrases are written in charcoal in between faint sketches. The words "very dark pit" occupy the bottom of the painting, while the words "light in waves" are along the top -- a surprisingly literal notation system for an artist whose work is known for containing both of those elements. Even the letters "cheeee" are spelled out in the sketch of a tree, indicating Burchfield's intent to insert a bird there, Weekly said.
Other paintings, some half-sketched, half-painted, show the meticulous process of erasure, cutting and pasting that Burchfield used to achieve fully realized pieces like "December Storm" and "Autumn to Winter."
"It's a good means of seeing his techniques at work, how he constructed the pieces, and you get a sense of his conceptual process as well," Weekly said. "And even as is, I think they're very compelling paintings."
WHAT: "Charles E. Burchfield: Ecstatic Light"
WHEN: Opens with a reception from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. today and runs through Sept. 23
WHERE: Burchfield-Penney Art Center, Rockwell Hall, Buffalo State College, 1300 Elmwood Ave.
TICKETS: $5 adults, $4 seniors, $3 children over 7 and students; free for Buffalo State students, faculty and staff
INFO: 878-6011 or www.burchfield-penney.org