“Industrial Beauty: Charles Burchfield’s Black Iron” exhibit at Arkansas Arts Center through May 8

The massive counterweights of a railroad drawbridge over Buffalo Creek fascinated watercolorist Charles Burchfield as he traveled to the Port of Buffalo in 1933. The artist promised himself he would one day depict the bridge. In 1935, he said, “I made one trip in to look over the subject, and received a new thrill. . . What a delight! What a joy it was! The subject ‘over-powered me’” He recalled, “It was difficult working, that first day, but I rejoiced in all the handicaps . . . the ground had not settled yet from the spring thaw, and where I stood it was all sand; engrossed in my work I did not know how treacherous it was until I went to step backward and could not move my feet . . .” A bridge worker had to rescue the artist, who was captivated, indeed.

Charles Burchfield, American (Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio, 1893 – 1967, West Seneca, New York), Black Iron, 1935, watercolor, 28 1/8 x 40 in. Arkansas Arts Center Foundation Collection: Gift of Hope Aldrich, in memory of her father, John D. Rockefeller, 3rd. 2013.006.001.

Burchfield’s devoted labor resulted in one of his greatest watercolors, Black Iron. This exhibition celebrates the arrival of this masterpiece in Arkansas as a gift from Hope Aldrich in honor of her father, John D. Rockefeller, 3rd. This generous donation also includes seven sketches and a sheet of notes from which the artist’s commentary above is quoted. The exhibition Industrial Beauty sets this material in a wider context.

Burchfield is best known as a visual poet of nature who was one of America’s outstanding modern watercolorists. Early and late in his career he made graceful images of trees, flowers, clouds, and abstract lines suggesting such natural sounds as the chirping of crickets. But in the 1930s, the artist was riveted by the technology used to move and store the grain, iron ore, and other products of the Great Lakes region where he lived. His style became more realistic as he depicted the beautiful geometry of railroads, bridges, grain elevators, and factories.

This exhibition gathers such images from the 1930s, including a 1933 watercolor of Buffalo Harbor, Three Boats in Winter (Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, Providence, Rhode Island), which he was making when he first spotted the drawbridge over Buffalo Creek. The exhibition gathers drawings, watercolors, and a rare oil painting from distinguished collections around the country. These images show us Burchfield’s vision of industry. The artist concentrated on massive iron structures and industrial scenes in the 1930s, but he had been depicting bridges and trains since his youth in the 1910s.