BUFFALO - Among the many blessings available to residents of our community is the ease and relative lack of expense of enjoying a day of high culture.
I recently left town around noon, spent a fascinating afternoon at the gorgeous new Burchfield-Penney Art Gallery, had a big city dinner, and attended a truly fine production of a new and powerful play, and was home before midnight. People in the world's major cities couldn't do better than that.
Let me share with you, my day of culture:
The Burchfield-Penney Art Gallery is currently showing “Heat Waves in a Swamp,' a broad retrospective of the artistic life of Charles Burchfield, through May 23.
On Elmwood Avenue, directly across the street from the more established Albright-Knox Art Gallery, is the new and innovative and beautiful Burchfield-Penney Art Gallery.
The new gallery - at 84,000 square feet - is a bit smaller than its giant neighbor, yet it is large enough to keep you moving excitedly for an afternoon, from new idea to new vision, to new expression.
What drew me to Buffalo in the first place was a new show at the Burchfield-Penney of creations of Charles Burchfield, the artist who has given his name to the gallery.
''Heat Waves in a Swamp: The paintings of Charles Burchfield'' is a traveling exhibition which was curated by sculptor Robert Gober, and organized by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. In chronological order, it displays more than 80 watercolors, oil paintings, and drawings by the artist who lived the majority of his life in Buffalo. Integrated among the paintings are doodles, journals, scrapbooks and letters by the artist which can open your eyes to how the painter created his many works of art.
When the Buffalo showing ends on May 23, the exhibit will move on to its next destination, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York City. New Yorkers won't see the exhibit in any better circumstances than we will in Buffalo.
I was fortunate to time my arrival in time to visit the exhibit in the company of Ted. S. Pietrzak, the dynamic director of the gallery. Pietrzak was the leader of the campaign which brought the Burchfield-Penney from a small area in the Buffalo State College's Rockwell Hall, to the first new museum construction in Buffalo, in more than a century.
Most art lovers in this area are familiar with Burchfield's career. He was the first artist ever, to be given a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City. That was back in 1930.
Such is the eccentricity of the art world, Burchfield's work stands up very well with that of Georgia O'Keefe, for example, and yet his name is not nearly as well-known as hers. Critic Tom Freudenheim of the Wall Street Journal stated in a review of the Los Angeles stop of the exhibit that it fits neatly into a collection which includes works by Gauguin, Seurat, Picasso, Chagall, Soutine, and others.
Pietrzak begins the tour with drawings which are titled ''Conventions for Abstract Thought,'' and which date from circa 1917.
Born in Northeastern Ohio, not far from Erie, Pa., in 1893, Burchfield studied at the Cleveland School of Art. He came to Buffalo to design wallpaper patterns for the Birge Wallpaper Company. One of the most noteworthy elements of the early drawings is that the artist is already actively seeking to include more than one sensual element into his work.
The director pointed out that the drawings go beyond light and shadow, form and color. Using a kind of visual shorthand, Burchfield has tried to evoke bird song, cricket chirps, the hum of current through electrical wires, and other such sounds which would be integral elements of the scenes he is portraying. This attempts to say more to the viewer than just an artistic snapshot of the subject is clearly detectable, throughout the entire retrospective.
The tour takes the viewer through the landscapes, both urban and rural for which Burchfield is probably best known. Often, piles of industrial junk or the facades of single-family houses take on the hint of human faces, for example, or give a frisson of gloom or danger. A landscape has spring-like images around the outside, while there is a dark segment at the center which gives the sense of grim winter being inexorably driven away by the verdant outside of the painting.
In the second large room of the exhibit, the gallery has actually had one of Burchfield's most appealing prints, reprinted as wallpaper, and his paintings hang upon a background of his painting.
The print is dark and rather busy, and gives an old fashioned, yet rich sensation to the entire room. There are originals of several of his wallpaper designs on display. Between the first two rooms, a glass display case shows the artist's personal scrapbook, into which he faithfully pasted reviews and evaluations of his work. Adjacent to the second room is the re-creation of his home studio, in suburban Buffalo, where he created the vast majority of his works.
Hanging on a background of his wallpaper are a small selection of the 18 oil paintings which were his entire output. Pietrzak explains that Burchfield didn't enjoy working in oil paints, and found it difficult with them to show the transparency and the strong element of light which permeates his more-usual watercolors.
One of the personally interesting elements of this era is a series of scraps of paper on which the artist has written some ordinary bit of handwriting, such as a phone number or the name of a member of his family, and they turned the writing into elements of a drawing. It is doodling which shows us the thought patterns of a great artist.
I was told that Burchfield made the momentous decision to leave his employer at the wallpaper company and try to earn his living as an artist, in the summer of 1929 - only a short while before the economic collapse of 1929 plunged the world into the Great Depression. Yet, Burchfield thrived and never needed to return to working for wages.
As we passed into the third room, Pietrzak said that we had reached the point of the beginnings of World War II. He pointed out that part of Burchfield's wartime military service was spent designing various kinds of camouflage, to keep both soldiers and equipment as invisible as possible in a variety of background locales.
At this time in his career, the artist underwent a personal crisis, in which he questioned the quality of his past work and the contribution he was making to his world.
At this time, he began to experiment with taking paintings he had already made, adding paper on three sides or sometimes four sides, and expanding the vision of the painting. One view of a small creek in a dark woods, for example, was expanded to include a view of the sky, of a rock cliff near the stream, and of a jungle of green growth, around the sparkling waters.
Paintings which look complete in themselves, can be approached and studied carefully, until one locates the seams where the original painting has been re-seen and enlarged by its creator.
In a few cases, I was told, the original paintings were literally broken out of the larger view and sold, because the owners needed money and didn't think they could sell the larger works.
I found this a really delightful interaction with art and in just viewing the world in general. I eagerly recommend that you make your way to the gallery before the exhibit closes in late May.
The Burchfield-Penney Art Center is located at 1300 Elmwood Ave., in Buffalo. It is open, Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended hours on Thursdays, until 9 p.m. Sunday hours are 1 to 5 p.m. There is a small cafe and an interestingly stocked museum store which are open when the gallery is open.
You can view the artwork at your own pace and by your own direction if you prefer. Docent tours are available whenever the gallery is open. Curators from the gallery lead tours on Sundays at 2:30 p.m. If you envy my experience with Ted Pietrzak, you can enjoy a tour led by him at 2:30 p.m. on April 4 or 25, or May 16.
To reach the gallery from Chautauqua County, take I-90 east. When you reach the exit for Route 33, which offers you an eastbound ramp toward the Buffalo Airport and a westbound ramp toward Buffalo, exit on the westbound ramp. After a few minutes on Route 33, you arrive at a fork in the road, offering you to continue on Route 33 at the left fork, or to drive onto Route 198, at the right fork.
Take 198. For a few blocks, it is just a city street, but it soon opens out into an expressway. When you come to the exit for Elmwood Ave., there is one ramp which leads to the History Museum, then a second ramp which says Art Gallery. Take the second ramp. At the top of that ramp, merge onto Elmwood Ave., but stay to the right. You will see the white marble of the Albright-Knox Gallery on your left, almost immediately.
The Burchfield-Penney gallery is directly across the street, at the intersection of Elmwood and Rockwell Ave. Turn right on Rockwell, then take your first left into the gallery's parking lot. Parking is free on weekends and after 7 p.m., and it isn't expensive the rest of the time, but it's one of those lots which seems at first glance like free parking. However, at the entrance of the lot there is a machine. You need to decide how long you'll be in the gallery and put enough money into the machine to cover the time, then put the printed ticket on your dashboard, to avoid a parking ticket.
A word of caution: if you press ''purchase'' before you have bought enough time, you can go back out to the lot and buy more time, before your first ticket expires. If you try to put additional money into the machine right away, you'll pay twice for the same period of time, before you gain any additional parking time.
There are a great many lectures, conversations, archive tours, and other such events at the gallery, throughout the exhibit. For additional information, phone them at 878-6011 or visit their web site at www.BurchfieldPenney.org.
As long as you are facing the heavy traffic and rather dull drive to Buffalo, you might as well stay for a decent dinner and a visit to one of the many fine theaters which perform in the Buffalo area. You can still easily come home the same evening, if you'd like.
There are at least 10 productions in the Queen City which I would like to see, right now. Torn many directions, I decided I would go to Kavinoky Theatre, on the campus of D'Youville College, and see their production of ''Secret Order'' by contemporary playwright Bob Clyman.
Our nation is currently filled to the brim with heated discussions on the subject of health care. I suspect you've noticed that most of the people who are shouting and calling names, in that dispute, have no idea what they're talking about. Sadly, many of them are being manipulated by either ideologues or by people with big bucks, who have a financial interest in how the discussions translate into law and practice.
Last summer, the Chautauqua Theatre Company offered a production of Kate Fodor's play ''Rx,'' which demonstrated the forces at work on medical researchers to produce pills which could be sold to nearly everyone, for the rest of their lives, because they treated common, relatively minor problems such as ''office anxiety,'' rather than develop cures for people with fatal ailments, who are fewer in number and if the pills work, they'll stop buying them as soon as they're cured.