WATERCOLOR WONDER: More than 50 paintings and sketches by Charles Burchfield on display at GAC’s Hillstrom

You’ll have to forgive Don Myers for his jubilant demeanor these days; it’s not every day an astute observer of art history gets a chance to share the work of one of his favorite artists with anyone who cares to stop by.

Myers, director of Gustavus Adolphus College’s Hillstrom Museum of Art, recently opened the gallery’s latest exhibit: more than 50 paintings, drawings and prints by Charles E. Burchfield, one of the most prominent artists to be featured at the Hillstrom in recent years.

Go ahead, Google “greatest American watercolor painters.” You’ll find Burchfield pops up right along with Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keefe. He’s kind of a big deal.

The Burchfield exhibit runs now through Jan. 20. And even if watercolor painting isn’t your thing, you might want to check this one out anyway.

“His work is so visually grabbing,” Myers said, “and so compelling.”

If you walked by a classic Burchfield sketch or painting, you might not notice some of the subtle touches that make his work unique. Burchfield’s use of subtle strokes to suggest energy or movement — some might say the presence of divinity — create a buzz in the viewer’s eye. A quick glance will not suffice on a Burchfield. You must stop and take them in, revel in his nuance, understand the connections he was trying to make between man and nature — and man and God.

Several of the pieces in the exhibit are actually owned by the Hillstrom Museum. The museum’s namesake, Richard Hillstrom, was a shrewd collector and compiled a massive collection of elite works, which were later donated to Gustavus Adolphus College and became the foundation for the Hillstrom’s collection.

Myers tells a story of how Hillstrom came to own several Burchfield pieces:

“Hillstrom made an unannounced visit to Burchfield’s home in upstate New York in 1964,” Myers wrote. “His knock was answered by Mrs. Burchfield, who hesitated to invite him in until Hillstrom told her that, in addition to owning one of the artist’s works (a 1954 watercolor titled ‘Morning in the Alleghenies’), he was also a Lutheran minister. Burchfield, who was not working that day, showed him numerous works from storage drawers in his studio and Hillstrom asked about buying one of the drawings. The artist, however, cited his verbal agreement that New York’s Rehn Gallery would be his exclusive dealer and declined to sell directly to a visitor. Not long after this encounter, Hillstrom purchased his second Burchfield work from Rehn, a 1927 drawing of a ‘Young Elm.’”

Burchfield’s works are predominantly housed in The Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY. That museum’s main curator, Tullis Johnson, will be on hand for a gallery talk Jan. 20.

Myers said that, from a financial perspective, obtaining the Burchfield exhibit was one of the costlier endeavors for the Hillstrom Museum. Grants from the Carl and Verna Schmidt Foundation and the St. Peter Chamber of Commerce helped defray costs.

Burchfield’s work is appreciated by many artists, including Mankato’s Brian Frink. In writing to Myers, Frink said of Burchfield’s work, “I saw one years ago at the (Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) that was one of those transformative exhibitions for me as an artist. He’s been a foundational painter for me since early undergrad years.”

And in a piece published on the Burchfield Penney website, Frink wrote:

One of my all time favorite painters, he was also very rural. It makes me think of a question, or comment or … well … I’ll see how it comes out. It may just be me preaching again.

So much art done today, so much that I look at, seems to be about ‘covering one’s ass.’ Meaning the artist, rather than exposing themselves to an expressive moment or pivoting toward a particular awareness, covers their ass. They make sure all the bases are covered, all the boxes are checked, all the ‘i’s’ are dotted, all the ‘t’s’ are crossed and … (I’m out of those cliche’s).

Burchfield seems to do the opposite. His work feels exposed and raw. It’s not programmed or even intelligent. In many ways it doesn’t seem intelligent at all! It’s almost like he is painting from some place of sublime ignorance. A simple response to the world.

That’s what I love about his work. It is a simple response to the world.

First appearing in Buffalo, the exhibit now is being circulated on a national tour, with the Hillstrom being the first stop.