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Listening to the Trees: Burchfield Masterworks from the Spiro Family Collection


The Burchfield-Penney Art Center presents for the first time in public, Listening to the Trees: Burchfield Masterworks from the Spiro Family Collection. The Spiro Family Collection is comprised of 13 drawings and paintings by celebrated American watercolorist Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967). The exhibition runs through November 3, 2003.

"The Spiro Family Collection contains paintings and drawings from all stages in Burchfield's life and offers a full perspective on the artist's imagination," said Nancy Weekly, head of collections/the Charles Cary Rumsey curator, Burchfield-Penney Art Center and noted Burchfield scholar. "We are indebted to the Spiro family for their devotion to Burchfield and enthusiastic generosity in sharing their admirable collection with us."

Harry and Brigitte Spiro moved from New Orleans, where Harry was a land developer, to New York City. While raising a family of five children, they also created an impressive art collection that focused on their interests in European and American art by such masters of the late 19th- and early to mid-20th centuries as John Singer Sargent, Max Beckmann, Pablo Picasso, Echaurren Matta, Oscar Bluemner, and Abraham Walkowitz. Their extraordinary twentieth-century American art collection includes Ben Shahn, Frank Gallo, Tom Wesselmann and the great watercolorists Charles E. Burchfield and John Marin.

In the past decade, their Burchfield collection became a true passion. It began with purchases from John Clancy, director of the Frank K. M. Rehn Galleries in New York, the dealer who started representing Burchfield in 1929 after he quit working as a wallpaper designer at M. H. Birge & Sons Company in Buffalo. A number of important works later were purchased at auction and from the Kennedy Galleries, which has represented Burchfield's estate since the artist's death in 1967 under the direction of Lawrence Fleischman, who was succeeded by his daughter, Martha.

Amassed over decades, the Spiro Family Collection reflects a shared interest in Burchfield's appreciation for Nature's beauty and awe-inspiring qualities. Harry Spiro, who died in 2001, and his wife Brigitte were always attuned to Burchfield's unique expressions of the American landscape. Increasingly they were drawn to his magical visions, energized brushstrokes, and season-directed color palette. His distinct rapport with nature is evident in such early musings as a 1915 journal entry, "I have never learned to talk & have only listened to the trees."

Burchfield's reverence for trees manifests itself in unspoiled vistas, as in the painting Late Winter Dawn (1956-65), featuring a majestic evergreen with "tree spirit" eyes peering from between its branches, while it connects thawing earth with a star-studded sky. Bee Hepaticas (c. 1966) dramatizes the artist's favorite flowers, which always connoted familial love and devotion. Under a golden archway, Spring's first delicate, pastel blossoms emerge from a thick carpet of leaves, and winter retreats into a black abyss beyond a stand of birch trees. Even in paintings that include city buildings or domestic homes, Burchfield pays homage to trees. In his satiric painting of men chopping down a huge tree that had once towered over adjacent houses on Buffalo's Mohawk Street, Civic Improvement (1927-28) was intended, Burchfield wrote, to be "a protest against destruction of the Delaware Ave. elms." Ironically, Dutch elm disease would decimate Buffalo's beautiful tree-lined streets several years later. The Spiro Family Collection contains paintings and drawings from all stages in Burchfield's life that offer a full perspective on the artist's imagination.

"Our family has the wonderful opportunity to share these works with the public in the best of all places, Buffalo, New York," Mrs. Brigitte Spiro wrote. "The collection of Burchfields has come home to Buffalo where they were conceived in the mind of the artist."

Generous support for Listening to the Trees: Burchfield Masterworks from the Spiro Family Collection has been provided by Hodgson Russ LLP and the Vogt Family Foundation.

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