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The PICTURE: American Abstraction

Fireworks as art.

Fireworks are kinetic drawings inscribed in the sky. On the night of July 4, in the little upstate New York town of Narrowsburg, we stood on the bridge over the Delaware River and watched with a few hundred other people as the bursts of choreographed color exploded overhead. I had been thinking about the fantasy element in American art for a week or so, since I saw the Charles Burchfield show that has just opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Although Burchfield’s forests and skyscapes do not always give me enough subtleties of color or form to entirely engage my eye, I do admire the Gothicizing, fairy tale dimension in his paintings, which are almost without exception done in watercolor. There is something winningly mysterious and magical in Burchfield’s hymns to nature, with trees gathered together to create elaborately spun cathedral visions, a small town version of a medieval dream world.

I felt some of that same spirit, grave and humorous at the same time, as I watched the explosions of gold, silver, and green lights—and, of course, red, white, and blue lights—in the darkening July 4 sky. The setting was perfect. The Delaware is intimate and meandering at Narrowsburg, and the trees on each bank, framing the light show, turned the scene into a romantic postcard, the sort of postcard of an American town that 90 years ago would have been chromolithographed in colors that were not quite perfectly registered. Of course the fireworks display that we saw the other night was pure kitsch, with great gilt chandeliers of light turning into streaks of glitter before they expired. And the red, white, and blue of the grand finale did not really have the coloristic punch that one hoped for. But taken together, it was an enchanted vision: the little town, the handsome bridge, the winding river, the deep green foliage, and the crowd clapping and hooting in delight. The blaze of July 4 fireworks, starbursts, and floral symmetries suspended in the velvet sky, reminded me of the elaborate arabesques, like New World adaptations of motifs from Old World tapestries, that Burchfield worked into his fantasy kingdoms. In Narrowsburg, we were watching the afterimages of fireworks of yore, of all the princely displays in all the European capitals, but now reduced to the perfectly intimate scale of an old American town.

Here was an indigenous version of nonobjective art, a dime store Kandinsky with its own matter-of-fact honesty, an American abstraction that was immediately comprehensible to everybody who was there. In the end, after the ultimate onslaught of gaudy color, a great yell went up from the crowd. We were saluting those fiery decorative flourishes, but also the democratic vision they honored. For a minute or two we were all united in our faith in the United States of America. And then everybody headed for their cars and the drive home.

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic. 

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