Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, New York May 31 – July 21, 2009
My long held curiosity about Sanford Wurmfeld’s paintings was piqued by the announcement stating that this would be the first time E-Cyclorama (2008), “a monumental painting…made on canvas stretched onto a 37-foot-long oval cylinder” would be shown in the United States. My interest dates back to the mid-70s, when a good friend was attending Hunter College, where Wurmfeld was teaching and where, in 1978, he became the Chairman of the Art Department. I saw the work of other abstract artists connected to Hunter, Ray Parker, Doug Ohlson, and Robert Swain, but I never saw a show of Wurmfeld’s work and began wondering about it. Given that the last time he had a solo exhibition in New York was 1978—something I learned after going to the Neuberger—it is not surprising that I hadn’t seen his work. As William C. Agee wrote, “he may well be the best little-known painter in New York today.”
Why Wurmfeld’s work is little known in New York is briefly worth considering. He’s a highly formal abstract artist whose primary focus is color relationships. A little more than a decade younger than Marcia Hafif (b. 1929), with whom he is a friend, Wurmfeld was born in 1942, and belongs to the same generation as Joseph Marioni (b. 1943), who has been exhibiting in New York for years, and is far better known for his abstractions. Some critics believe that the cream always rises to the top, but I am not one of them. After all, other things float to the top besides cream.
If there is one thing that an artist wants to do, which is make a work that is unlike anything else, to “make it new,” as cranky Ezra Pound put it, then Wurmfeld has certainly achieved that with E-Cyclorama and its predecessor, Cyclorama (2000). The scale of E-Cyclorama is ambitious and necessary, which is seldom the case. A room-sized environment that we must climb up into, so that we are physically inside the painting, just the sheer size of the piece tells you that the marketplace was the furthest thing from the artist’s mind. And while our eyes tell us that what we are inside of is a circle, the environment is in fact an oval. This discrepancy between what we see and what we come to know is played out on every level of the painting.
Its structure is the repetition of a grid consisting of thirty-one squares to a side superimposed over a grid of thirty squares to a side, with these grids abutting each other all the way around the interior. This enables Wurmfeld to achieve a constant gradation along the vertical axis, as well as a continuous flipping of the figure-ground relationship. Meanwhile, starting with the center or horizon line, the artist shifts the upper half towards the darker end of the color (shade) and the lower half towards the lighter values (tint). The color runs across the spectrum, from deep violet to luminous yellow, while, within each gridded square, it is inflected away from a pure hue to a grayscale along the centered dividing line. While all of this might sound dry and methodical—think Josef Albers color studies times 100—the results are deeply engaging. Color pulls away from the surface until it seems to be floating in front of us, while the slightest movement of our eye or head causes the surface to shift and at times appear to open up, become ridged and physical. The dance between light and tactility is constant, and required this viewer to constantly refocus, which engendered a feeling of vertigo. The surface in effect becomes film-like, with the color being separate from the surface. James Turrell has also explored this perceptual territory. What’s interesting is that Wurmfeld reaches it more straightforwardly; he does it with paint.
Historically, a cyclorama is a painting with a continuous view—it’s both a panorama and the first moving picture. A forerunner of holograms, virtual reality, cyberspace, and 3D movies, the panorama is a hybrid form most often used to depict an entire, often entertaining, illusionistic world. In one of the catalogue essays about Cyclorama (2000), Ira Mazzoni discusses Jeff Wall’s “Restoration,” a large-format transparency that shows a panorama from an eccentric perspective. Wall concluded that, “it is never really possible to portray and experience a panorama in another medium.” According to Mazzoni, Wall’s piece is “an allegory of futility” and an “ethereal epitaph to the phenomenon of the panorama,” which to me to completely misses the point. By elevating the panorama out of pictorial illusionism into the realm of abstraction, Wurmfeld clarifies beyond a doubt what every painter knows; images are not paintings, and that the visceral component of painting is just one of the things that makes it more than an image. You can transfer an image to another medium, but not the material essence of painting. Some believe that painting’s recalcitrance is its weakness, and that every experience is only a poor copy of some lost original. I think that Wurmfeld could have titled E-Cyclorama “Fuck Plato,” but that would have cheapened his project. After more than thirty years I finally got to experience a painting by Wurmfeld. There was no fanfare, build-up, or buzz, but it was well worth the wait.