Sanford Wurmfeld's Impressive Color Painting
Apr 1, 2019
The name Sanford Wurmfeld may not immediately ring bells with people outside of the art field, but it elicits awe and admiration from most artists who know his work. The self-taught painter has been a fixture of the New York scene since the late 1960s, when he had his first exhibitions in the city and started teaching at Hunter College. In the past half century since, Wurmfeld has taught color theory to generations of artists and art historians. He is a the perfect living representative of the notion that art and academics should be happily combined, and that artists should be celebrated for their intellectual pursuits as much as their aesthetic ones. Yet despite the scores of past students who would gladly hold Wurmfeld up as one of the finest teachers of his generation, and despite the many enlightening articles and essays Wurmfeld has produced over the decades, it is his artwork that ultimately defines his legacy. That work is founded on an unwavering passion for color. Wurmfeld embraces color wholeheartedly, not just as one tool in his aesthetic toolbox, but as a subject all its own. Or perhaps he embraces it as a substance all its own. What is color, after all? No one really knows. Is it a substance? Is it superficial? It may be something essential to life, or it may not. It may exist only in our perception and have no relevance to our survival. It may be more related to spectacle than to meaning. Whatever it is, Wurmfeld has dedicated his art life to exploring its multitudinous facets. Though he may never fully be able to express the exact nature of what color is, he understands the most important aspect of its existence: that it has the capacity to make us feel.
Necessities of Scale
Most of the work Wurmfeld produces is in the realm of traditional painting—two-dimensional works that hang on walls. The surfaces of his paintings tend to show graceful chromatic gradations, flowing serenely from hue to hue, never seeming to stop at any one color. The effect they frequently have on viewers goes something like this: they first become wowed by the spectacular, luminous colors; next, they move in closer to admire the meticulous precision of the surface; they next stare intently trying to figure out how the painting was made, which seems at times impossible to unravel; finally they back up again and just give in to the pleasure of looking at something awesome. That pattern plays out again and again because his paintings occupy a nature somewhere between object and experience. Something happens between their colorful surfaces and the eye, but what that something is is hard to grasp, and impossible to hold onto. Unable to succumb to the experience, we have no choice but to admit the paintings are objects, which breaks the spell.
Sanford Wurmfeld - II-25 (Blue DK-N), 1983. Acrylic on canvas. 28 1/2 × 28 1/2 in (72.4 × 72.4 cm). © Minus Space, Brooklyn, NY.
Wurmfeld solved this problem (if you can really call it a problem) with a monumental creation called the “Cyclorama,” which he debuted in 2000. A massive, circular canvas, the Cyclorama completely encloses the viewer in a circle of color. With eight-foot tall walls, the painting is more like a room, or perhaps a container. The viewer climbs up inside of it, becoming ensconced in the experience of looking. Wurmfeld elaborated on the concept in 2008 with his second manifestation of the idea, an oval-shaped painting room called “E-Cyclorama.” (The E stands for elliptical.) The E-Cyclorama took Wurmfeld a whole year to paint. It transitions through 109 different colors. Yet the painting is so meticulously constructed that it is possible to blur the eyes and see only waves of color, not individual hues. Writing about his experience with it in 2009, the art critic John Yau praised the size of the work, writing, “The scale of E-Cyclorama is ambitious and necessary.” The necessity lies in the fact that in its massiveness, it frees viewers from intellectual burdens by encompassing them. It is like entering the painterly version of a James Turrell installation, but instead of feeling dazzled by light and space, you feel entranced by luminescent hue.
Sanford Wurmfeld - II - 18 + B:2 (YGY-VBV:Ys + Vt), 2016. Acrylic on canvas. 59 x 90 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Minus Space, Brooklyn, NY.
Projections in Space
In addition to his paintings and Cycloramas, Wurmfeld has developed many ways to project color into space. One strategy he employs is the dispersement of sculptural forms within a room. Scale, here, is also important. Sometimes he places opaque, colorful totems in such a way that people can walk around them and admire them as objects. Other times he fills the space with translucent, colorful panels, which beckon viewers to look through them at the other panels, melding colors and forms into a luminous visual cacophony. Either way, the works are human-sized. We can relate to them as co-inhabitants of space, not territorial occupiers that overwhelm us. Un-intimidating and beautiful, his sculptures make the experience of color in space seem straightforward and fun.
Sanford Wurmfeld - II-25 (Yellow DN-LN), 1983. Acrylic on canvas. 28 1/2 × 28 1/2 in (72.4 × 72.4 cm). © Minus Space, Brooklyn, NY.
The second strategy Wurmfeld employs is the actual projection of color onto a wall. Light is obviously vital to any human visual experience of color, but this is the one area where Wurmfeld fully blends the concept of color with the concept of light. By projecting two square blocks of color side by side on a massive surface, he invites us to sit and look; to compare the colors; to experience the liminal space between the colors; to wonder at how the two colors interact; to consider how relationships are essential to what we perceive. These color projections ask to be thought about in an analytical way, to be viewed like a movie. They bring questions to mind about connections between the past and the future, almost as if the colors are telling a story. This is what I mean when I say Wurmfeld sees color as both subject and substance. He uses it as the stuff of his work, but also perceives that the exact nature of his subject remain as mysterious as the sensations it makes us feel.
Featured image: Sanford Wurmfeld - II-25 # 2 (R-G=V), 2002. Acrylic on canvas. 42 x 42 inches (106.7 x 106.7 cm). © Maxwell Davidson Gallery.
All images used for illustrative purposes only
By Phillip Barcio