|SANFORD WURMFELD: A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY
Sanford Ian Wurmfeld (herein referred to as SW) was born on 6 December 1942, the second son of Charles Jacob Wurmfeld and Esther Witzling Wurmfeld. Though both his parents were born in New York, his grand- parents were emigrants in the late 19th century: the paternal side from Hungary and the maternal side from Galicia, Eastern Europe. He and his older brother by three years, Michael Stuart, grew up in a close-knit family in the Bronx. His father was a professional engineer and his mother a public school teacher. She introduced him to the arts by taking him to painting classes at a very young age at the Museum of Modern Art and sending him as a boy to Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts.
The brothers attended PS 114 and the Horace Mann School. On his graduation at the age of 17, SW toured Europe with his brother, then studying architecture at Princeton, to experience the history of architecture first hand. SW went on to Dartmouth where he majored in Art History and spent a great deal of time teaching himself to draw and paint. Rejecting the idea of following Michael into architecture, he chose instead to pursue a career in art. After graduation he went to live and work in Rome, where his brother was already living on a Fulbright grant. SW always pursued the idea of abstraction in painting. His own painting was originally inspired by seeing the Franz Kline memorial exhibition in Washington, D.C. with his instructor, Lloyd McNeil. Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko and then Monet became further inspirations in his early work.
At the end of 1965, SW returned to New York from Rome and took a studio at 98 Chambers Street, 4th floor, and 18 months later moved around the corner to the fifth floor of 18 Warren Street, where he still lives and works. While in Italy he had seen the Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella and Morris Louis installation at the Venice Biennale and on return to New York sought out exhibitions of their work. He also spent a week reading and studying Josef Albers's Interaction of Color. In January 1966 he registered for graduate art classes in the MA program at Hunter College. As a student there he studied with Ray Parker, Tony Smith, Gene Goossen and Ad Reinhardt. Parker, Smith and Goossen became friends and supporters of his work and he in turn was very influenced by them. In September 1967, he was offered an adjunct teaching position in the Art Department. Among other faculty artists, he formed a close artistic working relationship with Doug Ohlson, Tony Milkowski, Vincent Longo and Robert Swain.
In 1968 he was included as the youngest artist in the survey exhibition of post-war American art cerated by Gene Goossen at the Museum of Modern Art, The Art of the Real 1948-68. That spring he had his first one-person exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery.
While on vacation during the January intercession in the British Virgin Islands the following year, he met his future wife, Rella Stuart-Hunt, a sailor and painter, who lived there with her family. Shortly afterwards she came to live in New York. They would be married in 1971. Later in 1969 he met Luitpold Domberger, a German silkscreen printer and art publisher who went on to publish a five- part series of prints and a number of individual images as part of the Domberger annual portfolios. This championing by Domberger resulted in the purchase by the City of Hanover, Germany, of one of his transparent colour sculptures and the subsequent inclusion of another one in the museum there.
During 1970 he accepted teaching positions at Cooper Union to teach colour theory, and at California State College, Hayward, where he took a summer visiting artist position at the invitation of the artist Raymond Saunders.
Though he had been painting continuously, during these earlier years he experimented in other mediums; he made three-dimensional pieces and also, with his brother,16mm films. In the late 60s and early 70s they completed six abstract films which for SW came out of his interest in the sequential experience of colour in columns and transparent pieces he had made, and for Michael they came from his involvement in the sequential experience of spaces in architecture. By 1971 SW resolved to concentrate on painting and he made his first work based on small bits of colour, ll-4H. It was exhibited in 1974 and was a six foot square composed of four colours all in half-inch squares. This seminal painting led to others that were attempts to expand the visual field for the viewer by extending the horizontal dimension to as much as thirty feet. The thirty-foot long paintings were shown at the Inaugural Show of the Susan Caldwell Gallery in 1974, the Denise Rene Gallery in 1974, again at the Susan Caldwell Gallery in 1976 and for a commission at General Electric Headquarters in Fairfield, Connecticut in 1974.
In their early years together SW and RS-H traveled all over Europe and North Africa, which contributed greatly to his visual development. Having received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1974, he took the fall semester off from teaching and the couple traveled to Italy to see in situ paintings by Tiepolo and other environmental works by artists of the late Renaissance and Baroque periods. In August 1975 their son Jeremy was born.
Shortly afterwards, SW and a colleague, Stanley Novak, from the Psychology Department put together an interdepartmental course, 'Psychology and Art'. This class traced the parallel history of experimental psychology, starting in the 19th century, and the development of abstraction during the 20th century. Working with Novak deepened SW's understanding of the eye/brain system's visual processes and influenced his work as a painter. It also brought him into contact with a number of accomplished visual scientists and artists who came as visiting lecturers to their classes. This led in the late 1970s to his working on a group of paintings which varied the size of the square on a constant colour ground according to the relative degree of contrast between the colour and that ground - that is to say the more contrast the smaller the square. An exhibition of these new works was held at the Susan Caldwell gallery in 1978.
Daughter Treva was born in August that year.
The following summer with young children in tow, they drove around Tunisia, N. Africa, to see ancient sites and mosaics. But by the 1980s the family had decided to spend the summers sailing in order to escape the heat of New York, each year progressing further 'down east' towards Maine, the coasts and rivers of New Brunswick, Canada, and the Bay of Fundy. SW was greatly affected by these annual sailing trips, which provided him with visual experiences that some say are evident in his paintings.
In May of 1978 his colleagues elected him Chairman of the Art Department for the first time, a position he would be re-elected to for ten continuous terms, eventually serving for 28 years altogether. He soon led his colleagues to expand the department to include an MFA program, which began in 1981. With the support of then President Donna Shalala and City University of New York Chancellor Joseph Murphy, the department eventually secured the MFA building at 41st Street, which subsequently became a vibrant community of young artists. In the mid 1980s with his colleagues, he started the Hunter Galleries: the Leubsdorf Gallery in the then new building, Hunter West, and later the Times Square Gallery in the MFA building. He conceived the programs of these galleries as extensions of the department's teachings, reflecting current interests of faculty and students. During this time, he curated two shows on colour: Color Documents, A Presentational Theory in 1985, and Color Order and Aesthetics in 1988. Later he curated survey exhibitions of younger 'presentational painters'.
He was Director of the Gallery for more than twenty years. During that time, faculty members, together with their students, created over 100 exhibitions, each with catalogues. Year-long studies by MFA and MA faculty and their students and exhibitions of the work of retiring faculty members were among the most rewarding exhibitions to work on. Another highlight of his gallery work during the 1980s was the opportunity to organize an exchange exhibition with Shanghai University. The result was Approaches to Abstraction, 1986, the first exhibition entirely devoted to abstraction ever seen in China. This experience, as well his belief in the importance of travel for the education of students, led him to initiate international exchange programmes. By the mid 1990s he had organized exchanges with the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris; the Hochschule der Kunst, Berlin; the Slade, UCL, London; the Royal College of Art, London; the Glasgow School of Art, Scotland and the Academie Minerva, Groningen, Netherlands.
On a sabbatical trip to Europe with the family in 1981, SW saw in quick succession the Panorama Mesdag in The Hague, and Monet's Les Nymphaeas in the Orangerie in Paris. This solidified his ambition to create a fully abstract 360-degree painting that to his knowledge had not been done previously. Though it was clearly a popular form from the 1780s onwards, the panorama was a form used to display perspective representations or scenes. His own painting had become increasingly complex. He had consolidated the idea of changing-sized squares with the original multiple colour patterns used in his earlier work. Some of these changing-sized square works of the early 1980s were exhibited in the Carnegie International of 1982-3. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Guggenheim Museum, New York, each acquired a painting from this period. Towards the end of the 80s serendipitously he discovered a new pattern for his work with continuously changing-sized and shaped rectangles in both horizontal and vertical dimensions. Overlaying two grids of different sizes, so that they would regularly move in and out of out of phase, made this possible and simplified his process. The first painting using this new pattern was completed in 1987 and within a couple of years he applied the idea to a model of a 360-dejree painting. It would, however, be more than ten years before the full-scale version would be commissioned. In 1989 SW was despondent over the death of his father. He was unable to paint for a while and when he did, he created a new series of vertical paintings - his first works with this orientation - dedicated to the memory of his father.
In the 1980s, he had started writing more about his ideas on art. His first essays were included in the catalogues for the shows he curated at the time. During a sabbatical in 1991, he wrote an essay called 'Revolutions in Time' which was delivered as a lecture to the MFA program that year, and soon afterwards at Princeton University. As a result of his seeing the Canaletto and the Sanford Robinson Gifford exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum, he wrote two essays: one on the visual experiences of Canaletto's paintings and the other on Gifford's use of colour. These were presented as lectures to his students. Other essays were beginning to be published: 'From Surface Color to Luminous Film Color in Abstract Painting', in Structured Color, 1995, an exhibition catalogue of work by Albers, Stanczak and Anuszkiewicz at Wake Forest University; 'Color in Abstract Painting', in Color for Science, Art and Technology, 1998, edited by Kurt Nassau; and 'Color Painters/Color Painting', in Color Perception, 2000, edited by Steven Davis. These publications brought him into further contact with colour enthusiasts: art historians, critics, other artists and theorists around the world. Most recently his essay on Seurat's drawings was published in Master Drawings.
In the fall of 1998 at a symposium in Holland, he first met the museum director, Michael Fehr. Fehr came to SW's studio the following spring. On seeing the model for the Cyclorama, Fehr was enthusiastic, and offered to show it that summer in an effort to build interest in possibly doing the full-scale piece. This effort resulted in SW's commission by the Karl Ernst Osthaus-Museum to create what would become his Cyclorama 2000, scheduled to open in late November 2000. Sadly the cancer his brother Michael had been struggling with for five years had recurred. SW spent most mornings that spring working on the Cyclorama and most afternoons with his brother. In July, Michael passed away. SW was devastated. Family and many friends attended the opening of Cyclorama 2000 that November to celebrate with SW, although for all of them it became as much a celebration of his brother's life as it was a celebration of the Cyclorama. Subsequently Fehr arranged for the Cyclorama to be shown in Budapest in 2002, and Altotting in 2003 during the International Panorama Conference.
From 1999 to 2003, SW was invited to be the External Examiner for the Glasgow School of Art program in painting, requiring two trips a year to Scotland. Through an associate of Fehr, SW was introduced to lain Boyd Whyte and subsequently to Duncan Macmillan. They were enthusiastic about bringing Cyclorama 2000 to Scotland because they appreciated his work and they enjoyed the fact that the panorama had been invented in Edinburgh. An exhibition was arranged, curated by MacMillan, and sponsored in part by the Dunard Fund to be held at the Talbot Rice Gallery in 2004.
SW was appointed the Phyllis and Joseph Caroff Professor of Fine Art at Hunter in 2000. In 2006 he resigned as Chair of the Department. He still teaches his Color Seminar and works with students as part of the MFA and MA programs in the Art Department. He continues to be intrigued by cycloramas, recognizing the panorama format as the ultimate means of investigating issues of colour, form, duration and scale in relation to human visual experience. In 2006 he set out to create the E-Cyclorama based on an ellipse or oval plan. The model of this new piece was shown in the Museum of the Panorama Mesdag, The Hague, during fall, 2006, and presented to the International Panorama Conference there. He hopes that the sense of floating or 'film colour' will be even greater in the full-scale version. He discovered from his own experience of the completed Cyclorama 2000 that being in such a space surrounded by colour creates unpredictable results and feelings. He looks forward to discovering what these may be in the E-Cyclorama.