SANFORD WURMFELD: CYCLORAMA 2000 - Color and the Expanding Field
WILLIAM C. AGEE
Sanford Wurmfeld, living and working in New York for thirty-five years, has produced a large and significant body of abstract painting based on principles of color usage and organization with a long history in modern art. He has worked quietly and steadily, leading a private life mostly away from the public spotlight, concentrating on his art and his position as a teacher and chairman of the department of art at Hunter College. His painting, formed in the 1960s now goes against the grain of recent art, but he has remained true to his belief in color and abstract painting as a powerful visual and expressive medium. His work has an unmistakable consistency and continuity, but he has always sought new possibilities for color and painting, and his constant challenge has been "to figure out what comes next."
His achievements are considerable if not widely known; he may well be the best little-known artist working in New York today. His current paintings, composed of clear and luminous color grids, will surprise many viewers, especially those who have accepted the belief that color painting cannot yield convincing art. Wurmfeld's art, all of it, tells us otherwise. Any doubt will be dispelled by the completion and installation of his Cyclorama 2000 here exhibited for the first time. An abstract panorama that fully encircles the spectator, it is a vast field of intense color and light, reaching a height of 8 1/2 feet off the floor and spanning a diameter of 28 + feet and a circumference of 90 feet. It is a stunning accomplishment, a vastly ambitious and truly original contribution to the history of abstract painting. Even those who have known and admired Wurmfeld's work will feel that nothing quite like it has ever been seen, for it is unique in the history of modern art. A fully abstract painting of 360 degrees surrounds the viewer with pure color without beginning and without end. As the color moves through the spectrum and its gradated variants, so we will move, and we will be caught up in a world of color complete unto itself. The sense present- ed by Cyclorama 2000 of the unexpected, of total surprise, is all the greater, for no one, not even the artist himself, can know exactly what the effect will be until the installation is completed.
The surprise is sudden and real, but it has been a long time in the making. Wurmfeld has been developing the idea of a full-scale panorama for at least twenty years, and the seeds of the idea have been implicit in his work from the beginning. Indeed, from the start of his career, his primary concern has been to explore and to expand the totality of the full visual field to engulf and surround the viewer with color alone, the generating idea from which the Cyclorama has evolved.
Wurmfeld was born in the Bronx in 1942, the younger of two children, into a lively and culturally involved family who always encouraged and supported his interest in art. His older brother Michael, with whom he was exceptionally close, was an accomplished and respected architect who died after a long battle with cancer. It has been a grievous loss, for his brother was an important force in his life, and his death in July 2000 while Wurmfeld was painting the Cyclorama, has made its completion all the more a signal accomplishment.
Wurmfeld visited museums and studied art from an early age. In 1958 he traveled to Europe with his family and two years later, before entering Dartmouth College, made another trip there with his brother, then studying architecture at Princeton University. For three months, under Michael's guidance, they visited most of the major monuments on the continent, and Wurmfeld himself considered studying architecture. This early interest is now readily apparent in the conception and structure of the Cyclorama. Once in college, he learned to draw by sketching the buildings on the campus, a standard architectural practice suggested by his brother. He majored in art history, and began to paint, working in an abstract expressionist manner, the art held in the highest esteem by students and emerging artists of Wurmfeld's generation. Abstract expressionism, then and later, became a virtual source- book for him from which he developed many of the ideas of color and structure that have shaped his art. His interest in contemporary art was furthered by contact with artists such as Hans Hofmann, Friedel Dzubas and Robert Rauschenberg who visited Dartmouth as part of the college's artist in residence program. By the time he graduated in 1964, like many artists of his generation who were also college-educated, he had a wide knowledge of modern painting and art history. He decided to forego the formal study of architecture, and to become a painter.
He subsequently spent two years painting in Rome, while continuing to study the city's countless architectural monuments. He was particularly impressed by the way baroque ceilings and frescoes, especially Andrea Pozzo's ceiling in Sant' lgnazio, created their own space, a continuing and enveloping space that makes itself felt in the Cyclorama. It also may be that the clear and sure structure of the grid, the pictorial foundation of his painting, owes something to his continuing interest in architecture Wurmfeld continued to explore abstract expressionism, particularly the paintings of Franz Kline. He liked the scale and the boldness, and the expansiveness of the work, but he was especially drawn to the way Kline placed limits on his art by restricting himself to black and white, then developed their inherent possibilities. This has been the essence of Wurmfeid's working method ever since; he begins with a single, set, formal proposition, then defines and develops it before expanding the idea into new formal and emotive modes of increasing complexity. His method of working has stemmed from his exceptional analytic and visual acuity - for Wurmfeld the visual is all-important - by which he has developed an extensive and incisive view of painting and the his- tory of modern art. In his work he is concerned solely with what he calls aesthetic information, that is, with exactly how paintings are made and how they actually work to form the viewer's experience of them. He also defines what he calls semantic information, ideas about paintings and the context in which they were made, but not actually in them.
Wurmfeld first worked through the figure-ground relationships, and how they could be reversed, created by Kline's black and white forms. Kline gave him a way to find out how we might understand paintings, how we might read them, and how an artist might presume to know what the spectator can know from a painting. This was part of a long and continuing process by which he came to understand how abstract art had created a sense of spatial organization on a two-dimensional surface, without resorting to the old Renaissance system of vanishing- point perspective. Soon he moved beyond black and white, to investigate the more complex figure-ground relationships created by a wider range of hues he found in Willem de Kooning's abstract landscapes from the late 1950s and early 1960s. This work was his first real exploration of color, and it marked Wurmfeld as perhaps the only artist who seriously considered color in gestural abstraction. He became increasingly interested in the properties of color and how color filled and created the space that defined the surface of the two-dimensional field. A trip to Paris in 1965 rekindled his love of Monet, whom he has always considered one of the greatest artists of the western tradition. The luminescence of Monet's color and the way it filled the entire picture field has guided Wurmfeld throughout his life-long search for a similar fullness of color rendered through abstract structures. During a trip to Venice for the 1964 Biennale he saw work by Frank Stella, Ken Noland, and Morris Louis, all artists who pointed to new ways of using color. Then as later, they offered examples of how the artist might move beyond a simple figure-ground relationship to a larger, broader, and more united visual field. Wurmfeld's mastery of this aim is evident, from his first mature paintings of 1966 to the Cyclorama 2000.
By the time Wurmfeld returned to New York at the end of 1965, color had become his primary concern. He spent a week in the library of the Museum of Modern Art reading Josef Albers' s famous treatise The Interaction of Color (1963). It was a decisive event for Wurmfeld and marked the start of his full immersion in the technical and expressive means of color that have formed his art. From Albers he learned not only about figure-field relationships but also about ambiguous spatial presentation through apparent transparency, by which adjacent colors can be read as both on top or below in the field Through Albers he also came to understand the element of time, of duration, in the experience of color and painting, which is vital to the experience of Wurmfeld's painting and is at the heart of the generating idea of the Cyclorama. One must engage a painting for an extended period of time to let the colors work, through their interaction, to cause color change at the edges. Above all, the Cyclorama demands time, our time, in a continual sequence, to experience fully the complex of color interaction it embodies. Wurmfeld's knowledge of color now rivals adverb's. Like the earlier master, he has passed on this knowledge, achieved through careful, thorough study of the history of color theory and abstract art, to countless students in his teaching. His precise, specific understanding of the technical, as well as the visual, development of modern art further enriches his own art and his teaching.
He understands Kasimir Malevich as the father of abstract art, who replaced the Renaissance system of vanishing-point perspective with a model of painting as an organization of a few elements on a two- dimensional surface in a simple figure-field relationship. Malevich, he saw, worked with geometric elements to form new and complex spatial relationships on the two-dimensional surface. In the 1970s, Wurmfeld came to know the work of the Polish constructively Wladyslaw Strzeminski, who worked in the 1920s, and who for Wurmfeld raised the complexity of the figure-field relationship so that it could be reversed, with an element being seen as either figure or ground. In the art of these early masters of abstraction Wurmfeld also discovered and studied overlap or the continuity of form to create space; the use of transparency, by which one is not sure what is on top and what is on the bottom, which also created additional spatial ambiguity and complexity. He came to view Mondrian's late work as the true beginning of the color painting of the 1960s by virtue of its fusion of multiple figure- ground elements into a single, unified field of color. He also came to understand the three-dimensional organization of abstract art, its spatial arrangements, and how depth is perceived.
For Wurmfeld, the fusion of figure and field was radically, and crucially, extended by Jackson Pollock, whose poured forms multiply on a continuous field so that the painting is seen as an all-field experience.
Wurmfeld's experience of Pollock's mural-sized canvases, most especially Autumn Rhythm (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) of 1950, is one of the primary sources for the development of his art and for the Cyclorama in particular. By his reading of Pollock, he confirmed the possibility of pushing his own art into an expanding field beyond the limits of the standard rectangular canvas. In this, Wurmfeld shared a common reading with other younger artists of his own generation who also grasped the environmental possibilities of Pollock, or as in the examples of Allan Kaprow and Donald Judd, saw Pollock as dictating a move into three dimensions of real space. After he understood this history, Wurmfeld was able to draw on the color luminosity, the floating color of Mark Rothko and the infinite subtleties of color inter- play in Ad Reinhardt, whose retrospective he saw in 1966 at the Jewish Museum, for the solutions they offered to the development of a full and expanding visual field.
He also continued to look at the work of Ellsworth Kelly, Ken Noland, and Frank Stella, as well as the 1964 dot paintings of Larry Poons, all of whom were to affect Wurmfeld's early painting. In the fall of 1966, he enrolled in graduate courses in the Master of Arts program at Hunter College. There he met and was deeply influenced by the sculptor Tony Smith and the noted critic and art historian, E. C. Goossen, who was then the chairman of the department of art. These two towering figures took a special liking to Wurmfeld and introduced him to the lively atmosphere of the art department and to the New York art world.
With their effort and encouragement, his work began to be exhibited and recognized as an integral part of color field painting, one of the most important forces in the 1960s in the United States. Their interests coincided with Wurmfeld's and no doubt helped to further them.
Goossen's article, "The Big Canvas'' encouraged Wurmfeld to continue to push toward an expanded field, as did Smith's spectacular environmental piece Smoke, which was installed on the entire ground floor at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington in l 967. Through Goossen, who earlier had written on Stuart Davis, the great American modernist, Wurmfeld, by now fast becoming an encyclopedia of modern color, took note of the powerful and original color in Davis's late work.
Goossen's 1973 retrospective exhibition of Ellsworth Kelly, included large scale spectrum paintings of a broad expanse of sequential color that were important to the development of Wurmfeld's art. Goossen had included Wurmfeld in his landmark exhibition Ad outline Real at the Museum of Modern Art in 1968. The exhibition demonstrated an important theme in much modern art, namely, that art is not a flight away from reality, but has been a concerted drive to a known and concrete reality, a physical, palpable, sensual, and irreducible reality that pervades the tactile awareness and comprehension of the world. It is in this context that Wurmfeld's color should be understood. Wurmfeld will achieve an even greater reality through the continuous wall of color in which the Cyclorama envelopes the viewer.
Goossen thought so highly of the precocious Wurmfeld that he appointed him as an instructor in the art department at the age of twenty-four. He has been at Hunter ever since, continuing to work in the same lively atmosphere established in the 1960s. Indeed, Wurmfeld's presence has fostered the development on the faculty at Hunter of a group of artists including Ray Parker, Vincent Longo, Mac Wells, Doug Ohlson, Robert Swain, and more recently, Gabriele Evertz, who have used color in an abstract, purely visual mode that he has called presentational painting. All work in individual styles, but through the collective force of their color we can term this group as the "Hunter Color School," and identify it as a leading group in contemporary American abstraction.
Wurmfeld's first mature paintings, carried solely by color and its organization, date from 1966. Their diamond shape, perhaps suggested in part by Mondrian's and Noland's use of the format, divided into three sections of flat, strong, unpopulated color (fig. 1). They created a partial illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional plane flattened by the intersections of the color planes. The diamond format indicated Wurmfeld's desire, from the start, to break from a rectilinear format, to move toward a more expansive visual field. These early works are also part of his drive to clarify abstract expressionism, to make the color and fields of Kline, de Kooning, and Pollock more precise and definite. Artists as diverse as Stella, Noland, and Donald Judd also pursued a similar goal, which can be said to define much of the art of the 1960s. It is part of a process that began with Seurat and Cezanne, artists who built on impressionism, but sought a more monumental, solid, and clarified art. Wurmfeld's use, since 1971, of small gridded squares as fundamental units, rendered in variable size and sequence, is a modern extension of Seurat's pointillism and the color patches of Mondrian's last painting, Victory Boogie Woogie 1942-1944 (Private Collection, New York) .
In his commitment to color, Wurmfeld aligned himself with a tradition of color painting that included not only the impressionists and post- impressionists, but also Matisse, Rothko, Louis, and Noland, among others, as well. Color has been as essential to modernism as the graphic art of cubism, but it has often been seen as decorative, primarily because of its sensuous appeal and its impact on our emotions, which we distrust, just as in the Renaissance Florentine Disegno was thought to be more serious and substantial than Venetian colors. The mistrust of color is so pervasive that it has been termed a societal "Chromaphobia'' by David Batcheloc The painterly and expressionistic, based on apparent spontaneity, are valued over the precision of the hard-edged and geometric, presumed to be impersonal and mechanical. Such persistently bad assumptions have caused the critical fortunes of color painters, including Wurmfeld, to suffer. It is all the more ironic, then, that the power of Wurmfeld's art, for all its careful organization and structure, lies precisely in the immediacy, in the spontaneous impact the color has on us. So, too, it is only with time that the infinite complexity of the means of color application he uses, of just why the viewer falls under a kind of spell cast by the color, can be grasped. Indeed, so complex are these means that a detailed technical scientific analysis, is essential to understanding Wurmfeld's art. While beyond the scope of this essay, this is readily available in Wurmfeld's own writings. While colorimetry may seem mechanical, it is only an initial guide for the artist's individual sensibilities, and in fact Wurmfeld works as much from intuition, inspiration, even whim and compulsive searching, as any artist.
By 1967, Wurmfeld had increased the complexity of his work. He ex- paned the size and shape of his paintings so they extended laterally, reading as vectors joined in a format suggested by Stella's paintings of the early 1960s (fig. 2). Wurmfeld introduced orthogonals, hinted at but not developed by Stella. This system warped the planes and ex- tended them beyond a conventional rectangle, to make the wall a part of the overall figure-field relationship (fig. 3). In 1967 - 1968, he first used a grid, six feet square that was distorted by orthogonal perspectives and thus offered multiple spatial organizations and transparencies of color (fig. 4). Here he had begun consciously to introduce the element of time which he further developed by working in three dimensions. He made a series of hexagonal wood columns, in which each side was slightly turned from top to bottom, with the result that one could always see three colors at once (fig. 5). He had reversed his working process: instead of exploring paintings that were flat, with apparent three-dimensional organizations, he was now exploring real, three dimensional objects that appeared to have an ambiguous, two- dimensional organization (fig. 6). Again, he built upon the idea by proceeding to make clusters of columns, in square, triangular, or other formats, with the effect of creating an unfolding screen, like a free- standing painting (fig. 7). In these he found the first seed of the 360 degree panorama. From there Wurmfeld went to three-dimensional Plexiglas objects, that offered not an illusion of, but actual, transparency, with color and light intermixing in the viewer's space as one walked around the pieces and experienced the work in time (page 4). Wurmfeld first used columnar formats, then cubes, and even extended the idea to a model for intersecting sheets of Plexiglas that formed a large maze (fig. 8). One would have to walk through and around the piece, in a continuous process, another early seed in the evolution of the Cyclorama. At this time he also made films of color studies with his brother, an explicit use of time and motion.
In moving from two to three dimensions, Wurmfeld had taken a path followed by many artists in the 1960s, notably Donald Judd, Dan Fiavin, Sol LeWitt, and other minimalists, all of whom had begun as painters. But Wurmfeld did not continue in this direction. He understood that he was a painter at heart, and always would be, because there was too much in painting that he loved for him to let it go. Other artists of the sixties such as Robed Mangold and Robert Ryman, who also insisted on the primacy of painting, had also come to this conclusion. In an age of accelerated speed, Wurmfeld values the passivity of painting, its meditative and contemplative nature, which forces the viewer into active visual and aesthetic participation with the medium. In the Cfcloramat wurmfeld has reached a fusion of the three-dimensional and architectural with painting, but on painting's terms. It is an in- spired resolution of this old dilemma of the 1960s.
In 1971, Wurmfeld once more committed himself to painting, bearing down with a renewed intensity and sense of purpose. He searched for a painting format that could best carry the "presentation of pure color", his essential aim for the last thirty years. To find it, he worked through countless color studies, reviewing and exploring all possible options, all of which were unsatisfactory. He came to a new, more thorough knowledge of color and structure. He realized, for example, that his earlier use of orthogonal perspective in an effort to avoid Renaissance spatial systems, nevertheless was still perspective, and it distorted our direct perception of color on a two-dimensional surface.
His solution was to use a grid, not the distorted grid he had used before, but the unimpeded, neutral structure of the sort used by Mon- drian, whom he had continued to study closely. His first painting with this format (figs. 9 & 10) dates from 1971 at a time when the grid was enjoying renewed interest among American artists. As was his habit, he started with a simple structure, with a set of limited means. The painting is a square, a standard size of six by six feet, divided into 1/2 inch squares of uniform size over the entire surface. He used only four psychological primaries, red, blue, yellow, and green. They move across the surface from side to side and top to bottom in three bands, a simple enough solution, but the full range of its complex visual effects belies the apparent simplicity and profoundly changes our experience of the painting. For example, although the squares are the same size, some appear smaller, some larger because of color interaction.
While never more than four colors are used in a given area, the full spectrum is seen through the use of transparency overlays, by which colors seem to Elise into adjacent colors. There is an overall surface intensity in the painting, but the use of four colors in the center section makes it appear to pop out, an unexpected surprise for both artist and viewer. Our experience changes constantly, depending on how long we have looked at the painting and from what distance. When seen up close, the color works through simultaneous contrast; from a distance, color is assimilated, fused with adjacent colors, resulting in apparent luminosity, a kind of fog of color. The possibilities and the realities of his art, then and now, were endless.
Wurmfeld went on to create multiple kinds of color experiences in the early grids, such as using hues with the same value, that is, the same amount of light. Always, the unexpected occurred, especially when he dramatically expanded the size and scale of his work. In 1972, he made the first of a series of paintings that measured 6 by 30 feet, break- through works that clearly anticipate the panels in the Cyclorama. Each was painted on a single piece of canvas divided into five panels, each section measuring six by six feet, extending the original grid into a broader horizontal field. The sections were composed in five equal chromatic sequences (owing something to the example of Kelly's Spectrum paintings) moving, from the left, from dark, dark neutral, neutral, light neutral, to light, each using the same four hues - red, blue, green, yellow - deployed in different value levels
(figs. 11, 12, & 13). These hues emerge only with time, for at first they may seem to be black moving through gray to white. It is here that time took on a new meaning. The remarkable sweep of color in these paintings, their vast aura of chromatic luminescence, permeating their immediate environment, established them as keywords in Wurmfeld's development (figs. 14 & 15) .
His next series of paintings employed several chromatic variations-, the alternation of light and dark values within a grid (fig. 16); the use of the same value throughout; the use of smaller gridded squares; and in a move inspired by Seurat's Grand Jatte (The Art Institute of Chicago), the introduction of a gray border - a fifth color (fig. 17). In the last of the series of thirty foot long paintings, done in 1976 (fig. 18), he deemphasized the divisions of the panels so that the transition from one area to another was more fluid and floating, even detached from the surface, achieving a phenomenon known as film color, that truly focuses the presentation of pure color. By 1975 Wurmfeld had clearly established the distinctly different experiences that result when the work is seen at close range, at middle distance, or from far away, each requiring a different amount of time during the viewing process. By these means, he dramatically extended the reach and impact of his painting.
By 1977-1978, Wurmfeld broke out of one of his self-imposed formal limitations by changing the size of squares in the grid. This change made possible a whole new set of color variations, for the squares now measured from 1/4 inch to more than one inch, with lighter hues such as yellow in the smaller areas, darker hues such as black (now given a new prominence) in the larger (fig. 19). Each color was set down in equal measure with black, then subsequently in other paintings in equal measure with gray, and finally with white, then with more specific colors - red, blue and so forth, resulting once more in new and apparently endless color organizations. Always Wurmfeld has pushed toward new complexities, or new extremes of color possibilities.
In 1983 he was working simultaneously with different color ranges and different sized grids, experimenting with a wide array of color variations (fig. 20). He has never settled for a single look or format. By 1985, he was using as many as thirty-five colors, producing effects that only the scientist could fully understand (fig. 21). But the viewer reads these paintings as ever more engaging, intense visual experiences that totally destroy the easy assumption that color theory is mechanical and predictable. When we stay with Wurmfeld's art over time, the intuitive, the inventive, and the expressionist makes itself apparent and is given full and equal play. Wurmfeld well understands the emotional impact of his color paintings, but unlike Wassily Kandinsky, he scrupulously refuses to assign specific feelings to specific colors.
His artistic reach is so long that he has even incorporated inadvertent mistakes into his work with stunningly good results, almost as if he were one of the abstract expressionist artists he had long admired. In 1985 he was working toward smoother transitions of color across the surface, in part to find a more unified totality of color. The paintings by then were so large and highly detailed that it took a full year to complete each one. He envisioned them as panels for a panorama, but realized he would need ten years to complete them as the technique was so complex. (He later solved this problem by the use of a drafting machine mounted to the wall). Indeed, so complex were the multiple- sized grids he was using that he delineated each area by a separately drawn grid. He was carrying out a sequence of grids when he found that he had made a mistake by drawing one more square in a grid than he needed. By overdrawing the correct number in a grid, though, he achieved a new pattern with a continual change in the size and shape of the grid. The result, a whole new format for his color, has since become incorporated into his work to great effect. As the size and sequence of the gridded squares change, an apparent movement within and across the painting results, forming a counterpoint to the viewer's movement toward and away from it (fig. 22). By 1986-1987, as Wurmfeld was changing size, shape, and sequencing, the squares were no longer true, and the perception of color varied continually depending on how many hues were used. These changes in fact allowed him to develop a more expansive color field with fewer actual hues.
Wurmfeld has pushed the limits of dark and light, using greater variations of value. In paintings using an extremely light value, for example, the film color is more pronounced than ever (fig. 23). It produces an almost atmospheric veil of color that recalls the great atmospheric paintings of Turner, who has long been one of Wurmfeld's favorite artists. If the viewer feels as if he were on a ship, on a foggy day, it is little wonder, for these paintings reflect Wurmfeld's love of sailing, spending weeds at a time with his family on the open sea in a small boat. In another work of highly saturated yellow (fig. 24), the color is so luminous that it seems to emanate from the very fabric of the canvas, calling to mind the intensity of van Gogh's sun paintings. These are only two examples of the wide expressive range that Wurmfeld's art can reach. In such paintings, the apparent luminosity causes the color to appear to change due to a change in light; which mimics the normal experience of color constancy. These apparent changes in light induce another kind of visual experience. Wurmfeld's skill at painting luminosity even approaches that found in the interiors of the Dutch master Vermeer (fig. 25). His work in vertical formats (fig. 26) dictates a different visual and emotive response in the viewer. I aspired by the great Seurat retrospective of l 991, he has explored the use of a border (fig. 27), and even a double border (fig. 28), opening his art to still more visual and emotive responses of another order. Recently he has asked himself if he could achieve his extraordinary luminosity without changes in value (fig. 29).
The constant exploration of new possibilities for color expression has marked Wurmfeld's art from the start. His overriding concern for the last twenty years has been the realization of Cyclorama 2000, which he has pursued single-mindedly. The Cyclorama is a summation of his deep love and knowledge of color and his belief in its expressive powers; it is a summation, too, of the entire range of the color methods developed over a lifetime of experience by which he has honed his consummate skills as an artist. So caught up are we in the evocation of color in this vast panorama that it is easy to overlook the astonishing level of technical control involved in this project.
The Cyclorama is a prodigious accomplishment, born of the thought and labor of twenty years. It began with tentative ideas sketched out in his daybook, then developed overdue years through innumerable color notes and studies. Its possibilities were first realized in 1987 in a free- standing model, and now, thirteen years later, the project has been completed. It consists of four panels, each measuring 7 1/2 by 22 1/2 feet, done one at a time over the course of nine months, from January to October 2000 Each was made on a single piece of #10 cotton duck canvas stapled to the wall, and prepared with five coats of gesso mixed with matte medium and a touch of water, to make the surface flexible and keep it from becoming too brittle. The priming coats build up the surface slightly, so that the color is just above the weave of the canvas.
The stain painters of the 1960s took an opposite tack, letting the paint soak directly into the fabric. A smooth, even coating is important for Wurmfeld since he does not want the surface to be an issue; above all, he does not want the eye to be distracted by any irregularities that would disrupt the perception of color. Using a floor-to ceiling drafting machine, Wurmfeld and his assistant draw in, with pencil, two separate grids, and the practice he has used since the late 1980s. One unit is greater in each direction than in the other grid, and to ensure an equal number of spaces in a given area, diagonal lines are also drawn in a drafting device that his brother had taught him and that has helped to carry out a project of this magnitude. The grids are thus no longer neutral, but add to the flow of color by their own apparent movement, an effect that recalls Mondrian's multiple grids in his late work. The gridding process reminds us that these murals are first and foremost hand-made, hand painted works of art, as does the long and laborious process of applying seventy-two hues, unit by unit, with touches and corrections after completion. Only then does the full field of color emerge, to fuse with the other panels in a single, continuous environment of color.
While Wurmfeld's mural-sized paintings of the early 1970s prefigure the scale and ambition of the Cyclorama, the immediate inspiration may be found in his experiences while traveling in Europe in 1981. In The Hague, he saw Mesdag's panorama (see pages oo-oo), which deeply affected him and led to the idea of translating the panoramic view into a modern, abstract format. He also visited the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, designed in 1924 by H. P. Berlage, and was impressed by the quiet, self-contained feeling of the building and the interior spaces, away from the movement of the city that created a contemplative atmosphere, ideal for viewing art. It was the kind of place that he wanted for his art and that he has since created within the Cyclorama. In Paris, he visited the Orangerie and responded to the self-contained world of color in Monet's later Nympheas. Wurmfeld had earlier visited the Orangerie, but he now saw the environmental possibilities that the Nympheas offered. For Wurmfeld, they were the bridge between The Hague panorama and his vision of what became the Cyclorama. The Nympheas verged on abstraction, and enabled Wurmfeld to imagine color on another, grander scale altogether. Later, he discovered that Monet had actually planned a full panorama for his installation but was dissuaded and accepted the configuration of eight panels in two oval rooms. From this the idea the format of Cyclorama 2000 was born. New attention had been paid to Monet when the Orangerie reopened in 1953 and the old master helped to inspire the color of many American abstract expressionists then living in Paris, including Sam Francis and Joan Mitchell. That Monet played a crucial role for Wurmfeld gives an added dimension to the impact of the revival of the great impressionist's work, thought to be limited to the 1950s. In fact, it affected later abstract painting as well.
Wurmfeld paid special attention to other site specific environments that were based on the experience of color. He looked carefully at the triptych of Monet's Nympheas installed in the Museum of Modern Art since 1955. At the same museum, Matisse's four-sided mural for a dining room, The Swimming Pool, 1952, was also important to Wurmfeld. In 1990, he traveled to Houston to see the Rothko Chapel, but he did not think it was totally successful. In Paris, he also visited La Sainte Chapelle, in whose stained glass windows some viewers may discern a source for the Cyclorama's environment of color and light.
As we enter the Cyclorama from below, the viewer will be drawn into a world of radiant color that is nothing less than transforming. It is a work of an artist at the height of his powers, and its intense, even visceral, visual experience is possible only through the medium of painting, rendered on an opaque surface. Only painting can give this kind of continuous, floating body of luminous color, detached from the surface, in a non-fixed space. Other factors, coming from a long history of color theory, including optical mixing, simultaneous contrast, and transparency, which produce the phenomena we experience, are at work, in ways we can only know after the installation is open and we have experienced it for ourselves. So powerful are the artist's hand and vision, however, that the viewer will be hardly aware of such matters, surrounded and enclosed by a continuum of color, with no start and no finish. The experience will change and shift the longer one is in the Cyclorama and accordingly how one moves and where one stands. We are in the presence of a total color organization, a totality and unity of the perceptual field based on the gradation of color and size that offer multiple views and sensations. It is a unity in which nothing is extraneous; structure and color are equal; and the means and the ends are the same. The space of the painting and the space of the viewer are one and the same. Everything exists at its fullest limits. Despite the huge scale, Cyclorama 2000 is a private, interior world, recalling Rothko's dictum that he painted large in order to be intimate, as well as Monet's wish to depict in a panorama a wave without horizon or shore. We will be in a world that alternates between flux and stability, in harmony between stasis and movement, a metaphor for the way we might live and experience life, and a world we might live in.
A generation of art permeated by conceptualism and theory has devalued the power of the visual; like color itself, it has been seen as too easy, too simple, and lacking in intellectual depth. This is wrong, for it fails to understand that the mind and the eye, the intellect and the senses, cannot be separated, and in fact are inextricably joined in one thinking, feeling body. Sensory intelligence and visual intelligence are fundamental to our being. The visual is profound, for it is how we see and thus how we comprehend the world. To fail to understand the power of the visual is to fail to understand the very nature of art itself. Van Gogh noted that color expresses something in itself and could embody something of the eternal. The Cyclorama will make us understand these truths about the power of color and the visual in ways that we will be defining for years to come. By all rights, it should also force us to reconsider the achievement of the color field painting that began in the 1960s, now too long underground and out of favor. In the mean- time, Wurmfeld will continue to work, trying to figure out what comes next.