YOU HAVE TO WANT TO SEE! - On Sandford Wurmfeld's 11-15 (Red-N) and Cyclorama

Sanford Wurmfe|d's paintings relate to a phenomenon that can only be perceived by direct viewing: to experience color as light, as a manifestation in space, as an immaterial quality. Wurmfeld's paintings enable the viewer to have a purely visual experience of color. They generate color in a form that can otherwise only be experienced as a natural phenomenon, such as the blue of a cloudless sky.

Like all of Wurmfeld's paintings, 11-15 #1 (Red-N), painted in 1991, confronts the observer like a technical high-end product. And, indeed, the picture is not only technically constructed but, moreover, one of a four- part series of identically conceived pictures, which differ only with regard to the colors used in each. The surface of the painting (measuring about 1 x 2 meters each) is divided by two grids placed one above the other, creating 2 x 80 vertical columns or 2 x 40 horizontal rows of elements of varying sizes. The size of the individual elements is deter- mined by the division of the basic square form into 21 sections, resulting in 20 steps of progressively increasing or decreasing sequences inversely related to one another: Two of each of the elements lying side by side horizontally and vertically are together the same size as the basic square form. Consequently, 2 x 20 rows and 2 x 20 columns each form a square. The painting can therefore also be construed as a combination of 2 x 4. larger square fields, within which elements of increasing or decreasing size form inverse, sequential progressions.

The artist introduces pre-mixed colors into this dynamic matrix of a total of 12,800 individual elements. In the process, he attaches particular importance to the completely even and smooth - so to say 'technical' - application of the paint. He also follows a precise plan: The picture is built up with fifteen different hues of the same value2 from the red-orange to the red-purple segment of the color circle, and displays purple and blue as well as orange and yellow hues, in addition to the shades of red. However, these hues do not appear as saturated color tones the red tones on the left-hand side of the picture. In- stead, they are laid out in a four-stage progression over the entire width of the picture and mixed with grey; thus displaying an a-chromatic tonal progression. Besides that three adjoining colors with the same chromatic value are into each of two fields placed top to bottom, to produce continuously changing simultaneous contrasts within the inverse progression from basic form to basic form described above.

Seen as a whole, therefore, on the one hand, the body or factual3 fact of 11-15 #1 (Red-N), is a hue progression both vertically and horizontally, and on the other - in addition horizontally - a progression of chromatic hues on the left-hand side of the picture right up to almost achromatic colors on the right-hand side of the picture. However, if one considers the individual fields or columns and rows in the picture, the inverse relationship between the size and color of individual elements of the picture allows one to observe the phenomenon of the 'interaction of color' as color and form assimilate: The hues are selected to prevent sharp contrasts or a blend in total optical mixture. The construction thus turns out to be a complex balance of all possible aspects of color - hue, value, chroma -, but one which is designed in such a manner that the red tones dominate the picture -just as in the other pictures, blue, green and yellow dominate in a similar way.

This by no means exhaustive description of the picture, however, does not reveal much about the effect of the painting - which, moreover, fundamentally eludes any possible method of reproduction. For when one observes the picture for a certain period of time - and this time must be given to the picture as another structural factor of its composition - an effect occurs which can only be experienced while directly observing the painting: a multi-colored experience detached from the surface of the picture, floating in front of it and, therefore, precisely what color theorist David Katz called Flachenfarbe and later, in English, film-color.

Katz defines film-color as color that appears as a loosely structured or diaphanous, two-dimensional and frontal parallel plane in space, with- out any reference to a surface, form, object or volume.4 It is a color that cannot be painted, the way surface colors can, but it can be produced by painting. It occurs solely as a manifestation and exists only as a perceptive phenomenon. Natural examples of film color include the colors of the spectrum, the blue of the sky or the grey one can see with eyes closed. Depicted as the so-called aerial perspective in Renaissance art or in paintings by Claude Lorrain, for example, it is a central theme in paintings of William Turner or the "American Luminists''.

The evocation of film color, however, was a specific objective of the Pointillists, especially in the scientifically based painting of Georges Seurat. As far as he was concerned, his main task was "through painting, to provoke by painting a seeing of the empirical world in the same terms of seeing it (in reality), that is, to develop a way of painting that when viewed comes as close as possible to a viewing of reality itself ."5 Seurat was, therefore, not interested in representing a reality already seen, but in using the picture to evoke the act of perception that reality causes in the eyes.6 This could only be achieved, "if (he succeeded) in reproducing not the 'body- colors', but the effect of light on the eye.''7 In Seurat's case, therefore, there is an extreme discrepancy between the body of the picture - the canvas covered with paint - and the picture (what you see is not what you see), and this discrepancy is not resolved in a representational picture until a certain viewing distance is achieved. Because Seurat realized his painting solely in terms of 'recognizing' or representational seeing, the film color his paintings actually evoke was mostly not perceived as such. Instead it appears to be merely a kind of special effect that the conventional viewer usually passes over in favor of objective viewing - that is, to interpret the reality objectively 'represented' in the pictures - and construed as surface colors.

Seurat's work is mentioned here, because his scientifically based way of painting is one of the points of departure for Wurmfeld's art that - seen from this perspective - one can understand as a systematization and radicalization of Pointillism. Nevertheless, Wurmfeld's paintings do not have any objective reference, nor can they be classified with abstract art, such as Mondrian's. Wurmfeld's conception of a picture is quite clearly rooted in the tradition of non-representational art of an American stamp, but through the reflection of Luminist painting and intensive study of the theory of color, he gives it a new turn. Following Susanne K. Langer's terminology,8 the artist calls it Presentational Painting, referring chiefly to its non-discursive character.9

Wurmfeld's painting 11-15 #1 (Red-N) thus proves to be an artistic construction designed to produce film color. It is, therefore, a 'color-picture' that appears in the modus of film color, and which is not identical with what the painting is in the sense of the factual picture qualities or the material body of the picture described above. Wurmfeld's picture is concrete, non-representational art which not only recalls the dichotomy between the material body of the picture and the depicted image which normally occurs only in figurative art (thus the qualitative leap from material subject, paint on canvas, to an intelligible picture), but also expresses it within the context of the concept of concrete art.

With 11-5 #3 (Red-N) what you see is what you see, and simultaneously, what you see is not what you see. For in Wurmfeld's painting the experience of 61| color does not occur automatically, as an involuntary function of the perceptive faculty,10 instead it depends on the willingness of the observer to get involved with the picture and to give it (and himself) time. In alternation between a successive perception of the individual elements of the picture and their simultaneous perception as parts of the picture as a whole, the painting causes a constantly renewing movement within the eye. It is experienced as a constant flux between film color and surface color in turn, that is, alternately the immaterial color phenomenon evoked by the totality of the picture, and the interaction of surface colors in individual fields of the picture or by the color tone-progressions in single rows or columns.

The special quality of Wurmfeld's paintings, however, is that they do not relate to the dichotomy between subject and picture in the mode of 'recognizing' or concrete seeing,ll but open up a dichotomy for the 'autonomous' seeing, that is a dichotomy between two different immaterial manifestations of color.12 The pictures thus give the viewer a new, as it were, emancipated role: By being not simply the recipient of an existing picture, but also the producer of a picture that exists only in his visualization, he can experience himself as both a viewer and observer of himself.13

What has been observed for 11-15 #.3 (Red-N) also applies particularly to Wurmfeld's Cyclorama, a circular painting with a height of about 2.30 meters and a diameter of about 9 meters that, just like a panorama painting, is reached via a staircase to the middle of the room it houses and can be observed from a platform reaching right up to the canvas itself. Constructed in a similar way to the pictures of the 11-15 series, Cyclorama shows a horizontal progression of 24 hues that form a self-contained progression through the color circle. Unlike the picture described, in Cyclorama the individual hues are combined with tints and shades, giving 2 x 24 further hues, to produce a vertical progression from darker values at the top to lighter values at the bottom. The effect of this line-up is, however, that the observer is confronted by an intensely luminous surface, even in the deepest shades of blue, which envelops him and makes color a primary experience.

In Cyclorama, Wurmfeld makes reference to the panorama paintings of the 19th century, although in contrast, Cyclorama is not conceived as an illusion-apparatus. On the contrary, in fact, Cyclorama is a means of evoking and allowing an experience of an aspect of reality, the reality of colored light through film color. The Cyclorama uses the form of the circular painting and the panorama-idea of a painting completely focussed on the viewer, in order to free the experience of film color from any accidental quality and to make it possible to experience it in a substantial sense. As a circular painting, as a painting without any beginning or end, and as a painting with a consistent structure throughout, Cyclorama makes it possible to have a total, as it were, absolute experience of color. In Cyclorama, color is established as an autonomous part of reality, such that we are not dealing with a virtual realist but with a real virtually.

It is not easy to estimate the significance of such a painting. At any rate, with Cyclorama, Wurmfeld has not only succeeded in meeting Robert Delaunay's requirement of creating a concrete forme en mouvement, statique - et dynamique he also makes it possible to experience the simultaneite rythmique Delaunay strove for in terms of film-color; that is, as an immaterial phenomenon that exists only through seeing. By establishing and developing the entire color cosmos in a closed system, in which the observer can move freely, Wurmfeld's Cyclorama actually goes much further: the picture prompts the question anew of whether concrete art cannot after all create and bring to the eye of the beholder a 'picture' of the mouvement vital du monde (Delaunay).



1        ''Cherchons a voir'' Robert Delaunay, La Lucille (1912), as translated by Paul Klee in: Der Sturm 3, (Berlin 1913) , No. 144-5, p. 10, quoted by Gustav Vriesen, Max Imdahl, Robert Delaunay Licht und Farbe, (Cologne, 1967) P. 10.

2        I refer here to the terminology of Munsell's color space, on which the selection of colors in the picture is based. The translation of the terms follows the suggestions in Narciso Silvestrini, IdeeFarbe. Farbsvsteme in Kunst und Wissenchaft (Zurich l 994) 7opp.

3        I.e. as ''Factual fact'' as defined by Josef Albers, Interaction of Color (1963), dt. Koln 1970 or as surface- color (Oberflachenfarbe) in the terminology of David Katz, Der Auf- bau der Farwelt, Leipzig 1930, S. 8 ff; in English : David Katz, The World of Colour, London l 935, Reprint New York 1970

4        Loc. Cit. Katz, 12pp

5        Max Imdahl, Farbe Kunsttheoretische
Reflexoimem in Frankreich (Munich 1987), P. 126.

6        Contemporary critic George Moore, in Modern Painting quoted by W.I.
Homer, Seurat and the Science of Painting (Cambridge, Mass., l 964) pp   159, described the most important theoretical prerequisites of Pointillism as follows: ''A tone is a combination of colors. In Nature, colors are separate; they act and react one on the other, and so create in the eye the illusion of a mixture of various colors - in other words of a tone. But if the human eye can per- form this prodigy when looking on color as evolved through the spectacle of the world, why should not the eye be able to perform the same prodigy when looking on color as displayed over the surface of the canvas? Nature does not mix her colors to produce a tone; and the reason of the marked discrepancy existing between Nature and the Louvre is owing to the fact that painters have hitherto deemed it a necessity to prepare a tone on the palette before placing it on the canvas; whereas it is quite clear that the only logical and reasonable method is to first complete the analysis of the tone, and then to place the colors which compose the tone in dots over the canvas ... If this be done truly - that is to say, if the first analysis of the tones be a correct analysis - and if the spectator places himself at the right distance from the picture, there will happen in his eyes exactly the same blending of color as happens in them when they are looking upon Nature.

7        H. von Helmholtz, Uber das Sehen des Menschen (1855) , in Vortrage und Reden, Braunschweig, 1896 , Vol. 11, p. l 14, quoted by Imdahl, loc. cit. p. 127. What von Helmholtz refers to here as body-colors are surface- colors in Katz' terminology.

8        Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key (1942), Cambridge, Mass., 1979, pp79

9        Sanford Wurrnfeld, Presentational Painting, in Presentational Painting, exhibition catalogue, New York 1993.

l0       This demonstrates the most important difference between Optical Art and Wurmfeld's art.

11      On the distinction between recognizing and seeing, see Max Imdahl,
Cezanne - Braque - Picasso. Zum Verhaltnis zwischen Bildautonomie und Gegenstandssehen (1974) , in Max Imdahl, Collected Works, vol. 3, ed. Gottfried bohm, Frankfurt 1996, 303PP.

12      Inaccordance with Josef Albers, one could speak here of a to and fro between actual fact and actual fact. Cf. Imdahl, loc. cit. p. 151

13      This marks the great difference between Wurmfeld's work and James Turrell's installations that also expose film color. In Turrell's case, the observer is exposed to the color phenomenon like to a film at the cinema; he is not given a chance to reflect his experience with the picture.