SANFORD WURMFELD
TALBOT RICE GALLERY - CYCLORAMA 2000
GETTING TO THE CYCLORAMA: A BRIEF PERSONAL HISTORY
SANFORD WURMFELD

Seeing the cyclorama in relation to my own artistic development, as well as to a broader history of art and especially to site-specific painting will perhaps clarify its significance. My first working venue as a young artist was in Rome, Italy, in 1963. I went to Rome to paint, following my studies at Dartmouth College where I majored in art history and prepared for architectural studies, at the invitation of my brother Michael who was there on a Fulbright grant to study architecture. I was developing abstract art forms, and together with Michael became extremely interested in Roman baroque art - specifically paintings in situ. This started what has become a career-long interest in such art. I traveled extensively in Europe to see and to study, not only renaissance and baroque examples, but also more contemporary integrations of painting and art with architecture. This led to a more primary interest in studying the issue of the use of color in painting. On returning to New York at the end of 1965, I spent a week in the Museum of Modern Art library studying the original edition of Josef Albers' Interaction of Color a book I later acquired as a present from my brother. This proved to be just the beginning of my continuing research into historical and contemporary color theory and the psychophysics of color vision.

My first one person exhibition in the spring of 1968 included the presentation of painted wood columns and clusters of columns (each 15'' wide x 90'' high) meant to be circumambulated to take in the entire experience. These three dimensional "continuous paintings" were based on my evolving ideas about color in art and were intended to relate to the site, but my assumed site was a white room. By shifting to physically transparent materials in 1969, my next group of three-dimensional pieces attempted to deal with the issue of a specific architectural context. These works effectively color-structured space as one walked around them and saw the environment through the color combinations which shifted with each angle of view. The last of these pieces, a color maze made from 21 of these transparent subtractive primary color sheets, was designed in drawings and a small model made in 1970, but was only recently exhibited.

From my earliest attempts in Rome and most specifically since my return to New York in late 1965 my paintings have involved an investigation of color experience in relation to scale and viewing conditions. I pursued this in small scale color studies in order to gain greater understanding of the sensory experience of color in painting. Simultaneously I have attempted to control a presentation of color over an ever widening range of the horizontal visual field. My exhibitions in the 1970s featured paintings that were 6 feet high by 30 feet long. These paintings were meant to structure experiences that reward a searching viewer who is stimulated to attempt a whole range of spatial and temporal visual viewing: from close-up to distant and from short term scanning to long duration fixations. My career-long artistic evolution to extend painting over the broadest possible visual field culminated in a 360 degree panorama which encloses an entire space.

I was inspired to create this first abstract panorama after a tour in Europe with my family during the fall of 1981 when I saw for the first time Mesdag's panorama presentation in The Hague. The work is certainly a tour de force of perspective and stage construction, but even more interesting to me is the extraordinary suspension of awareness of the actual physical space of the room, caused by the simultaneous control of the painting with the architecture and the light - something I remembered experiencing with baroque pieces like Andrea Pozzo's ceiling in San Ignazio, Rome.

Within days we traveled to Paris to revisit Monet's Nymphaea, now housed in the Musee de 1' Orangerie. This one attempt by a major 20th century artist to use a variation on a panorama format comprises views of his water garden at Giverny at various times of day and in various relations to the light. Though they achieve an abstract presence they remain, nonetheless, representational in conception.

This sequence of experiences during a short period in the fall of 1981 left an indelible impression on me. I was now committed to the idea of creating a 360 degree painting because I saw clearly the original possibilities inherent in this form pertaining to the problems of constructed abstraction and more specifically to my own ambitions in painting. I was further inspired by other examples of environmental paintings including in the 1980s The Metropolitan Museum of Art's reinstalled John Vanderlyn panorama-view of Versailles. Coincidentally I discovered that the Rotunda, built to house Vanderlyn's panorama but now long gone, had been situated at the north end of the present City Hall Park, now marked by a small plaque, just one block from my New York studio, Over the years at the Museum of Modern Art I continued to study the three panels of Monet's water lilies and also became acquainted with another example of an all-around painting in their collection, Matisse's Swimming Pool.

I made many attempts to come up with a painterly solution which satisfied my idea to create a cyclorama and although in the mid-1980s I received a grant from the City University to build my first model, it was not until 1989 that I was able to create a painting for the model which I felt confident would work. My plan for a cyclorama differs in concept and intent from the 19th century representational constructions and the earlier versions of Monet and Matisse. I realized I had come "full circle", so to speak, since my earlier work, the painted columns, had to be walked around and viewed from without. My plan for the cyclorama, intended to be entered from below so that it completely surrounds the viewer, necessitates an experience which must also be walked around, but from within. The 19th century versions had limited the viewer to the centre because of the demands of the perspective construct, but my presentation allows the viewer, not limited to the centre nor prevented from approaching the surface, a variety of different experiences. The active and searching participant, for example, might view the parts close-up, or scan a section, or even move while continuously viewing to self-create a cinematic effect, as well as more meditatively fixate on sections from a variety of distances.

I had formed the habit early on of working on color ideas in a small square format. In this way I always first tried out new possibilities to test their success and to try, to push for the discovery of new ideas. This exhibition contains a selection (from hundreds) of 83 such study/paintings from 1966 to 2003. They are a way to show, albeit in a compressed format, how I arrived at my use of color in the cyclorama as well as some of the ideas I have developed since.

During my early attempts at teaching myself to construct a painting, I had discovered the interchangeability of figure and ground by limiting myself to the use of black and white as many other artists had done before me. In order to try to fill a structural need for using color beyond black and white, I created compositions in 1966 in which the viewer can organize the figure and grouped in three different ways - through likeness and contrast of either hue, or light/dark value, or saturation of hue. This simple break-through led me to more complex organizations of color in order to stimulate greater possibilities of visual experiences for the viewer. In the late 1960s I investigated a series of orthogonal perspective constructions which spatially tend to flip-flop, but because of the color organizations, could also be read as flat through the created apparent transparencies. At this time I was making large shaped canvas paintings and so I also tried to relate the color within the study to the surrounding color, having realized that the square painting was an artificial or conventionally accepted limitation of the field.

In 1970s as I was ending my involvement in three-dimensional pieces, I made my first painting using a grouping of small squares of color. This was arrived at by the desire and need to create an experience that would be different for the viewer either close up or from a distance, for longer fixations or for shorter glances. Through the early 1970s I investigated this idea in many different color organizations and created many larger paintings based on these small studies. By the late 1970s I added a new variable to the vocabulary by using different size squares within the same painting. This was done by first establishing an accepted color ground and then by using grids of larger squares for colors which were less contrasted to the accepted ground and grids of smaller squares for colors which were more contrasted to the accepted ground. In addition, the interstices between the varying size grids also varied in size in relation to the contrast with the established color ground.

By the end of the decade I found a way to apply this in a study which alters the size of the squares in the grid because of the number of colors used in specific area - smaller squares for more colors, larger squares for fewer colors. Thus size of grid was now controlled by both number of colors juxtaposed within an area and overall contrast of these colors in relation to an established ground color. I used this compositional organization of color in a number of large paintings done in the early 1980s which put together groups of such studies into a larger arrangement of adjacent color areas. One day while working on one of these larger compositions, I mistakenly drew a grid with one unit less than was necessary. After erasing the initial lines, a ghost of that image remained, and when I drew the grid with one more unit in each direction over it, I noticed the pattern created by the two grids going progressively in and out of phase. I realized that a series of changing rectangles alternately growing and decreasing in size could create a progression of visually changing color. Having gradually expanded my original vocabulary within each color experiment from a constant size square to changing size squares, I now had a solution that used changing size and changing shape as well. Also important to the outcome of each color study was the opportunity to come up with an elegant solution:  to achieve a maximum of effect with the minimum of means.

Earlier I had been interested in the issue of the relation of the color within each study to the ground or wall on which it appeared, since my shaped canvases demanded that one see the wall as the ground of the shaped panting. Having been content to return to the convention of the rectangle, I was, nonetheless sensitive to the changing visual effects caused by the color relationship between the painting and the wall. In these earlier studies I had floated the color on alternately differing grounds to study this effect, but after seeing the momentous Seurat retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1992, I decided to experiment with the idea of a painted frame - as Seurat had done - to further control these color effects. Since then I leave experimented with a number of solutions: first by using the same colors as in the internal field of the painting, but reversing them in the frame in order to maintain a constant level of contrast; then by stepping up the level of saturation of each hue from the internal field of the work to the frame; later by making various asymmetrical relationships between the internal field and the frame in order to effect the apparent luminosity of the studies; and finally by progressively changing hue and value relationships between the internal field and the framing area in order to study a host of other effects.

All of these studies have been in pursuit of stimulating the maximum number of possible color experiences for the active and searching viewer. For it is the participating viewer who is in the end the crucial partner in all these color study/paintings.

Sanford Wurmfeld