Sanford Wurmfeld Investigates How We Perceive Color

Ever since Sanford Wurmfeld began exhibiting in the mid-1960s, he has rigorously investigated the ways the viewer can experience color in painting. In the important 1968 exhibition, Art of the Real USA 1948-1968, at the Museum of Modern Art, curated by E. C. Goosen, Wurmfeld — the youngest artist included — showed painted, columnar sculptures whose faceted sides were varied, so that viewers saw multiple colors at once that changed as they circumnavigated the sculpture.

For more than 50 years, Wurmfeld has continued to explore color as a simultaneous experience composed of myriad parts. This interest led him to create an immersive installation in which the viewer stands inside a cyclorama (or elliptical cylinder) surrounded by a continuous wall of precisely calculated shifts of tone and hue. In his cycloramas and other paintings, he superimposed a grid of 31 squares over one of 30 squares, attaining constant gradation both vertically and horizontally. Wurmfled’s maximalist pursuit of color flouts the principles of Minimalism and monochromatic painting.

In Corona Variations, at David Richard Gallery, Wurmfield continues his investigation of simultaneity. For the paintings, which were made during the pandemic, he divided the composition vertically or horizontally, again superimposing a grid of 31 squares over one of 30, and juxtaposed different palettes. 

While I have followed Wurmfield’s career as closely as possible for 15 years, and reviewed three of his exhibitions since 2008, this is the first time I have seen him use gray to mute his hues. The vertical or horizontal division further complicates our viewing experience, as the adjacent dark and light palettes vie for our attention. At times, his use of muffled violets, blues, reds, and yellows reminded me of dawn or twilight, wan sunrises and sooty sunsets. These associations are fleeting, but because the surface keeps changing, the elements of time and transformation inform our encounter with the painting. 

This bifurcation suggested to this viewer that one’s attention is always divided, and that seeing requires an active engagement with the work, an awareness that our focus changes depending on our distance from the surface. At the same time, the color-relationships caused by the superimposition of one grid over another of different proportions makes the gradations seem inherent to the structure. We don’t change the object by seeing it. Rather, seeing is a temporal act.

Sanford Wurmfeld, “II-61 #2 (BG-RO) – (22)” (2023), acrylic on canvas, 31 x 90 inches

 Wurmfeld’s muted palette infused a somber tone into my time with the art. Because he made the paintings during the pandemic, I was reminded of what it was like to live in some state of isolation, and how time seemed to pass differently. By making us conscious of how we see, and our proximity to the surface, Wurmeld also aligns himself with the Heraclitean understanding of experience — that you can never step into the same river; it is ever-changing. This emphasis should remind us that there was never any unified thinking about the goal of abstraction, and that not all artists pursue pure forms. 

Wurmfeld’s interest in the optical, rooted in impermanence, is aligned with his deep commitment to the transience of seeing and time’s inescapable passing. However aesthetically refined his art is, there is something deeply human about it. It is this aspect that I always become acutely aware of when I look at it. 

Sanford Wurmfeld: Corona Variations at David Richard gallery (508 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) ends on March 14. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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