New York

Sanford Wurmfeld

Denise Rene Gallery

Sanford Wurmfeld’s paintings, made over the last couple of years, present one with a very different attitude to the pictorial object from Hogan’s. If you want to talk about conventionalized impersonality, this is definitely it. And there is one sense, too, in which Wurmfeld’s attitude and Hogan’s can be seen as simply, but diametrically, opposed. In actuality, the relationship between the two kinds of work can only be thought of as indirect and convoluted—and not unaffected, perhaps, by the distance between the East Coast and West Coast. But it might be worth observing that, while in Hogan’s case the work is finished through the imposition of marks that are, in derivation, clearly distinct from—but responsive to—the surface that precedes them, in Wurmfeld’s completion is achieved by a straightforward extension of the organization implied at the outset of the work. It seems quite unparadoxical to say that Wurmfeld’s paintings seem to paint themselves. Overt paradox reemerges a second after one has said that, with the recognition that paintingmaintains itself through a reliance on phenomena that are at once impersonal and intuitively determined, color being chief among them. To me, the absolute commitment to a conventional terminology of Wurmfeld’s paintings obviates the distinction between the personal—the psychologically unique—and the impersonal that is necessary to an ambition like Hogan’s.

Wurmfeld’s paintings are of a sort often described as being made in a spirit of research, like the work of Albers or Signac. They are that, but it would be wrong to think of them as experiments rather than paintings. In each work, one may have the fruits of Wurmfeld’s immersion in color theory, but what results isn’t a concatenation of progressions of hue and value unconnected to the size and format of the support. Looking at these pieces of work, I was struck by the feeling for scale an approach like Wurmfeld’s might be said to imply. A painting of this sort begins with an almost final judgment about the relationship of the whole colored area to the rectangle which contains it. Since the colors used imply one another in a way that’s directly sequential, and a matter of precise graduation, overall adjustment would soon come to mean literally reworking the whole canvas. I know this is an obvious point to make, but—apart from its relevance to what I’ve just said about painting’s conventionalized obviation of the personal/impersonal dichotomy—it also gives one a clue as to the necessity for the exclusion of explicit references to temporality in Wurmfeld’s work. When the painting’s finished, it must be impossible to tell where the work began, because to build a painting out of the equivalence of colors, and the graduations between, makes it impossible for them to seem to possess a diachronic relationship to one another. What replaces the experience of real time is an idea of virtual progression, the interval or graduation between one color and another of similar intensity; the diachronic is made into a property implied, but logically excluded, by the synchronic. This is a condition familiar to us, and not only as the main buttress of the Idealist view of the history of painting. De Saussure described it as a condition inherent in speech itself. He said that when a person’s speaking, it’s necessary for him to feel that time is suspended: that there is no historical duration between the noun and the verb that would undercut their significatory reference to the same moment. Wurmfeld, then, presents the viewer with an illusion—the eradication of real time—which one can readily accept as necessary rather than merely contingent.

That this generates work which, by virtue of that necessity, is cut off from any involvement with an erosion of conventional synchronousness by the literally diachronic is another matter. The work’s separation from the viewer’s time, and therefore from her or his space, limits and defines the critical scope of Wurmfeld’s paintings with regard to the contemporary situation as a whole. His use of simultaneity reads as the defense, and an explication, of a paradigm more generally examined through a more overt employment of counter example. This is his work’s main strength.

Perceptually explicable as his work is, Wurmfeld’s use of simultaneity may be seen to be founded on the fact that in actuality the spectrum cannot be experienced synchronically. Complementary colors can’t be seen both at once. At its material—in this case, physiological—base, then, color precludes actual simultaneity as language precludes the actual simultaneity of different parts of a sentence. As attempts at simultaneity—on the part of artist and audience—Wurmfeld’s paintings illustrate or depict the disparity between ideated associations and the material reality which supports them. This disparity informs one’s experience of all painting and it is there, in their appeal to questions basic to the conventions that define the institution as such, that Wurmfeld’s paintings begin to make sense. While I remain more interested in work that makes pictorial conventionality confront real space directly, I shouldn’t want to claim that advantages and clarifications don’t derive from separating oneself from the slogans of the day. Clearly they do, and Wurmfeld’s work is a reminder that such severance may illuminate in ways that direct involvement cannot. Isolation and abstraction from the space of the world is the scientific way.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe