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  • John Yau

Slippery Geometry and Beguiling Color

August 11, 2017

An exhibition of works by Gabriele Evertz and Sanford Wurmfeld demonstrates that color theory and painting can arrive at very different conclusions.

Sanford Wurmfeld, “II – 18 + B/2 (YGY-VBV/Ys + Vt)” (2016), acrylic on canvas, 59 x 90 inches

The Washington Color School, which was centered in the nation’s capital, included such artists as Morris Louis, Gene Davis, Kenneth Noland, Hilda Thorpe, and Paul Reed. In 1965, Gerald Nordland organized the exhibition, “Washington Color Painters” at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art (June 25 to September 5, 1965), which traveled to other venues, including the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, helping the group gain national exposure.

As the recent re-hanging at the renovated East Building of the National Gallery of Art makes amply evident, there were a lot of artists interested in the expressive possibilities of color who lived and worked in Washington DC between the late 1950s and the late ‘70s but were not included in Nordland’s landmark exhibition: Anne Truitt, Sam Gilliam, Kenneth Young, and Alma Thomas, for example.

While the Washington Color School is by now a well-known chapter of postwar American art history, there is another, lesser known though no less accomplished group of abstract artists who developed a meticulous approach to the phenomenology of color. Working in New York since at least the mid-1970s, these artists, who are centered at Hunter College, where they taught and, in some cases, continue to teach, have never been fully recognized.

Someday — hopefully sooner than later — an enterprising young curator will organize an exhibition in New York under the rubric, “Hunter Color School,” which will include Doug Ohson (1936–2010), Robert Swain, Vincent Longo, Joanna Pousette-Dart, and others who have taught there.

Wurmfeld, who retired from Hunter College some years ago, and Evertz are longtime colleagues and friends. More importantly, their work is very different from each other, demonstrating that the ontology of color is a wide-open field — a space where research, color theory, and painting can arrive at very different conclusions. Georges Seurat opened the door to this fusion, and generations of artists have taken up the cause.

Evertz’s two recent paintings are done in her signature vertical lines and bands of color interwoven with vertical clusters of gradated gray bands, which taper in a calculated way from the painting’s bottom edge to its top, and vice versa. While Evertz’s work might evoke comparisons with the chromatic abstractions of Gene Davis, the differences between them are sharp and profound.

Gabriele Evertz, “With Your Brightness” (2016), acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 inches

Davis’s insistently flat paintings tend to accumulate in rhythmic repetitions. They are walls of color that do not invite close scrutiny and, in that sense, exemplify the Minimalist credo neatly summed up by Frank Stella’s famous assertion, “What you see is what you see.” This is not the case with either Evertz or Wurmfeld, which means they have pushed our experience of color further down the road and should be recognized for doing so. Despite claims that there was a point of culmination in painting in the late ‘60s, beyond which no further discoveries were possible, the present state demonstrates otherwise.

In counterpoint to the rhythmic repetition of Davis, Evertz threads the tonal (or harmonic) progressions of gray (the tapering bands) through the bands of varying widths and unvarying color, from muted hues to saturated tints. As a musical analogy, think of Bach’s fugues interspersed with Morton Feldman’s chromatic clusters. The effect is fascinating.

One effect of Evert’s groupings of progressively darker or lighter grays, which are bounded on each side by a blue or orange band, is that they seem to recede or advance spatially, interrupting the painting’s flatness. And yet, we know this to be an effect of the color, not of overt illusionism. Another effect is the tapering of a gray band into an overlapping darker or lighter gray, starting at the top or bottom edge and moving at a predetermined angle until it reaches the opposite edge, which introduces a visual tremor into the painting. This is enhanced by the fact that once you focus in on the tapering, you cannot not quite put together what happens when you step back and take in the painting as a whole. The tapered bands, whose angles become less pronounced, add a disruptive twist to the experience. There is a visual buzz, whose source is not instantly identifiable

Gabriele Evertz, “I Dream of Spring” (2017), acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 inches

With Evertz’s paintings, I kept moving in closer and then standing back, focusing on a section and then taking the whole work in. In the square painting “I Dream of Spring” (2017), done in acrylic, there is a particularly pleasurable weaving together of three progressively lighter gray bands, which start at the painting’s left edge, separated by a maroon, magenta, and pink stripe. And then, everything changes as your attention moves across the painting, registering the artist’s different intervals of grays and colors without repeating herself. You suspect there is an overall structure, but you cannot determine what it is. Instead, the painting offers you different paths into and out of its groupings, which are joined together in no predictable manner. Evertz has found a way to be simultaneously improvisational and strict; it is quite a feat.

Sanford Wurmfeld, according to the art historian William C. Agee, “may well be the best little-known painter in New York today.” Interested in color relationships at least since the mid-1960s, Wurmfeld’s work underwent an important shift in 1985, when the artist mistakenly added one more square than he needed while drawing over a grid on a very large painting. As Agee has pointed out in a catalogue for an earlier exhibition, this enabled Wurmfeld to achieve “a new pattern with a continual change in the size and format of the grid.”

By incorporating the mistake into his work, and misaligning the grids, while incrementally thickening the line into a band as he moves across the surface, Wurmfeld makes it possible for the viewer to have a bifurcated experience, each mind boggling in a different way.

Sanford Wurmfeld, “II – 18 + B/2 (YOY-VRV/Ys + Vt)” (2016), acrylic on canvas, 59 x 90 inches

There is the experience of standing close to the paintings and studying the meticulous ingenuity of a structural grid whose overlaid, off-register vertical and horizontal bands increase incrementally, with the colors occupying the gridded spaces increasing or decreasing in tandem with the grid. And yet, even as one becomes aware of Wurmfield’s technique, what happens optically is spellbinding.

While Wurmfeld’s calibrations adhere to a system, we are entranced by our experience of the colors, the way our eyes mix them — something his work shares with Anoka Faruqee’s carefully misaligned patterns. This optical state is heightened as we step back from the painting. The constantly changing spectral light seems to exist separately from the surface, like an independent aura or mirage that varies subtly with the movement of our eyes. The changes may be the result of the way we mix distinct hues at the back of our eyes, but that scientific fact is not something we are overly conscious of in our daily lives. Wurmfeld’s paintings provoke us into that state of awareness. The effect is dazzling.

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