Panorama comes full circle

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Returning art form to the city of its birth was labour of love says Duncan Macmillan

SOMETIMES I am the critic, sometimes the criticised, the latter not so often recently, but in the Visual Arts Festival this year I have curated the exhibition of Sanford Wurmfeld's E-Cyclorama at Edinburgh College of Art. It is more or less a one-work show and that might sound like an easy option for the curator. There is a small group of other paintings, but the E-Cyclorama itself is a giant. It's an abstract painting stretched on the inside of an enormous oval structure with a short axis of ei

The Royal Scottish Museum was my first thought. It would have looked marvellous in the great glass hall, but the Museum was about to close for several years of restoration. Another idea was a geodesic dome in the grounds of the Dean Gallery. I found just the right dome, but it was expensive and anyway the Galleries had too much on already, including Tracy Emin – very demanding. In the end, the Sculpture Court at the College of Art looked like the ideal venue. Ian Howard, the College Principal, was enthusiastic. The space was free and the generous support of the Dunard Fund was already in place.

Next the elaborate oval stretcher had to be made. It was designed in New York by the artist's son Jeremy, a yacht designer, and was fabricated here in Edinburgh by Ben Dawson Furniture. Because of the difficulty of stretching canvas on the inside of a curve, the fabrication had to be very precise. The stretcher itself had to be mounted on a scaffolding platform high enough to accommodate a stairway – you enter the E-Cyclorama from beneath. The platform also had to be perfectly flat for the canvas to stretch properly. Walter Day of Jay-ess Scaffolding saw to that. And on top of it all, there was Health and Safety. If Michelangelo had had to cope with Health and Safety would we ever have had the Sistine ceiling?

Meanwhile, the artist was painting hard for most of the year. The final work consists of four huge canvasses that are joined together on the stretcher. When the two parts were united, the canvasses shipped in from New York and the finished stretcher waiting here, it was a tense moment, but the fit was exact. All the finishing, the flooring, the stairway and the 75 metres of black fabric all in a piece to drape the platform, were dealt with by a remarkable team of willing and ingenious art students.

The project needed a catalogue to record the event. This was designed by Robert Dalrymple who managed to include the whole painting on an ingenious sequence of folding pages. This measures two and a half metres in total and so reproduces the original on a scale of almost one to ten.

The catalogue was beautifully printed in Edinburgh by Summerhall Printers. In it I had to tell the story and it is a remarkable one. Sanford Wurmfeld began to work with pure colour in the Sixties and in a tradition that goes back through Josef Albers and the Bauhaus to Seurat's Divisionism, a method of dividing the colour in a painting into regular, abstract dots.

The colour mixture takes place in the eye of the beholder, not on canvas or palette. Radically, this way of painting proposed that art should imitate, not what we think we see, but the actual processes of vision, what happens on the retina before our brains make sense of it, before sensation becomes perception.

This is an idea of how painting and indeed vision actually work that goes back to the Scottish Enlightenment, but so does the panorama – cyclorama is just another name for a panorama. Linked to the Enlightenment by two routes, the artist has brought both back to Edinburgh. The first panorama, a circular painting that you went inside, was a view from the top of Calton Hill made by Robert Barker in 1788. He invented the name (and the word) and patented the idea.

Others followed and the panorama became popular visual entertainment. It was eventually displaced by the cinema with which it had much in common. Very few original panoramas survive, but there is one in the Hague painted in 1881 by the Dutch painter Willem Mesdag. It was seeing this that gave Sanford Wurmfeld the idea of using the form. The effect is remarkable. He uses the colour circle as his basic composition, but the colour changes very subtly, both in hue and intensity as your eye moves around and other colours are generated in your eye. The shape of the cyclorama is such that the painting fills the whole of your field of vision whichever way you turn.

You do not see it as you do a simple painting, a thing in a frame separate from you. Instead it surrounds you as music does. We respond to colour intuitively as we do to music too. The E-Cyclorama is a painting certainly, but it is unlike any painting that you ever saw, or rather that you ever experienced.

&#149 Sanford Wurmfeld's E-Cyclorama is at The Sculpture Court, Edinburgh College of Art until 5 September