David Zwirner is pleased to present a new light installation by American artist Doug Wheeler (b. 1939) at the gallery’s 519 West 19th Street location in New York.
Over the past five decades, Wheeler has become known for his innovative constructions and installations that engage with the perception and experience of light, space, and sound. On view will be an immersive environment by the artist that further expands on his groundbreaking investigations of the possibilities of luminous space.
This is Wheeler’s fourth solo exhibition at the gallery and coincides with the release of the first major monograph devoted to his work. The most comprehensive overview of the artist’s career to date, this publication includes new scholarship by art historian Germano Celant and features extensive illustrations of Wheeler’s most significant works from the early 1960s to the present, as well as never before published images, drawings, and other archival material.
Image: Installation view, Doug Wheeler, 49 Nord 6 Est 68 Ven 12 FL, David Zwirner, New York, 2020
“The Vault up There”
Doug Wheeler was born in Globe, an isolated mining town in central Arizona. His father was a flying doctor, covering territory throughout north-central Arizona, encompassing the Navajo, Hopi, and Apache reservations, where there were few specialized physicians.
While traveling together to remote locations, Wheeler was often allowed to fly his father’s planes—experiences that made a lifelong impression on him, immersing him in a celestial territory from which he learned about the quality of light and its effects.
“That changed his perception,” the artist Ed Moses observed in an interview with the gallery; “I remember him talking about flying early in the morning with his dad. And the light would little by little come up...it defines the whole sky volume, the sky dome.”
A Pure Field
As a student at Chouinard Art Institute (now the California Institute of the Arts) in Los Angeles in the early 1960s, Wheeler began experimenting with spray paint—a technique that resonated with a childhood experience of watching a Navajo shaman make a sand painting with vivid pigments before sweeping it clean away. “All those colors...floating up like this spectral flash swirling around, and then it was gone,” Wheeler remembers. “That impression of seeing, I guess it’s like when I’m talking about the particularization of the light…. It was just the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I used to think about that when I was [in] my ballroom studio.”
In 1963, Wheeler moved his studio into a vacant ballroom on West Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. There, the paintings he made continued to avoid recogniseable imagery, pushing fragments of representation to the very edges of the canvas, seemingly in pursuit of a radiant space at its center. Spray paint, as opposed to direct, manual brushwork, afforded a diffuse, luminous application of white pigment to the surface in such a way that it radiates, rather than providing definition.
As Germano Celant writes, these paintings mark “A definitive step toward an absolute environment…an almost metaphysical and atmospheric condition...based on pure image, on a pneuma of color and light. It is an invitation to transfer the idea of art beyond its traditional boundaries, so that it includes and encompasses.”
The origins of the upcoming installation in New York can be traced directly to Wheeler’s earliest experimental light environment, which he built in his Pico Boulevard studio in 1966–1967. Using light itself to articulate space, Wheeler constructed a white room, installing a single row of daylight neon tubes partially concealed along the bottom of the viewing wall above a white linoleum floor. The result was an envelope of light, its borders unclear, that would immerse perception inside a luminous field. “I was experimenting… with the light not being encumbered, not being enclosed,” Wheeler recalls, “the light wall that I had, that light was raw.”
The works Wheeler made through 1968 saw the refinement of these effects, freeing light and rendering it to become almost “particulate.” For Ed Moses, “It was sort of magical, and mysterious…. light as matter.”
Image below: Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum Installation (Environmental Light), 1969. Detail of an installation view, Robert Irwin - Doug Wheeler, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 1969
482.6 x 955 x 955 cm
Installation view, Robert Irwin–Doug Wheeler, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 1969
This work is now in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (Panza Collection).
In subsequent iterations of this type of installation at the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven (1969), Ace Gallery, Los Angeles (1970), the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2004), and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC (2008–2009), Wheeler has further explored distinct atmospheric and perceptual effects.
In 2011, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego commissioned an environmental work by Wheeler for the exhibition Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface—itself precipitated by a major initiative by the Getty Foundation and the Getty Research Institute in 2002 called Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945–1980. Providing support to institutions in Southern California, this seminal project enabled the elevated presentation and analysis of works associated with the particularly Californian movement in art often defined as as Light and Space, of which Wheeler—whose body of work has remained committed to the perception and experience of space, volume, and light since the early 1960s—is a leading proponent. He creates a site-specific environment in San Diego titled DW 68 VEN MCASD 11 (1968/2011). The work is composed of a huge projection wall rimmed with white ultraviolet neon and an eighteen-foot scrim ceiling, and is based on an installation realized in his studio in 1968.
Reflecting on Wheeler’s artistic development in conversation with the gallery in 2015, fellow Light and Space artist Robert Irwin observes, “What makes an artist an artist is a unique sensibility, and that what you have to do is nurture that and understand it and develop it…. I don’t think he has changed much.… he’s been pursuing the same phenomena, and the whole necessity of presence. No stories. No messages…. It’s a purely visual language.”
The installation in the upcoming exhibition at the gallery was first realized with the title 49 Nord 6 Est 68 Ven 12 FL in a solo exhibition at FRAC Lorraine, in Metz, France in 2012, in which it was one of three immersive installations developed by the artist. Having begun with the artist’s experiments in his studio in 1967–8, this installation marks the culmination of a body of work which has evolved to refine both technical methods and sensory effects to the utmost degree, transforming the architecture of the gallery and viewers’ sensory responses into a complete experience of light and space.
The above history has been adapted from the first major monograph devoted to Wheeler’s work. Published this year by David Zwirner Books, this is the most comprehensive overview of the artist’s career to date, with new scholarship by art historian Germano Celant and extensive illustrations of Wheeler’s most significant works from the early 1960s to the present, as well as never before published images, drawings, and other archival material.