James Turrell and Robert Irwin are rightly famous. Doug Wheeler, the third great pioneer of ’60s-’70s Light-and-Space art is not. That’s too bad.
If Turrell was the set-designer of light-driven installations, then Wheeler was the guy who understood that ‘the set’ wasn’t limited to the stage or one wall, that it could take over an entire environment. (This is a concept that Turrell has taken to extremes in the Arizona desert.) If Irwin was a master of subtle art that builds to a low, intense burn, then Wheeler was the guy who realized that if you controlled an entire space, that you could ratchet up the intensity level right away.
Early Wheelers — vacuum-formed acrylic squares or rectangles with neon around or behind the edges of the square from the late 1960s and early 1970s — are fantastically demanding. They hang on a wall or fill it, emanating visible bandwidth into an all-white space. They absorb the white cube and co-opt it. Being inside a Wheeler isn’t an experience, it’s a sensation. It is enveloping, mysterious, meditative and a little bit disorienting. (These qualities are unphotographable, which makes the infrequency with which Wheeler’s are installed especially problematic. This picture (above), of MOCA’s RM 669 (1969) is about as close as JPEGs get. The picture below is MOCA’s own picture of the same work.)
While Wheelers are child-graspable fun, they’re also smart and demanding. They’re obviously about light, a focus of hundreds of years worth of painters. (Irwin, Wheeler and other Light-and-Spacers started out as painters.) In many ways, Light and Space art is impressionism for a late-industrial period: It makes light the primary focus of art that addresses industrial production. (As TJ Clark has argued, impressionism often addressed the birth of French industry.) Is it a coincidence that Light and Space emerged from LA at the same time the Cold War-driven aerospace industry was booming in Southern California?
Wheelers also present a delightful paradox: We’re encouraged to enter Wheeler’s lit environment, so we do. The temptation to walk across the white cube toward the pleasure-providing acrylic and neon-emitting shape is irresistible. But as we walk toward the object, it becomes less powerful, less pleasurable. Better to retreat and to continue to enjoy. Wheelers are surprisingly controlling.
Sure enough, Wheeler was (and is) obsessive-compulsive about his installations, a lovable throwback at a time when Thomas Hirschhorn-style scattertrash installation art is en vogue. That intense attention-to-detail is a remnant of Wheeler’s background as a painter, a medium in which every mark can be artist-controlled. (Irwin’s OCDish dot paintings are another good example.) Wheeler has tried to control every imaginable detail of his installations, including how a museum, gallery or collector installs it and how a viewer is allowed to experience it. Example: The first time I saw the Wheeler now in LACMA’s collection it was in curator Lynn Zelevansky’s Beyond Geometry show. The museum required visitors to remove their shoes before entering Wheeler’s all-white space. Visitors gleefully submitted: Each time I saw the show there was a line to get in.
Wheeler has both benefited and suffered from that exactitude. He has refused projects or pulled out of shows in which he didn’t have enough control over his work, including the Pompidou’s landmark 2006 show about post-WWII art from Los Angeles. (Wheeler complained that the Pompidou’s installation staff was clueless and irresponsible. He was prescient: The Pompidou’s staff eventually accidentally damaged or destroyed several works in the show.) No matter, Wheeler has been simultaneously influential and under-appreciated. It’s not just Turrell who has benefited from Wheeler, it’s Erwin Redl, Olafur Eliasson, Carsten Holler, Nathaniel Rackowe, and more. It’s no coincidence that those artists are European. Wheeler and other Light-and-Space artists have shown more widely in Europe than in the U.S.
Partly as a result of Wheeler’s fastidiousness and his focus on Europe, Wheeler installations are rarely seen in the U.S. So far as I know they’re in the collections of only five American museums: LACMA, MOCA, MCASD, the Guggenheim and the Hirshhorn. The Guggenheim and the Hirshhorn acquired their Wheelers by way of Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, the Italian art collector who sold and gave parts of his collection to those institutions. (MOCA bought its Wheeler in 1984, the same year in which MOCA acquired works from Panza.) The Hirshhorn, which acquired work from Panza last year, will show its Wheeler for the first time when The Panza Collection opens this week.
Modern Art Notes