On farthest West 19th Street, in a taxi-garage-turned-white-cube-gallery, the American artist Doug Wheeler (b. 1939) has staged SA MI 75 DZ NY 12 (1975/2012) which explores light’s materiality “while emphasizing the viewer’s physical experience of infinite space.” In a career nascent within the California Light-and-Space movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, this is the belated first presentation in New York of an “infinity environment” by the hitherto relatively obscure artist.
The mechanics of Wheeler’s spatially ambiguous environment are similar in technique to those employed in an advertising photography studio. Like seamless photograph backdrop paper, reinforced fiberglass is curved away from right angles and extended from floor to ceiling, and horizontally from left to right. Light-emitting diodes, high intensity and UV fluorescent, as well as quartz halogen lights are then arranged between the translucent scrims of a box-within-a-box structure to further the ambiguity of the room’s volume.
Wheeler has said, “I wanted to effect a dematerialization so that I could deal with the dynamics of the particular space. It was a real space—not illusory—it was a cloud of light in constant flux. That molecular mist is the most important thing I do. It comes out of my way of seeing from living in Arizona—and the constant awareness of the landscape and the clouds.”
Infinite, pure spaces and “a cloud of light” might well be experienced within Wheeler’s unfathomable vista, while also conjuring associations not intended by either the artist or his gallery.
The artist was raised in the high desert of Arizona, located westwards of the Nevada National Security Site, previously the Nevada Test Site, about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Formerly known as the Nevada Proving Grounds, the site was established in 1951 for the testing of nuclear devices. It’s from the Nevada Test Site that many of the iconic images of the nuclear era come. So is a residual image developed from the blinding light that accompanies a nuclear explosion recorded in Wheeler’s obliterated horizon?
In 1975, Wheeler executed the first of his “infinity environments” by creating an expansive all-white room that simulated dawn, day, and dusk in continual succession. The following year, in May 1976, Steven Spielberg, who as a teenager made his first films in Arizona, began filming Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) in the Sonoran Desert, which covers large parts of the Southwestern United States and Northwest Mexico. (Douglas Trumbull, who had worked on, contributed to, or was responsible for the special photographic effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey , served as the visual effects supervisor.) Many viewers of a certain age will be reminded of the backlit aliens who inhabit a light-filled spacecraft while waiting their turn to step into Wheeler’s installation and watching black-clad Chelsea gallery-goers express their phenomenological wonder when surrounded by his industrial light-and-hokum.
Indeed, the grandest service Wheeler seems to have provided is to have granted his gallerist a vision of the already-gargantuan salons—the Emporia DZ— infinitely expanded, unfettered by the gridded constraints of Manhattan real estate. But, one wonders, how could the On Kawara Date Paintings, shown next door, be hung on these ever-distant, ethereal walls that may never be reached?