The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

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MAR 2014 Issue


On View
David Zwirner
February 6 – March 29, 2014
New York

There is nothing new about the idea of symbolic space. Doug Wheeler’s second installation at the David Zwirner gallery brings to mind the French Enlightenment fantasy architectural monument spheres of Etienne-Louis Boullee. In Wheeler’s space we enter the sphere’s upper half, a white dome reminiscent of the heavens, with a suspended circular pad for a floor. To enter the installation the viewer must first remove their shoes and don a pair of white booties, a practice usually reserved for temples and palaces. The implication is clear, we are entering the holy of holies of the California Light and Space school. Doug Wheeler is the Apollo of this pantheon, the ultimate defender of purity, the lightest of the light, the whitest of the white, the cleanest of the clean. Wheeler’s installation doesn’t use decorative color, like James Turrell’s recent Guggenheim installation—he holds the line.

Goethe presents us with two useful models to help describe Wheeler, the light artist. In his garden, Goethe made a small shrine representing sculptural cosmic perfection—a perfect sphere resting on a perfect cube. To enter Wheeler’s space is to philosophically identify with this notion of spiritual and philosophical perfection. Goethe also describes for us the relationship of light to lofty Olympus in the beginning of Faust: The Second Part of the Tragedy:

Look up! The huge, mountainous summits
Already announce their most impressive hour.
They first enjoy the eternal light,
Which only later turns to us below

The Light and Space artists were a California religion that was American, and grew out of the transcendentalism of the Hudson River School painters, combined with a Protestant quest to reduce spirituality to its essence and rid it of all decoration and emotional excess. Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St. Teresa” (1647 – 52) would have sent these guys screaming for the exits. James Turrell is a Quaker, and his Quaker meeting rooms with ocular openings reflect this view. Turrell was the group’s Helios, a sun god flying above the horizon in his chariot—an expensive Helio Courier aircraft. Doug Wheeler, a pilot with a cheaper plane, was their Apollo, identified with the heavenly light of Olympus, never to be earthbound. In Wheeler’s installation, the bottom of the sphere simply doesn’t exist, the floor stops it midway. Like Apollo, the defender of the light who shoots his arrows to kill the mighty serpent Python, Wheeler’s work presents the ultimate defense against the chthonian. Wheeler, Turrell, and Robert Irwin were not Vietnam vets; no Apocalypse Now journey into the heart of darkness for them (a 2012 New York Times review of Wheeler’s work was titled, “Into the Heart of Lightness.”) There is no nether region, no secret Paul McCarthy basement in this installation. The only California artist of this period to communicate between the upper and lower realms was Eric Orr, with his light rooms and darker works like “Blood Shadow” (1971) containing Orr’s blood. Perhaps it is the lack of reflection upon the dark and Dionysian I found unsettling sitting inside Wheeler’s perfect half eggshell, in a very upscale gallery. 

Doug Wheeler. 2013. Reinforced fiberglass, flat white titanium dioxide latex, LED light, and DMX control, 771 × 8113/8 × 219 ̋. Photo by Tim Nighswander, Imaging4Art © 2014 Doug Wheeler; courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

In Wheeler’s case the mystique goes further. Like the Chinese literati who would escape bad government through reclusion, Wheeler would vanish from the art world into anonymity after rejecting a museum exhibition. This was a rarified world with no grubby, low paying adjunct teaching jobs and few slimy art dealers. Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, Heiner Friedrich, the Dia Foundation, and a crew of mystery benefactors seemed to have kept these guys aloft. Robert Irwin was the prophet living in Long Beach and betting on the horses, his Duchampian chess substitute. Irwin’s pronouncements, “The intention of seeing a phenomenal art is simply the gift of seeing a little more today than you did yesterday,” would describe art’s true calling to the unwashed art students. Ah, the hierarchy! The resin artists on the lower rungs like Peter Alexander and De Wain Valentine, the messy George Herms and Wallace Berman, along with the decorators like Billy Al Bengston and Ed Moses, and the feminists, at the bottom waiting for the light to descend on Womanhouse. This was an all male religion; Maria Nordman’s diverse work, Susan Kaiser Vogel’s bricks, and Mary Corse’s white paintings never fit neatly into the Light and Space group, where they felt tacked on to negate charges of sexism. Wheeler, Irwin, and Turrell were the idealized Kouroi, celebrated in reverential hushed tones by minimalist critics and the museum powers. (Larry Bell’s beautiful boxes were in a category by themselves, and his glass panels had a different feel from the scrims. In Bell’s case, Pace Gallery and practical concerns ruled out Olympian pretensions, and his humorous alter-egos helped.)

Sitting inside this perfect Wheeler half-egg, the source of illumination becomes the question. A tiny trench around the floor’s edges features spectrum light fixtures hidden from view. The light is strange and artificial. This is not the natural light of the Pantheon where one feels uplifted standing under the oculus. Being inside Wheeler’s half-egg is vertiginous; it makes one queasy. This holy of holies feels artificial and remote. There is nothing living, no real sunshine, and for this old maenad, the spirituality of the place seems cut off from nature. There is no dance, no vine, and even though I have entered the space through a white vagina passageway, I feel unwelcome. Such heresy, when reverence and awe are expected. Heliocentric perfection is not for those who worship mother earth, where spirituality can include dirt. Wheeler’s room feels un-reflected. It’s something about having to wear the white booties.

537 W. 20th St., Chelsea.


Ann McCoy

Ann McCoy is an artist, writer, and Editor at Large for the Brooklyn Rail. She was given a Guggenheim Foundation award in 2019, for painting and sculpture.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

All Issues