The dream of a completely immersive visual experience haunts modern art. The most famous example in painting, Monet’s Waterlilies installation, dedicated in Paris’s Orangerie in 1927, has behind it a rich history of popular entertainment: the panorama, invented in the late eighteenth century and a mass entertainment medium in nineteenth-century Paris; similar productions elsewhere include the immense Civil War cycloramas produced in the U.S. before 1900.
Some of the most ambitious postwar artworks — from James Rosenquist’s F-111 (1964–65) and Anselm Kiefer’s cinematic landscapes to Bill Viola’s video environments and Olafur Eliasson’s immersive installations at MoMA P.S. 1 in 2008—are informed by mid–twentieth-century attractions descended from the panorama. These include Cinerama, a popular entertainment of the 1950s and early ’60s; 360-degree cinema, an early example being the Port Authority exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair, a circular theater in which the audience was surrounded by an aerial tour of New York, filmed from helicopters; and, of course, planetariums, like the one at Griffith Park Observatory, a memorable location in the 1955 Rebel without a Cause.
Doug Wheeler’s new work, at David Zwirner on 20th Street until April 5, belongs to that mid-century era, expressing a mind-altering, expansive, West Coast sensibility nurtured by technology and pharmaceuticals, and inspired by the freedom of flight. Originally planned for a 1971 exhibition at the Castelli Warehouse, an outpost of Leo Castelli’s Soho Gallery on West 108th Street, it is titled “LC 71 NY DZ 13 DW” (2013), in reference to its long genesis.
One of the so-called “Light and Space” artists, a loosely affiliated group active in Southern California in the 1960s and 1970s, Wheeler, now seventy-five, has gained far less attention than his compeers, notably Robert Irwin and James Turrell. Wheeler did not, in fact, have a solo show in New York until two years ago, also at Zwirner, when he recreated a 1975 installation. But Wheeler’s work has a refinement and precision that make him the “artists’ artist” of this group. The new piece, constructed of preformed reinforced fiberglass sections, painted to create a seamless dome, and provided with a gently convex floor (the curving edge of which hides the LED lighting), required approximately six weeks to be assembled.
Technically, the enveloping circular, domed installation, is derived from the theater cyclorama, an early twentieth-century invention, related to the panorama, consisting of a concave wall at the rear of a stage (sometimes also curving at the top to create a partial dome), that very effectively produces an illusion of open space. The technique used is conceptually simple: a wash of diffuse lighting over a curved surface, typically from above for a stage “cyc,” but in Wheeler’s installation from below, using what look like uninterrupted LED striplights.
Wheeler calls the installation a “rotational horizon work,” and, according to a gallery handout, aims to focus attention “on the way light almost imperceptibly changes along the horizon as the earth turns.” A pilot himself, Wheeler is said to be fascinated by “the illusory quality of landscape as glimpsed from the vantage point of an airplane.” He aims, we are told, to mimic “the sensation of the earth’s rotational pull and curvature,” altering “the traditionally static viewing experience of a work of art, thereby destabilizing our innate sense of equilibrium and imparting the feeling of moving with the earth towards an unreachable horizon.”
Well, okay — if that’s what he says. But don’t be misled: “Mission: SPACE” at Disney EPCOT this is not. What Wheeler actually accomplishes is more precious—not an illusion of flight, or a simulation of some kind, but something like the opposite: an actual, subjective encounter with light and space.
Having made a reservation in advance (recommended) and donned disposable booties to keep the whole thing hospital-clean, I paused to appreciate the view into the installation, a brilliant door of light compressed by darkness, seen through a narrow entranceway. Like an airlock between our mundane late-winter world and an ocean of space, the passage allows for a moment of decompression. I stepped out onto what looked like the roof of a flying saucer.
I began to feel disturbingly disoriented. Alone in the space and with my sense of balance challenged by the convex floor, I felt a touch of vertigo, as I was unable to focus on a stable object. The “sky” above seemed as though it could be miles high; the edges of the floor could be imagined as a distant horizon (the effect is somewhat more convincing when one sits or lies on the floor). But illusion and metaphor are trumped by the intense presentness of space and light, which seem to become physical. I realized that sound also had become almost tangible in the installation: my voice — not notably attractive in normal circumstances — took on a strange beauty as it echoed and reechoed if I said a few words aloud or just sounded a tone. A sharp clap took a full five seconds to die away.
Wheeler’s accomplishment, if not his aim, is shared with many twentieth-century artists who have seen their principal subject as “empty” space. Artists based in or drawn to the American West seem to have been especially attracted to making landscapes and interiors that offer striking experiential alternatives to artworks viewed as commodities by the acquisitive society around them. Resist the temptation to photograph it, which is prohibited anyway — consider that restraint a courtesy to your fellow space travelers — and give it enough time and attention to work its magic.
LC 71 NY DZ 13 DW continues at David Zwirner gallery (537 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 5.