Coming from the deserts of New Mexico, where he lives in Sante Fe, Doug Wheeler’s visits to New York, seldom and auspicious, are greeted with the sort of awe usually reserved for mystics. A pioneering figure of the 1960s and ’70s Light and Space movement along with Robert Irwin and James Turrell, the resurgent septuagenarian has found his fame belatedly. Not that he courted it. Wheeler’s long rustications from the art world (he turned to screenwriting for a time) and his dubious opinions of museums, galleries, and the well-heeled (he was dubious they’d understand his work) didn’t help; his abstemiousness burned a few bridges. Perhaps as a result, he became what David Zwirner has called a “kind of mythical figure.”
His newest work, “LC 71 NY DZ 13 DW,” now on display at Zwirner’s 20th Street gallery, happens to be just the second New York solo show for Wheeler. It follows 2012’s celebrated “SA MI 75 DZ NY 12” installation, also exhibited at David Zwirner, which had reviewers turning to Kant, Zen, and Aldous Huxley as totems of the infinite. More recently, “LC 71 NY DZ 13 DW” has inspired a breathless review from Ann McCoy in the Brooklyn Rail — Wheeler on the shoulders of Apollo, Goethe, Chinese intellectual isolates. Awestruck and inspired before the artist’s placeless perspectives of light and color — anti-masses without end — visitors start to resemble replicas of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.
I reach my hand out, to what looks like the surface of a purplish wall. But my hand finds nothing and jerkily lurches ahead, like a foot hovering on a dark staircase, searching for another step. I open and close my eyes, marveling at the contrast, transporting and bright. The light is flat and interminable, and I feel that if I were bold or impertinent enough, I could step off the white platform on which I stand. Go into the light. And find no end. I’m standing at the edge of “LC 71 NY DZ 13 DW”’s raised, convex platform, a wanderer amid a colored, light-induced fog.
The platform stands in the middle of a (you can’t see this) curved, domed room. It’s reported to have taken almost six weeks to put together the construction, made up of reinforced fiberglass, white titanium, and LEDs. Sounds echo and rebound as they do in a domed space, revealing the shallowness of the room, but that may not be your impression. People didn’t talk much during my visit, hushed by the solemn light or perhaps charmed by the soundings of their steps, caught in the web of the room’s deep, hazy glow.
Because “LC 71 NY DZ 13 DW” doesn’t feature any flat edges, at least none to be seen, there’s nothing to focus on or cast shadows from. The light is unencumbered and, as a result, appears to paint the room with atmospheric depth. All that stands out is a rounded, protruding, keyhole-like hallway — the room’s sci-fi portal — and that curved white platform.
Wheeler calls his installation a “rotational horizon work,” which would be colorless even for a much less extravagantly lauded artist. It springs from his interest in flight — how, up in the air, the horizon seems forever and changing. An avid pilot, Wheeler has been fascinated by planes since growing up in the deep sky country of the Southwest. “Focusing attention on the way light almost imperceptibly changes along the horizon as the earth turns,” Wheeler designed the work to mimic “the sensation of the earth’s rotational pull and curvature … destabilizing our innate sense of equilibrium and imparting the feeling of moving with the earth towards an unreachable horizon.” Yet, unlike the horizon, there is an empowering sense in that room of looking out from far above, peering into something paradoxically deep and yet void, fulsome and yet flat.
The only distracting part is when loads of people share the space, or when floaters (those germy shapes) flit across your vision. Hell may be other people, but infinity is not. Try to reserve a time by calling the gallery. And maybe brush up on your philosophy or your Shakespeare. Wheeler will probably get your muttering something like:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Doug Wheeler continues at David Zwirner (537 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 5.