As a pioneer of the so-called “Light and Space” movement that flourished in Southern California in the 1960s and 1970s, Doug Wheeler’s prolific and ground-breaking body of work encompasses drawing, painting, and installations that are characterized by a singular experimentation with the perception and experience of space, volume, and light. Raised in the high desert of Arizona, Wheeler began his career as a painter in the early 1960s while studying at the Chouinard Art Institute (now the California Institute of the Arts) in Los Angeles. According to critic and curator John Coplans, Wheeler’s “primary aim as [an artist] is to reshape or change the spectator’s perception of the seen world. In short, [his] medium is not light or new materials or technology, but perception.”1
Wheeler’s first solo exhibitions were held at the Pasadena Art Museum, Pasadena, California (1968); Ace Gallery, Los Angeles (1970); Galerie Schmela, Düsseldorf (1970); Mizuno Gallery, Los Angeles (1974, 1979); and Galleria Salvatore Ala, Milan (1975). His early environmental work was included in a number of important exhibitions in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, such as Robert Irwin – Doug Wheeler, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, (1969); Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, Doug Wheeler, Tate Gallery, London (1970); Rooms P.S. 1, The Institute for Art and Urban Resources at P.S.1, Long Island City, New York (1976); Ambiente Arte, 37th Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy (1976); and The First Show: Painting and Sculpture from Eight Collections, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (the Temporary Contemporary) (1983–1984), among others. In 1975, Wheeler’s environmental projects from this period, some existing only as detailed architectural plan drawings, were acquired by Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, the noted Italian collector of American postwar art.
Wheeler’s work has been presented in notable international exhibitions, including Sunshine & Noir: Art in L.A. 1960–1997, which traveled from the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark, to Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany, Castello di Rivoli, Turin, and UCLA/The Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, Los Angeles (1997–1999); Changing Perceptions: The Panza Collection at the Guggenheim Museum, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (2000–2001); Time & Place: Los Angeles 1957–1968, Moderna Museet, Stockholm (2008–2009), which traveled to Kunsthaus Zürich as the exhibition Hot Spots: Rio de Janeiro/Milano/Los Angeles 1956–1969 (2009); and Primary Atmospheres: Works from California 1960–1970, David Zwirner, New York (2010).
In 2012, the artist exhibited a new “continuum atmospheric environment” at David Zwirner, New York. His work was also featured in Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, as part of the Getty Research Institute’s Pacific Standard Timeinitiative (2011–2012). 49 Nord 6 Est – FRAC Lorraine, Metz, France, presented a solo exhibition of Wheeler’s work in 2012, and his work was included in Light Show, at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London, in 2013. In 2014, a new “rotational horizon” installation by the artist, a culmination of circular works begun in the 1970s, occupied the ground floor of David Zwirner’s West 20th Street location in New York, and, later that year, Wheeler presented a new light environment at Palazzo Grassi in Venice in conjunction with the group exhibition The Illusion of Light. In 2016, Doug Wheeler: Encasements was on view at David Zwirner, New York, and his 1976 PS1 installation was re-created for the anniversary exhibition Forty at MoMA/PS1, New York. The following year, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York presented Doug Wheeler: PSAD Synthetic Desert III, in which the artist realized a work conceived and drawn in 1971, transforming one of the museum galleries into a hermetic, “semi-anechoic chamber” that reduced ambient sound to imperceptible levels and produced the sensory impression of infinite space, an experience akin to those the artist describes in the vast desert spaces of Northern Arizona and New Mexico. Wheeler’s work was recently on view at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin as part of the exhibition Welt ohne Außen/World without Exterior. Immersive Spaces since the 1960s (2018).
The first major monograph devoted to Wheeler's work was published in 2020 by David Zwirner Books. The most comprehensive overview of the artist’s career to date, this publication includes new scholarship by art historian Germano Celant and features extensive illustrations of Wheeler’s most significant works from the early 1960s to the present, as well as never before published images, drawings, and other archival material.
Work by the artist is held in prominent museum collections worldwide, including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, California; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Wheeler lives and works in Santa Fe and Los Angeles.
1John Coplans, Doug Wheeler. Exh. bro. (Pasadena, California: Pasadena Art Museum, 1968), n.p.