Desert Silence, Transposed to the Cacophony of New York
The artist Doug Wheeler is known for creating simple-seeming but titanically tough to achieve environments in which light and space are experienced in a manner usually reserved for the realms of mystical vision or psychedelic drugs: as things in themselves. “Voids,” as he once said, “have matter.”
But he has also long dreamed of work that incorporates another sense, sound — or the near absence of it — for the same purpose, based on solitary desert sojourns in Northern Arizona, where he was raised, and elsewhere in the West. He tells one story about how it feels to experience such profound and “elating” silence in the middle of the Sonoran Desert — the existential opposite of New York City, where his latest work, “PSAD Synthetic Desert III,” opens on Friday and runs through Aug. 2 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
“I watched a great horned owl sitting on a saguaro cactus,” Mr. Wheeler, 77, an amateur pilot, said last week at the museum. “And when it took off, it was just amazing. There was no sound, at least nothing I can describe as sound, but just a kind of almost imperceptible percussiveness in the air.”
The work, based on the desert’s quiet, its vanishingly distant sounds and the ethereally dim light of dusk or dawn, has been under construction for several weeks in a Guggenheim tower gallery, requiring a kind of floating room-within-a-room to be built, resting on gaskets so that the chamber absorbs as little sound as possible from the structure of the museum itself. Using timed tickets, groups of five will be allowed to enter the room through a series of sound locks and may remain inside for as long as 20 minutes.
During time spent inside on Thursday morning with four other visitors, I quickly understood Mr. Wheeler’s insistence on small groups. (If he’d had his way, the piece would have been limited to one person at a time.) The room is so silent that any footfall or coat rustle or stomach gurgle, even the sound of swallowing, registers as a kind of thundering violation. After a few minutes, what sounded like an immensely distant low rumble came to me, though I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just my circulatory system. I wanted to sit down and stay for a few hours, but my visit lasted only 10 minutes before other people needed to enter.
Mr. Wheeler’s environments are often so costly and difficult to build, and his standards so exacting, that many have existed only in drawings and conceptual form since the late 1960s. “Synthetic Desert,” conceived in 1968, is one of those, sold to Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, a visionary Italian collector of postwar art, in 1971 and acquired by the Guggenheim in the early 1990s along with five other Wheeler works, only two of which have been realized before now.
The piece, whose cost is not being disclosed, is the first exhibition to emerge from the work of an unusual, ambitious multiyear conservation project that has focused on the groundbreaking Conceptual, Minimalist and Post-Minimalist artists in the museum’s Panza collection.
These are edited excerpts from a conversation with Mr. Wheeler and the show’s organizers, Jeffrey Weiss, senior curator at the Guggenheim, and Francesca Esmay, conservator of the Panza Collection:
You’ve waited almost 50 years to see this piece realized, a long time even for an artist with your kind of patience. Why is it such a difficult undertaking?
DOUG WHEELER The thought of being able to isolate a museum from the sound around it and in it is really a challenge. This is my first real opportunity to do it — a real sensate experience of sound and vision. When I first walked in here, even before construction, I knew that it was going to be a very hard thing to do.
JEFFREY WEISS The process has been very laborious and slow and incremental. And the effort to get this right has been quite intense.
FRANCESCA ESMAY We’ve been calling it an Egyptian effort. The sound engineers Doug is working with (Raj Patel and Joseph Digerness from the firm Arup) can identify things utterly imperceptible to us. They identified an electronic buzz from a panel on the eighth floor, a floor above us, coming through a concrete slab.
Doug, what was your first experience in the desert that led to thinking about trying to base a piece around that environment?
WHEELER I once landed my plane on a dry lake bed in the Mojave. I wasn’t thinking I was going to land there for that experience. I just wanted to try to land in a place like that. When the plane engine stopped ticking, there was no breeze of any kind and it was really silent. In about 10 to 15 minutes I started to be able to hear things far away — tiny, different frequencies hitting me from a great, great distance. When you’re that far out, the mountains are just hazy shapes — they could be 60 miles away or hundreds. And the sounds — you can’t tell a human voice from a car door closing or an eagle screaming more than a mile up.
I’ve read that a whisper is 30 decibels and New York Midtown traffic noise is about 70. (Decibels are logarithmic, meaning a noise 30 decibels is 10 times louder than one 20 decibels.) How silent do you hope “Synthetic Desert” will be?
WHEELER I’ve almost never experienced real silence — it’s just certain degrees of quietude. I think if we’re really lucky we might be able to get this to 10 but probably more like 15. When you first walk in it will seem like utter silence. But it’s not. In a supersilent anechoic chamber, the most that most people can endure is about 40 minutes before they start going batty. I don’t want that experience. I just want you to experience something that you’ve never experienced before, and I think it will be elating. I think you will experience a sense of expanse and distance. Probably, for some people. But I think only when we’re young do we have a kind of open receptiveness to this kind of experience. As we get older, too many of our associative experiences get in the way.
WEISS To a certain degree this really is an experiment, so there’s a definite level of risk.
ESMAY A lot of the early conversations we had with Doug about this piece weren’t even about the research resulting in a public exhibition.
The work is based around your conceptual — and strikingly beautiful — drawings beginning in the late 1960s. But how did you know the idea would work in the real world?
WHEELER Well, it wasn’t only drawings. I had all this figured out once. I had a black metal box and I had just incredible research in that box, of all the things I wanted to do and the technical specifications of how to make them work. [Asked once by the art historian Shirley Hopps what he’d create if he had all the money in the world, Mr. Wheeler responded that he’d send a rocket 200 miles up and release barium oxide, to create a temporary aurora borealis around the earth.]
Having interviewed you before, I know you’re not constitutionally given to satisfaction. But are you pleased that this piece is finally out of your head and in the world?
WHEELER It is very gratifying for me. Instead of just saying over and over, as I’ve done for a lot of years, “Well, I won’t ever be able to do that,” now I’m doing it. I don’t think I expected to feel the exhilaration I felt yesterday just being in the space. Sometimes you can surprise yourself.
Force of light: David Zwirner New York hosts Doug Wheeler’s ’Encasements’
The legendary artist Doug Wheeler is currently front and centre at a solo exhibition staged at David Zwirner’s gallery space in New York. A forerunner in the Light and Space art movement, which originated in Los Angeles during the 1960s and 70s, Wheeler is best known for his installations that tweak perceptions of space, light and volume.
Of these, his Encasements – slender light paintings made from fabricated acrylic and neon – are the most recognisable. The David Zwirner exhibition involves five pieces – no more than two Encasements have ever been exhibited together – allowing visitors a rare chance to consider them in relation to each other, as opposed to as standalone works.
Starting around 1967–69, Wheeler created just 20 works in this typology. Composed of large panels of vacuum-formed plastic and outlined with strips of neon lighting set into the edges, the works are typically installed in an all-white room, devoid of ambient light and any architectural detail, so that the neon light is the only true focus.
Wheeler also created two rarely seen centre light variations, where the light emanates from the middle of the panel – one of which is also included in this exhibition.
By creating an individualized sensorial experience, Wheeler’s Encasements upset the stereotype that art needs to be a physical object. Staged together in an open configuration at David Zwirner, this point will no doubt be hammered home even stronger.
Creating a Desert Essence With Light and Space
For Doug Wheeler, a longtime sculptor of light and space, making art is a way of summoning old memories of the wide desert sky.
“As a kid, I would lie down and have to grab onto something,” he said of the vastness he grew up with in the American Southwest. “I was afraid gravity would fail and I would fall into it.”
The sublime skies of his youth, Mr. Wheeler said, provided inspiration for atmospheric art that has strived for decades to provide the same sensation, one that can be experienced in an exhibition opening Saturday at David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea.
The exhibit, the 76-year-old artist’s third solo show in New York after a welcome return from obscurity in 2012, features five historical works that transform light and space into highly experiential art. Hung on a wall in meticulously calibrated conditions in specially designed rooms, each piece features neon tubes in translucent plastic encasements that seem to float and glow in different dimensions.
“It’s a void that is charged,” Mr. Wheeler said of the effect. “Not an empty void—it’s got substance.”
After growing up in remote Arizona, Mr. Wheeler honed his art in Los Angeles, where he was an integral figure in a West Coast movement known as “Light and Space” in the 1960s and ’70s. Along with artists such as James Turrell and Robert Irwin, he investigated known and unknown aspects of physical science and human perception.
“I liked painting,” Mr. Wheeler said of his earliest work. “But the spaces between things seemed to attract me more than the things I was spending time on.”
“I liked painting,” Mr. Wheeler said of his earliest work. “But the spaces between things seemed to attract me more than the things I was spending time on.”
After trading paint for more adaptable and ephemeral light, he was able to fashion atmospheric fields without clear boundaries that viewers could enter into rather than stare at from a remove.
Mr. Wheeler found some early success, but the many challenges of installing such work made him a bit of an enigma in subsequent decades.
“He was always an artist that commanded a lot of respect in the art world, but his work can be very hard to find and see,” said Jeffrey Weiss, senior curator at the Guggenheim Museum, which has acquired the artist’s work.
In his early years, Mr. Wheeler was supported by the storied minimalist-art collector Giuseppe Panza and was courted by the powerhouse dealer Leo Castelli, but for decades, the difficulty of showing his work to exacting specifications secreted his reputation to those in the know.
In 2012, Mr. Wheeler had his first solo New York exhibition, for which the Zwirner gallery space was transformed into an unrecognizable home for light works that seemed to offer views into a limitless abyss.
An even bigger show in 2014 made space for a seemingly infinite room, a large installation with the walls and ceiling curved in service of what Kristine Bell, senior partner at David Zwirner, described as “this ethereal, weird, cloudlike atmosphere.”
Those works inspired lines around the block with waits for entry of up to four hours. While the historical works in the new show, conceived between 1967 and 1969, predate them, the perceptual effect is much the same.
“I try to make the room as featureless as possible,” Mr. Wheeler said while carefully installing his luminous environments in the Zwirner gallery’s 20th Street location earlier this week.
Rounding the edges between the floors and the ceiling with plaster erased any hard corners and lines. Soft, misty light emitted from inside neon-aided plastic panels that hang like paintings and provide the entire space with an otherworldly effect.
Mr. Wheeler, a hobbyist pilot who flies between his homes in Los Angeles and Santa Fe, N.M., likened the effect of peering in to a phenomenon pilots sometimes see.
“When you’re flying and you have no clouds, there are times when you can see differences in the air and know there might be turbulence because the density of the air changed. You can see that.”
Because of its immersive nature, the work is difficult to fully capture with photography.
“Without a direct encounter, all you have is a vague idea with nothing like the intensity of the experience itself,” said Mr. Weiss, who is working on presenting another Wheeler installation piece at the Guggenheim this summer.
Of the five works newly installed in Chelsea—two of which are for sale, each for $2 million—Ms. Bell said, “It strips you down to your basic senses so that all ideas and associations and meaning can be let go. There’s nothing to hold on to, so you’re left with your own thoughts and feelings.”
Mr. Zwirner, who made space for his own personal room-size work by Mr. Wheeler at his East Village townhouse, echoed the sentiment.
“It’s experiential work, and we’re in this moment when people are craving experiential work,” he said. “You’re not going to go into this show and not remember it.”
Mr. Wheeler, in quiet tones, compared the act of looking into his environments to the wonders of being alone in the desert. “I can in no way compete with it—I wouldn’t even attempt. But some of the things you get to experience in a place like that, I try to make that happen.”
Fortunately, my early-morning reservation to see Doug Wheeler’s recent installation at David Zwirner—a welcome return for the exacting, reticent artist just two years after his solo debut at the gallery in 2012, and only his second-ever one-man show in New York during the five decades of his career—was scheduled at the height of one of the more aggressive of the blizzards that socked the city in a seemingly ceaseless parade this year. Fortunate, first and foremost, because I managed to snag an appointment at all: A strict limit placed on the number of viewers allowed at any one time into "LC 71 NY DZ 13 DW," 2013, the newest immersive environment by the seventy-four-year-old pioneer of the West Coast Light and Space movement, meant that prebooking was all but mandatory; a previous impromptu attempt had been stymied by a politely firm gallery gatekeeper carrying an iPad calendar whose slots for that day were long since spoken for. But also fortuitous for the serendipitous phenomenal experience of my almost impassably snowy commute: an unexpectedly affecting passage through well-worn terrain, with Chelsea’s usually busy streets and sidewalks virtually depopulated, transmogrified by swirling flurries and blanketing drifts—a familiar environment that, like Zwirner’s West Twentieth Street galleries, had been erased and reinvented by a thoroughgoing spatio-perceptual whiteout.
Though the gallery gave the size of "LC 71 NY DZ 13 DW" as precisely 64' 3“ x 67' 7 3/8” x 18' 3", the way in which the work caused space to apparently expand and collapse made it hard to imagine a better candidate for the old checklist chestnut “dimensions variable.” (The initials refer to an earlier, unrealized version of the installation originally planned for Leo Castelli in 1971 and to the current work, dated to last year.) Wheeler’s piece, described as a “rotational horizon work,” was inspired by the artist’s experience as a longtime amateur aviator and consists of a convex circular platform set within a chamber of disorientingly indeterminate scale and ringed by hidden batteries of LED lights whose intensity oscillates, subtly across an interval of two minutes. Reached by viewers through a slot-like doorway after trading their street shoes (or snow boots) for suitably clinical, clean-room-style footies, the pristine environment seemed to both shoulder in on and run away from its viewer-inhabitants, acting as both swaddling cocoon and limitless absence.
Of course, the perceptual distortions engineered by Wheeler and his contemporaries—among them James Turrell and Robert Irwin—emerged from a peculiarly Californian mix of observational naturalism, psychedelic searching, and détourned military-industrial technology. And while the experience of "LC 71 NY DZ 13 DW" did undoubtedly evoke an aerospace vantage—the slow roll of the earth seen through the windshield of a high-altitude aircraft, the horizon always sliding just ahead of the viewer’s physical trajectory—its multiple destabilizations of visitors’ sensoria were hardly reducible to any single experiential analogue. The uncanny acoustics of Wheeler’s architectural cavity produced echoes of almost hallucinatory duration at every footfall and throat-clearing, and if the powdery periwinkle hue that hung in an unclassifiable zone of middle ground around the circumference of the floor did fundamentally transform the audience’s “perspective,” the work’s temperament could just as easily have been judged lysergic as aerological. In this, the essential character of Wheeler’s work—and that of the Light and Space project in general—was revealed to be as much about inward vision as outward percepta, proceeding from the eye, and the mind’s eye, in equal measure.
Two years ago, Doug Wheeler mesmerized gallerygoers with an "infinity environment" at David Zwirner; stepping into this all-white, light-and-space installation was akin to moving through a dense cloud. Now, Mr. Wheeler, a trained pilot, is back at the gallery with a new piece that evokes a different sensation of flight: the perception of the horizon from an arcing path. Like his 2012 show, it's best seen with as few other people in the room as possible. (I recommend calling the gallery for an appointment, although up to sex people are allowed in at any one time, and walk-ins are also being accommodated.)
After donning shoe covers, you pass through a tall, narrow aperture into a domelike, blue-lit space. Walking toward the center, you feel a distinct upward thrust; partly, this is because the floor is slightly convex, but it's also a result of the enveloping sky Mr. Wheeler has created with fiberglass, latex paint and a set of LED lights on timers that give you the illusion of a creeping dawn or twilight. Keep walking, and you'll feel as if you could keep on going and never reach the edge.
The effect fades a bit as you come closer to the walls and notice their curvature, as well as the gap between them and the floor platform. I thought of the sailboat that bumps up against the sky dome at the end of "The Truman Show." But standing int he middle of the installation is more likely to bring to mind the luminous, unfathomable vast depths of basilicas like the Hagia Sophia or St. Mark's Cathedral, or the eerily prolonged sunrises and sunsets seen from planes heading East and West. Somehow, Mr. Wheeler is able to make these different references and vantage points coalesce into a single, magical experience, one that reconciles roundness and flatness, surface and volume, knowledge and perception.
Doug Wheeler Creates an Ethereal Installation at David Zwirner Gallery
California light artist Doug Wheeler’s current installation at David Zwirner’s 20th Street location in New York is mesmerizing, even before you enter the space. The exhibition is approached through a small hallway that has been transformed into a rectangular portal of light, a trademark Wheeler illusion. Then, after surrendering your shoes—hospital footies are provided to keep the floor pristine—you subsequently surrender your spatial orientation.
Wheeler’s piece is an immaculate white dome that feels more akin to open air, where all points of reference have been buffed and polished away, leaving you pleasantly disoriented. Soft LEDs encircle the room like a bright twilight horizon and diffuse across the ceiling so seamlessly that there appears to be nothing overhead. The convex floor, modeled after a pilot’s-eye view of the earth below, makes it difficult to discern the distance you have traveled and have yet to go. As you approach the rim of light, how far the installation extends is obscured by a haze.
Anticipating a big audience, the gallery is now accepting reservations to view the installation in 15-minute intervals. “This piece allows you to be present in the moment and experience your own existential place in the world,” Zwirner partner Kristine Bell explained. And like any form of meditation, it’s best done alone.
The artist Doug Wheeler tells two stories, both having to do with light, that go a long way toward explaining why he is so revered by many fellow artists — as a visionary and a relentlessly stubborn perfectionist — and also why his work has been seen by so few American artgoers over the last few decades, particularly those in New York.
The first story takes place at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, where several years ago Mr. Wheeler created a complex installation he calls an “infinity environment,” featuring a light-saturated, all-white, rounded room with no corners or sharp angles, rendering viewers unable to fix their eyes on any surface. It invokes an experience of light itself as an almost tactile presence. As Mr. Wheeler continued to tweak the piece, a small boy walked up to the room and hesitated before entering, putting his hands in front of him because his senses told him that the square entrance was a wall, not simply a wall of light flooding his vision.
“I thought, ‘O.K., I can stop worrying so much and being mad about them letting people in too early,’ ” Mr. Wheeler said recently over coffee at the David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea, where he has just opened his first solo New York gallery show at the age of 72, remaking a cavernous interior into a kind of immaculate white vacuum tube — the city’s first infinity environment.
The second story he tells happened in the late 1960s, in a former dime store in Venice, Calif., the studio where he first began creating the ethereal, experiential work that made him a founder of the so-called Light and Space movement, along with fellow West Coast artists like Robert Irwin, James Turrell and Mary Corse. One afternoon Mr. Wheeler welcomed a couple of prominent dealers from a New York gallery — “who shall remain nameless,” he now says tersely — to show off a new work using phosphorus paint and lights to create the sensation of a mistlike plane bisecting part of the studio.
The dealers walked right past the piece without noticing it, making a beeline to some earlier, popular light works that hung on the walls like paintings. “I just thought what idiots they were for not seeing it,” he said. “Now maybe it wasn’t powerful enough. Maybe it was just my arrogance. But at that time I didn’t think of it that way.”
“What they expected to see, they saw,” he added, “and then they left.” He bid them a friendly goodbye and never did business with the gallery again.
His career has been punctuated by such decorous but epic refusals. He has said no to major museum exhibitions, because of his doubts that the works would be shown in the way they were intended. In a career of more than four decades he has never had a full-time American gallery represent him except for a brief, troubled turn with the Los Angeles dealer Doug Chrismas. He even once turned down Leo Castelli, at the time the most powerful dealer in the country, because he felt that Castelli wanted to push him to crank out versions of older works, from which “I’d already learned everything I wanted to learn.” (“I heard he told people he thought I was crazy,” Mr. Wheeler said.)
The effect of this deeply principled approach has been that his work has been seen mostly on the West Coast and in Europe, where the Milanese collector Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, who died in 2010, and his wife, Giovanna, were enthusiastic supporters. Through the Panza collection, Wheeler pieces are now in the collections of the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Hirshhorn in Washington. But sightings of the work on the East Coast have been few and far between, partly because of the complexity of their installation.
For several years in the mid-1970s Mr. Wheeler grew so frustrated with the art world that he took up screenwriting to support himself, so he could keep making his art his way. (The one result that made it to the screen was a 1978 television trucker movie, “Steel Cowboy,” with James Brolin and Rip Torn, of which Mr. Wheeler says, gratefully, “There was nothing of my work left in it at all.”)
By the ’80s he had left Los Angeles for Santa Fe, N.M., where he still works. When David Zwirner — whose gallery has dug deeply in recent years into the works of Minimalist and ’60s and ’70s West Coast artists — included a Wheeler piece in a show several years ago, Mr. Zwirner said, he considered Mr. Wheeler a “kind of mythical figure.”
“And then we get an e-mail from Doug Wheeler — he exists! — and he was telling us we’d shown the work the wrong way, that it was not just a wall piece,” he recalled. “We’d screwed it up.” But despite the infelicitous introduction he began to pursue Mr. Wheeler and offered to support him in the creation of an infinity environment in New York. (Besides the version in Bilbao, Mr. Wheeler has made works like it only two other times, in 1975 in Milan and in 1983 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.)
Mr. Zwirner said: “I told him: ‘We’ll give you carte blanche. I mean, we have to see a budget, but once we sign off on it, it’s your baby.’ ”
For the last several weeks this baby, made from precisely curved and fitted fiberglass wall sections, special paints and resins and an elaborate combination of lights, has been growing clandestinely inside one of the Zwirner spaces on West 19th Street, behind papered-over windows. The exhibition, titled “SA MI 75 DZ NY 12,” a reference to the initial 1975 work, will be the most expensive single installation ever mounted by the gallery, said Mr. Zwirner, who had been forewarned.
At the beginning, Mr. Wheeler said, he told Mr. Zwirner: “You know it’s really hard to do that kind of piece, don’t you? It’s very hard to create absence.”
Arguably more so than any other Light and Space artist Mr. Wheeler has made the quest to create a sense of absence — to enable people to perceive space and light in ways they normally cannot — a primary obsession. And his explorations of it were deeply influential in the formation of the loose movement of Los Angeles artists who began to work with light.
“Doug was really the first one out of the box with a lot of these ideas, doing things very early on,” said the painter Ed Moses, who experimented with light environments himself in the 1960s. It was a heady, competitive time. “We were all friends,” Mr. Moses said, “but we all wanted to get the first bite of something, not be the guy who got the second bite.”
In subsequent years, he said, he believed Mr. Wheeler’s role as a pioneer had been diminished in Mr. Irwin’s and Mr. Turrell’s favor, perhaps owing partly to the difficulty of both the work and the artist. “Even the museums wouldn’t often do the kinds of things Doug needed them to do, either because of money or because he was just so exacting,” Mr. Moses said. “He got very despondent about the whole thing, but he just kept on working.”
In person Mr. Wheeler can seem at times like a low-key, latter-day New Mexico cowboy, with flowing white hair and Western-accented belts. But his resolve flashes through quickly, particularly in his reticence about being interviewed. (He said he managed to go more than a couple of decades without finally sitting for one again in 2008.) In talking about his work he is painstakingly methodical, particularly in trying to emphasize what it is not.
Works like the infinity room — which over about a half hour will gradually cycle from light that mimics dawn up to full daylight and then down to dusk — are not designed with the end purpose of creating illusion or destabilizing perception. The works are trying instead to use those things as tools to enable an experience of light and space in a much more direct way than is normally possible, “without,” as Mr. Wheeler once wrote, “the diminishing effect of a learned associative response to explain away” the essence of what is being seen.
Growing up in rural Arizona, he said, he sometimes had such visceral experiences of light and space, almost Proustian in their power. They often occurred with his father, a doctor who became well known for barnstorming the state in a Stagger-wing Beechcraft to attend to patients in remote areas. In the air above the desert, the sky seen between massive cloudbanks could take on an otherworldly aspect.
“It created a torquing in space, a tension that I think is something my work has always tried to achieve,” said Mr. Wheeler, who also became a pilot and flies a 1978 Cessna. “When I was growing up, the sky was everything for me.”
Mr. Wheeler’s family life was often tumultuous. There were times when his father would leave him for days with people he barely knew while he flew off to see patients. “That really did a number on me,” he said. He became headstrong and refused baptism in his family’s faith, Seventh Day Adventism, “because I thought that if I got baptized, it would change me, and I’d be like all these other people.” (Today he divides his time between Santa Fe and Los Angeles with his wife, the film producer Bridget Johnson.)
He first began to find himself at Chouinard Art Institute, later the California Institute of the Arts, one of the most important crucibles of postwar Los Angeles talent, with students and faculty like Mr. Irwin, Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari. “I think I was actually pretty crazy in those days,” Mr. Wheeler said. “When I started school, they made me go see the shrink in order to keep my scholarship.”
Like almost everyone he knew at the time he started out as a painter and made “some ugly, horrible stuff for a while.” But it was a series of early paintings — large, mostly white canvases with polished-looking, bulletlike shapes in the corners — that began to lead him to his work with light. “Looking at them I started to realize that what was really important was the space between things,” he said. This led by the late 1960s to works known as light encasements, squares of monochrome plastic with neon lights embedded along the edges, intended to be installed in white rooms with coved corners.
The curator Germano Celant, who included Mr. Wheeler in an influential exhibition of environment-based art at the 1976 Venice Biennale, said in an interview that he considered the kinds of immersive installations that Mr. Wheeler began to gravitate toward to be radical. “He was avoiding representation of any kind,” said Mr. Celant, who is helping to compile a monograph for the Zwirner show. “There was nothing to see — only light. I think it was a big shift.”
It has always been a shift as unearthly to experience as it is difficult to achieve, at least to Mr. Wheeler’s standards. One day this month, as he surveyed painters slowly turning the inside of the installation a blinding, pristine white, he complained gravely that the floor had not been made the way he had wanted and, toward the end of an interview, he excused himself hurriedly with an exasperated look, saying, “I’m sorry, but I have a real crisis on my hands now.”
Mr. Zwirner, the dealer, said that he hopes to represent Mr. Wheeler permanently, but that he will not allow himself any firm expectation of doing so until the show is over and Mr. Wheeler is happy. “I’m treading very lightly,” he said. “I guess I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop.”