I started by apologizing to Doug Wheeler for knowing so little about him. I had surfed the Archives of American Art and I’d paged through book after book about California and light and space art looking for a place to start. I’d even gone through the catalogues of two recent shows at LACMA and the Guggenheim looking for information. Time and time again: Wheeler’s work looked great, but it was clear that no curator or writer had talked with him enough to include anything about his work in the book or catalogue. Worse: It seemed as if over time curators and historians had effectively reduced the triumverate that had effectively started Light and Space art to an Irwin-and-Turrell twosome. I told Wheeler that I was sorry that I was going to come across as dumb and unprepared, but that I’d searched and searched. I was relieved when he chuckled at this, and jumped right in.
“William Wilson — he was the art critic for the Los Angeles Times back then — wrote about a Pasadena show I did,” Wheeler said. He was talking about a solo show he’d had at the Pasadena Art Museum in May, 1968. “Wilson basically was saying that it was the first time he’d seen where the whole space had a featureless space that was all white, and I had these light pieces in there and I made the ambient situation that was right for it. He wrote about how it was so unnerving that it was like stepping on a bridal veil.”
That sounded pretty good to me, even poetic. [Wheeler’s memory was good: Wilson’s actual exit line was “Footprints on the floor are as obscene as mud on a communion gown.”] Wheeler took a breath and continued.
“A couple years after that, I was in another exhibition at Ace and Wilson said something like, ‘Doug Wheeler, following in the line of Judy [Chicago]…’ and he named a whole bunch of people who were using white rooms and it really pissed me off. So I just wouldn’t talk to those guys.”
Nearly 40 years later, there we were at a Starbucks in downtown Washington conducting what Wheeler said was his first interview since then. (As I noted yesterday, Wheeler was in DC to install his Eindhoven, Environmental Light Installation (1969) at the Hirshhorn, which recently acquired the piece. It goes on view this week as part of The Panza Collection. Above is a photo of the work, taken by Lee Stalsworth.)
Wheeler is 69 but he looks 15 years younger. He has a full head of wavy white hair that falls to his shoulders, a neat white mustache and eyebrows that suggest his hair was once black. He was dressed like a rancher in black jeans, a brown leather vest and a light-blue shirt with shiny silver buttons. He had just arrived in DC not from his home in New Mexico, but from France, where he recently designed an installation at the Musee du Quai Branly.
It took me a couple days to realize this, but the first thing that Wheeler told me may have been less about Wilson and Wheeler’s reluctance to talk about himself than it was about the way art history has included — or failed to include — him as one of the three key figures of light-and-space art. In other words, Wheeler was telling me that in 1968 the LAT’s art critic had initially — but perhaps unawaredly — recognized Wheeler’s central role in the creation of what would become known as light and space (Wilson described the work’s “space and light”), but that within a year or two the critic had chunked it up and lumped Wheeler in with ham-handed installationists rather than with the actual movement he’d helped create.
In hindsight, Wheeler’s part in the triumverate is obvious: Wheeler’s show was the third John Coplans-curated Pasadena Art Museum exhibition in less than a
year: Turrell showed in Pasadena in September, 1967, Irwin showed his
then-new discs in early 1968, and then Wheeler. Curators around the world quickly seized on the new LA-based abstract art. Irwin, Wheeler, Larry Bell and others began receiving invitations to exhibit from major museums. And that’s where we’ll pick up next…