Standing in the latest Doug Wheeler installation, on view through March 29 at New York’s David Zwirner gallery, I thought of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.
I have spoken with Wheeler enough over the years to find it thoroughly unlikely that he was thinking about — or even gives two LEDs about — Tiepolo. Wheeler, whose art helped define the California-based light-and-space movement, is more interested in sensation and experience than he is in 18th-century Venice. Still, as I was standing in Wheeler’s LC 71 NY DZ 13 DW (2013), I felt like I was ascending through Tiepolo’s The Glorification of the Barbaro Family (ca. 1750, below) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. More on that in a minute.
This new Wheeler is not an ‘infinity environment,’ one of which comprised Wheeler’s 2012 exhibition at Zwirner, nor is it particularly similar to one. A viewer begins the experience of this new work by entering through a narrow rectangular aperture (below right). This is the entry point to a room which, unlike Wheeler’s ‘infinity environments,’ has readily definable proportions. The round floor, or viewing platform, has clear edges. The walls and ceiling of the space are curved. The space is essentially a dome.
The first surprise is the floor or platform on which the viewer stands. It is not flat. Even though someone from the gallery had told me that the floor was convex, the acuteness of its curve still took me by surprise. As I took my first steps into the Wheeler, I wobbled.
Recovering my balance — this took a moment, as I was so busy looking around me at the inside of the Wheeler, trying to soak it in, figure it out, experience it — I ascended the floor to the center of the room. Over the course of what I later learned was two minutes, a series of gentle lights slowly, gradually changed the color of the walls from a faint peach to a pale, periwinkle-infused blue. The shift in colors was minute but noticeable, and I think it happened gradually as the light moved across the dome. Just as the sun rises and morning’s colors start in the east before spreading to the northeast and southeast before eventually arriving in the southeast and southwest and then finally in the west, Wheeler’s colors slowly envelop the entire space, before changing again.
(As best I can recall, the color in the Wheeler never approached the purple or the intensity that is in the photographs made available by the gallery. That’s no knock on photographer Tim Nighswander, who took the two images of the Wheeler included here: Wheelers are famously difficult to photograph and it’s no doubt impossible to accurately represent one in JPEG form.)
So why did this new Wheeler send me to Tiepolo? Certainly some of it is its palette: The faint blue and soft peach of the Wheeler are Tiepolo colors made ethereal. Wheeler is a pilot, so he no doubt associates these colors more with dawn as spotted from the cockpit than with decorative Venetian neoclassical painting.
But it’s more than that. Take the Tiepolo I mentioned earlier, The Glorification of the Barbaro Family. I probably had it on my mind because I was 70 blocks from the Met rather than because it’s the exact Tiepolo that matched what I felt. Tiepolo made Glorification for a ceiling, specifically the ceiling of the Barbaro family’s palazzo in Venice. It features a full range of neoclassical allegorical whatnot, such as Valor tooting her horn, Prudence, a personification of virtue, and a statue of Minerva, wise Minerva. No doubt the Barbaro expected a visitor to look up at the Tiepolo and think to themselves, ‘Oh look, Valor, Prudence and Minerva! Why, that just so happens to remind me of the Barbaro themselves.”
The Tiepolo is a painting full of upward movement: Rosy-fingered dawn seems to move up through the left-hand side of the painting. The general upward drift is confirmed through the concave mountaintop on which Valor is perched, the tilt of her trumpet and the gesture of Prudence on the left and the way in which Tiepolo foreshortens each figure. Everything in the painting pulls us up into it. And that’s how this Wheeler felt. The longer I was in it — and I lingered for over half-an-hour — the more I felt like I was being pulled skyward, that this must be what it is like to hover above the Earth.
Well, actually that’s not quite right. I never felt like I was, say, one of those Tiepolo’s chubby putti. It was more like I was on the verge of floating, not that I ever actually got there. The Wheeler suspended me in a state of preparedness. I didn’t want to leave.