Among the few sensations unavailable in New York City is the feeling of uninterrupted space. When people scan their surroundings here, a progression of objects, bodies or architectural impediments inevitably enters and defines their fields of vision. On four occasions, the first being at Salvatore Ala Gallery in Milan in 1975, the seminal Light and Space artist Doug Wheeler has crafted what he calls “infinity environments”—interior installations designed to offer seemingly boundless spaces. The most recent such installation, at Zwirner, was his first in New York, and it proved a big hit; with lines down the block, a 2-hour wait was not uncommon. The event coincided with the showing of several of Wheeler’s works in California during “Pacific Standard Time,” a multi-institution celebration of art made in L.A. between 1945 and 1980.
Before entering SA MI 75 DZ NY 12 (the title references the locations and years of both the first infinity environment and the one at hand), visitors were instructed to cover their shoes with protec- tive white booties, and were allowed inside only one small group at a time. After rounding a wall constructed of partition panels, one reached a white rectangular room 30 feet wide by 20 feet deep. This “antechamber” (Wheeler’s term) featured four glossy planes: two sidewalls, a floor and a 12-foot-high ceiling. From here, one passed into a second room, almost twice as wide and deep and four feet greater in height. This larger space was constructed with sloping fiberglass transitions between the floor, walls and ceiling, effectively eliminating all architectural angles, and was painted matte white. When turning back to the rectangular antechamber (now appear- ing as a room-within-a-room), the visitor could see a battery of lights affixed to its perimeter, shining into the convex chamber. The two-part construction of SA MI 75 DZ NY 12 recalled a 1965 work in which Wheeler mounted neon tubes to the back of a painting—simultaneously activating and incorporating the surface of the wall—but here, once past the architectural frame of the antechamber, the gallerygoer was immersed in a three-dimensional space of refracted light.
The light, produced by LED, quartz halogen and high-intensity fluorescent bulbs, followed a 30-minute cycle through dawn, day, dusk and night. When lit at full power, the larger chamber evoked the Great Salt Lake Desert—if the expansive white terrain of that site were accompanied by an equally blinding white sky. (In such bleached-out settings, one becomes acutely aware of his or her ocular physiology, including the flutter of eyelashes.) As the illumination receded to dusk and night, the installation’s occupants appeared ungrounded, adrift, and, when seen from behind, resembled Caspar David Friedrich’s RuÌ?ckenfiguren. From the antechamber, the larger room suggested alternately a framed, immaterial picture (when the space was empty) and an impromptu tableau vivant (when occupied). Visitors were thus afforded an environment that suggested the visual language of painting while also, in producing a heightened awareness of the space around them, effecting a remarkable phenomenological experience.
Photo: View of Doug Wheeler’s installation SA MI 75 DZ NY 12, 1975/2012; at David Zwirner.