b. 1939, Globe, Arizona
Born in 1939 in Globe, Arizona, Douglas Wheeler attended the Chouinard Art Institute, Los Angeles (now California Institute of the Arts, Valencia), in the early 1960s. One of the pioneering Light and Space artists working in Southern California in the 1960s and 1970s, Wheeler is known for his use of industrial light to create Conceptual environments built within the white walls of the gallery. His installations emphasize the viewer’s experience and participation over the artist’s hand or the work’s materials. Wheeler highlights space almost entirely through the effects of light, using mainly ultraviolet fluorescent, quartz-halogen, and neon bulbs. In his installations, white paint, diffuse light, minimal forms, and simple designs allow light to shine as the central element of construction. By dematerializing the interior space, Wheeler transforms these rooms into entire abstract worlds that often suggest a vacuum or void.
After beginning his career in the early 1960s as an abstract painter of white canvases, in 1965 Wheeler made an important transitional step that would impact the rest of his oeuvre: he began to encase neon lights in the backs of his paintings. The resulting canvases created the impression that they were glowing with self-contained, inner light. Shortly afterward, he abandoned brush painting and started to make fabricated light paintings, lacquered boxes illuminated from within by neon lights, and light encasements, vacuum-formed plastic squares edged inside with neon tubing. On permanent view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Untitled (Light Encasement) (1968) is hung in a darkened room, making it seem as if the light-rimmed, plastic square floats freely in space. Both the fabricated light paintings and light encasements were presented in white-walled rooms and now suggest an intermediate stage before his later installations, which use light to manipulate architecture and create the perception of entering the void. Works such as SF NM BI SP 2000 (2000) paint the walls with an overwhelmingly bright, white light that dims on a six-minute cycle, producing the illusion of a gradual shift from day to night. Constructed directly into the gallery or museum space, his “infinity environments” (to use the artist’s term), such as SA MI 75 DZ NY 12 (1975/2012), employ a continuous use of steady light.
Wheeler’s first solo exhibition opened at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1968 and was followed by others at the Ace Gallery, Venice, California (1969), and Galerie Schmela, Düsseldorf (1970). His work has been presented in group exhibitions at the Tate Gallery, London (1970); P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS1), New York (1976); Venice Biennale (1976); and Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1986), among others. In 2011–12, Wheeler’s work was included in the Getty Research Institute’s Pacific Standard Time initiative and exhibited in Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. The artist lives and works in Los Angeles and Santa Fe.