Doug Wheeler in the desert

"I've always tried to do stuff that has an effect on you that you never forget the first time."  

-Doug Wheeler

Doug Wheeler in the Painted Desert, Arizona, ca. 1970
Courtesy the artist
© Doug Wheeler
Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation

In the early 60s, when Doug Wheeler was a student at Chouinard Art Institute he wanted to be an illustrator and became skilled as a draftsman.  His breakthrough as a painter occurred in 1962 and when he adopted a crisp and pristine aesthetic.  The practice of white-field paintings gradually led Wheeler to produce works that encompass immersive and environmental experiences using light and sound.  

Wheeler's PSAD Synthetic Desert III, 1970 took more than forty years to realize, is now open to visitors at the Guggenheim until August 2. 

Doug Wheeler
PSAD Synthetic Desert III, 1971 (Realized in 2017)
Reinforced fiberglass, anechoic absorbers, neon, sound equipment
Room: 5.8 x 17.2 x 8.1 in
Installation view, S.R.G. March 24 - August 2, 2017
©Doug Wheeler, 2017
Photo: David Heald
Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Panza Collection

Doug Wheeler
PSAD Synthetic Desert III, 1971 (detail)
Ink on paper, 61.1 x 91.4 cm
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Panza Collection, Gift, 1991
© Doug Wheeler

Unlike his environmental light installations, PSAD Synthetic Desert III engages the auditory perception rather than the faculty of seeing.  Designed as a place for solitary meditation, the museum allows five visitors inside the anechoic chamber at a time.  Before entering the space, one must get through two solid doors that serve to filter out the noise from outside. 

The room inside is illuminated by a soft magenta lighting, its gradation mimics a stretch of infinite horizon during sunrise and sunset.  All around, there are square pyramids made of a kind of styrofoam making one feels like arriving on an unearthly planet.  A strip of passage way leads onto a platform on which allows you to sit and mediate.

While quietly observing, a faint noise permeates the space like the "sound" of silence amid a vast natural landscape in the middle of nowhere.  Wheeler's installation de-accelerates physical movements of the body exteriorly and interiorly calms it down.  Listening carefully, a non-descriptive low pitched humming fading in and out.  

Doug Wheeler
Synthetic Desert Sound Map, 1971
Ink & colored pencil on drafting film
33 x 28 in
Working drawing fro Mapping Sound Program in PSAD Synthetic Desert III, 1968
© Doug Wheeler
Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation

Since Wheeler abandoned painting in the 1960s, he has focused on fabricating works that obliterate the physical appearance of the art object.  For PSAD Synthetic Desert III, he aimed to translate his feelings in the desert.  Growing up in Arizona, he enjoyed the profound silence of nature in wide open spaces.  His father was a doctor who piloted his own plane for visiting patience, and the experience of flying left a lasting impression on the artist. His Synthetic Desert Sound Map, 1971 presents an arial view of the installation.  The circular shapes on the sketch reminds one of airplane speedometers,  and the red swirling lines are like markers for orbital planes (as in geometrical planes).  

The current installation at the Guggenheim can be thought of as Wheeler sharing his experience in the desert with his visitors. His work guides them to find the essence and meaning by de-accelerating from the speed of everyday life, to be still and to meditate. In this sense, PSAD Synthetic Desert III is an individual experience. What I like about this work is its elusiveness and it prompts one to resist the urge to seek for the material and to accept the immaterial as the true being of self.  


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