7.28.17 — No One Can Hear You

In space, no one can hear you quote art theory. I am not so sure about in the Guggenheim, but Doug Wheeler would just as soon not hear.

Wheeler packs a tower gallery with more than four hundred slim pyramids of the silencing foam used in recording studios, as PSAD Synthetic Desert III, through August 2. Still more spikes line a wall, pushing you out and onto a platform overlooking the array. If you fall, you can guarantee a soft landing. If you do not, you can hope for quiet. He would like nothing more. Doug Wheeler's PSAD Synthetic Desert III (Guggenheim Museum, 1971/2017)

He calls it a semi-anechoic chamber, meaning free of echoes. Conceived in 1971, it has taken shape for the very first time. To enter, one must silence one’s cell phone and pass three distinct doors. More foam takes the shape of airfoils but with triangular cross-sections, on the entrance and far wall. The remaining wall has nothing but a purplish light. It casts visitors into brightness and the corner pyramids into shade. Anything in-between takes on extra dimensions.

As long ago as the 1960s, Wheeler used white paintings to fuse art with the walls and the room with art. By the next decade, he was working with only the room—as a locus of light, space, and sound. On his last appearance in New York, in 2012, the lighting in a bare white room changed ever so gradually. In place of fine art or industrial materials, it offered an alternative to the course of nature. It was Minimalism without the art object or the rules. It built on Minimalism’s attention to the space around the viewer, but with the added dimensions of time and the space within the mind.

Synthetic Desert, too, alludes to nature, only starting with its title. It draws on Wheeler’s experience of the northern Arizona desert. Like all his work, it links him to Light and Space, the West Coast movement—but it is not quite so serene as it sounds. It contains plenty of objects, and they point directly at you. They also present a spectacle not so very far from that of another popular artist, Yayoi Kusama. Like her work, too, they belong to a chamber within the larger and more crowded spectacle of the museum.

The room admits just five visitors every quarter of an hour, a tiny fraction of museum-goers. You can take your chances at the ticket counter or online, but either way you are in for disappointment or a wait. You might use the time remembering Kusama’s mob scene in Washington, merging with tourists in the Frank Lloyd Wright building, or lining up for yet another spectacle—the solid gold toilet by Maurizio Cattelan. Those who arrive late for their time are out of luck, and I shared the room with just two others and an attendant. I felt privileged. I could think of Wheeler’s raised platform as a runway, with me as an unlikely fashion model.

While I explored more restlessly than Wheeler would approve, another visitor sat still, and the third lay down, either rapt or nodding off. Unlike an ordinary guard, the attendant got to sit with his legs spread, too. I marveled, but I still felt that I had entered less a theater of the mind than a public theater. Is this desert transcendent or boring, comforting or threatening, natural or synthetic? Does PSAD stand for post-synthetic art disorder? When you find your answer, try not to scream.

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