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Doug Wheeler, an Arizona-born artist who played a major role in the development of light-and-space art, was one of the first people Chrismas called when he moved to Westwood. [Chrismas] was a young, flamboyant guy who wore fringed jackets when we met, recalls Wheeler, whos split his time between L.A. and New Mexico since 1980. At the time I had the impression he was a frustrated artist himself, and when he first approached me he had a space in West Hollywood where I wasnt interested in showing. Doug is persistent, though, and he pursued me, and when he rented the Dwan space he asked me if Id like to show there, and asked me to redesign the gallery to fit my work. Not long after, he started representing me and giving me a monthly stipend.
In the 70s, L.A.s heavy art action was taking place in Venice, so thats where Chrismas had to be. The openings he hosted at the two galleries he operated there between 1970 and 1985 were extraordinary, too. They were mobbed with a glamorous mix of artists, New Yorkers, Europeans, art students, models, writers, film people and wealthy collectors, and the crowds would spill into the streets and fill the surrounding sidewalks. Chrismas was doing important shows then; in 1972 he mounted Robert Irwins critically acclaimed installation Room Angle Light Volume at the first Ace/Venice, which opened at 72 Market Street in 1971. That year Chrismas also invested $9,000 in Robert Smithsons crucial earthwork Spiral Jetty, a 1,500-foot-long, 15-foot-wide spiral form fashioned out of rocks positioned in Great Salt Lake, Utah. Artist Peter Plagens, former art critic for Newsweek and a contributing editor for Artforum, recalls feeling indebted to Ace Gallery when I lived in L.A. in the 60s and 70s, because it provided museum-quality shows of artists like Warhol, Rauschenberg and Heizer when you couldnt see that stuff anyplace else in town.
Dougs a strange bird, though, and while I dont know what the problem is, it seems theres probably something repressed there, adds Plagens, whose 1974 book Sunshine Muse was one of the first attempts at a comprehensive history of West Coast contemporary art. In the early 70s, Doug arranged for a bunch of L.A. artists that included Peter Alexander, Larry Bell and Ron Cooper to speak at a museum in Vancouver, and he flew us all up and picked us up at the airport. When we got to the car, Doug said, You cant put your bags in the trunk theyll have to go up front, because theres something in the trunk. All those guys are wise-asses, so they started getting on Doug about what was in the trunk, and he got visibly upset. After wed ridden for a while in this packed car, we started complaining loudly Come on, Doug, why cant we put our bags in the trunk? Whats in there? Dope? A body? He got vividly angry, like veins bulging at the temple, pulled over on the freeway, and yelled that if we didnt stop asking what was in the trunk we could get out and walk. To this day I dont know what was in the trunk. It was odd.
From the moment Chrismas set up shop, he was known to be a maverick businessman who wouldnt flinch when the stakes got high; he has a taste for brinkmanship thats unusual for someone in his line of work, and seems to enjoy devising new approaches to the traditionally staid business of dealing art. Sometimes his resourcefulness has paid off, but often it has not, and the grumbling about his unorthodox business practices became increasingly audible during his Venice years.
Dougs had a very checkered career, and hes done some awful things in terms of his business ethics, says Davidson. Ive often wondered how hes managed to stay out of jail, and Im very strict with him when we do business. Whenever I see him I say, Its such fun to be having dinner with my favorite art criminal, and he gives me a watery grin, because he knows its true.
While Davidson regards Chrismas with measured warmth, many artists hes represented have stronger feelings about him. Everyone whos shown with Doug has a love/hate relationship with him, says Doug Wheeler. He has a great eye, hell do anything to make a work come off in the best way possible, and he provides conditions for artists most galleries wouldnt even consider. Hes not the most honest guy in the world, though, and by 1971 my relationship with him had become intolerable and I formally left the gallery.