PRINT January 1967

Walter de Maria: Word and Thing

CORDIER & EKSTROM RECENTLY SHOWED THE WORK of Walter de Maria, a young American artist who works entirely with the duality of objects and their verbal formulation, or, another way, with the vertiginous mystery that separates the word and the thing itself. A case in point is a series of “drawings” (in that they are pencil on paper) consisting of six framed sheets of identical size, each containing one word, block lettered (with serifs) in the middle. The words are: TREES SKY RIVER FIELD MOUNTAIN SUN. Finding only these words where we expect to see a picture is the catalytic experience by which De Maria wishes to topple us into a brief associative and imaginative reverie; naturally, in front of TREES for instance, we begin to dream up a landscape of a certain size (the paper size), probably in pencil, and with other particulars according to our fancy. This process is abruptly halted and the fantasy annihilated by our noticing that right in the middle of the sheet, where we were contentedly sketching some tousled chestnuts in the manner of Harpignies, some ninny has faintly but determinedly written TREES. How could he?!? Well, there you are.

De Maria’s objects are reductive in form and Duchampian in concept. High Energy Bar is a chrome steel bar ten or twelve inches long and about an inch and a half in section, inscribed with the title given. It is accompanied by a floridly engraved certificate affirming that this object is indeed a High Energy Bar (like a Hershey bar?). The historical parallel should be patent to even the littlest Scull.

Other pieces are more original. 4 - 6 - 8 consists (?) of eighteen sets of three vertically mounted shiny aluminum bars. Each set contains one bar that is square in section, one that is hexagonal, and one that is octagonal. Each set of three appears to have these forms in a different sequence, which is of course not true. Presumably there are eighteen such sets because 4 + 6 + 8 = 18. One can’t think why else.

Chair is a rectangular black plastic and metal-frame chair set atop a black wood pyramidal form (stepped on three sides) that is reminiscent of Maya pyramid structures at Uxmal. The whole is seen against a background panel, which gives it an hieratic dignity and idol-like eminence. How much of this is due to the severe design of the chair is difficult to say.

Face is a vertical steel shaft, about four inches square in section, which has been terminated by a forty-five degree angle cut. This section is polished, and so when you look at it––yep, that’s what you see, all right.

All this sounds pretty silly, and so would additional description of the pieces. The work itself doesn’t really look silly. It really looks very clean, shiny, carefully made, elegant in proportion, rich in material and important. Whether it is in fact important depends on how much weight is given to that strange phenomenon, the inexplicable arbitrariness of language, and whether one feels that this existential situation is of equal or greater significance than the infinite universe of things it is possible to frame and illuminate (including the existential difficulty itself) with language, arbitrarily denotative as it is. One need not loiter too long on the edges of this philosophical morass; things may be framed and illuminated without recourse to denotative systems of communication too, and it is within this perceptual aspect of being that all artistic accomplishment essentially exists and will ever be measured.

––Dennis Adrian