PRINT Summer 1992


At first it seems that everyone’s moving in unison—a slow, hesitating, clockwise ballet around the sun-filled gallery. After a hesitation of my own, I become part of this movement, and variations in the seemingly regular pattern begin to emerge. Someone stops, squatting down for a diagonal view across the space. Another slows in his walk, as though held by an invisible force. At the end of the room a couple are seated, so still as to be almost unseen. As one woman leaves the flow, another couple join it, then suddenly stop, as if surprised, then slowly continue, hand in hand. Clockwise, around and around.

Rarely have I perceived myself, or my fellow visitors, as so much part of a work of art. And rarely have I experienced time so acutely, again as something inseparable from the work. As we move along the sides of this spacious gallery in the Kunsthaus Zurich—a gallery about 75 yards long, and over 20 yards wide the duration of the time through which our bodies move becomes quite tangible.

We are circling Walter De Maria’s 2,000 Sculpture, 1992 (in preparation 1985–91) , a field of 2,000 five-, seven-, and nine-sided polygonal white-plaster rods each exactly half a meter long (about 20 inches). The field is 50 meters long by 10 meters wide—about 55 yards by 11. The rods are arranged in pairs, in a perfect herringbone pattern, and in a steady rhythm of ascent and descent, ascent and descent: five-sided five-sided, seven-sided seven-sided, nine-sided nine-sided, seven-sided seven-sided, five-sided five-sided. And the same again. The skylights, usually painted over, are clear for the first time since the late ’50s, and large sections of the light-diffusing plastic grid next to the ceiling have been removed. The rods’ faceted white-plaster surfaces throw back the sunshine—again steadily, without reflective flash, for a warm, inner intensity that seems to want to lift the whole work off the floor. But The 2,000 Sculpture remains inextricably earthbound, even suggesting the plowed furrows of the fields.

At first I get the impression of something easily surveyable in its regularity, something perfectly self-evident. But the structure’s appearance of simplicity vanishes as soon as I walk a few steps, and I feel a disquieting sense of loss. Crystalline order gives way to a quagmire—the work seems a battlefield of rods all at angles, a sea of meaninglessness. Then, a few steps later, an order reemerges, though a vague one: a diagonal composition of squares. Suddenly my attention is caught by the central part of the field, which is dominated by five-sided rods. From a certain angle they overlap, and some facets are accentuated, others toned down. It is as if I am confronting a maquette for a model city, a rational architectural formation of well-proportioned white houses in an undoubtedly careful plan. Later I realize that the sculpture’s 800 pentagonal rods often stand out from the rest, since their broader sides make their relation to light more dramatic, and since their particular shape makes them seem to be standing on the gray floor, rather than lying on it like the other rods.

Another few steps, or a slight turn of the head, and again I’m plunged into chaos, and then back, euphorically, into order—though a different order from the one I first saw. De Maria’s work proposes not one Order but a vast variety of them, disordered among themselves and without hierarchy. In a sudden burst, straight rows are glimpsed, and dramatic diagonals, stable squares, astonishing additions and progressions, all sweeping across the floor in waves of visual sensuality.

The tense interplay between conceptual simplicity and visual complexity, between the perception of order and of disorder, has reached a new intensity in De Maria’s recent work. In the “5-7-9 Series,” 1992, completed at the same time as the gargantuan 2,000 Sculpture, everything at first seems simple. The dimensions of the individual objects are small enough that we can measure them with our hands, fairly precisely: a foot, twenty inches, two inches. And the arrangement appears uncomplexly classical: in each piece, three stainless steel columns of five, seven, or nine sides each, like the rods in The 2,000 Sculpture—stand on a rectangular black-granite base. De Maria has arranged these columns in every combination possible for a row of three: 6 works have one rod of each kind (this is “The Primary Group”); the 9 works of “The Symmetrical Group” have either three rods of the same kind or two of one kind and one of another, but all symmetrically arranged (nine-five-nine, say); and the 12 works of “The Asymmetrical Group” contain asymmetrical arrangements, such as five-five-seven. This simple mathematical permutation yields 27 variants, installed in three rows of 45 feet each, the works in each row evenly spaced.

Yet disorder is inherent in the very concept. A system in which all the possibilities have been explored can make your head swim. Though we may know that only 27 mathematical variants are represented here, or can be represented here, our eyes say otherwise: the slightest movement and the installation yields a dazzling array of new and complex information. A razor-sharp angle is revealed and then lost again in the glimmering reflections of the steel. A stable diagonal is inexplicably deflected, and facets are now consumed, now multiplied in the play of reflected light. Passing through endless disorder, we glimpse fleeting orders.

But as I look at The 2,000 Sculpture from one end of the room, I have to wonder whether this opposition between order and disorder is real. For the work, obviously, is always the same. Thus it reveals order as a subjective projection, born, perhaps, out of a conventional image of the self. Could the contrast between order and disorder pointed up in The 2,000 Sculpture be part of the system of opposites that grew out of the Enlightenment, when the “natural” had to be invented in order to make it possible to speak of the “artificial,” and when a “primitive” or “blank slate” model of the human had to be constructed in order to enable us to talk about an ordered or “civilized” self? “The mania for ‘identity,’” writes Peter Sloterdijk, “seems to be the deepest of the unconscious programmings, so deeply buried that it evades even attentive reflection for a long time.”1 In De Maria’s work, we are violently hurled back on ourselves, confronted again and again by our desire to make order—our desire for a stable self.

In moving around The 2,000 Sculpture we become part of a drama centering on desire. Time, in Michael Fried’s phrase, becomes “paradigmatically theatrical”—we focus on the duration of the experience, are quickened to the passing of time, and to time’s infinity. We also grow hyperconscious of our own role as viewers, as corporeal subjects, mobile, light sensitive, with interconnected sensory fields. This awareness of one’s role in the work constitutes the Minimalist theatricality that Fried so memorably described.2 It has been a central theme in De Maria’s work since the early ’60s; we find it clearly formulated as early as Art Yard, an unrealized project from 1960.3

“Two Very Large Presentations,” the De Maria exhibition I curated at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, in 1989, borrowed an idea from Art Yard: visitors to the show had to wear special clothes. Before viewing 360° I Ching, 1981, the second of the two “presentations” (the word “presentation” reinforcing the theatrical dimension of the work), they came to a long mahogany counter behind which hung hundreds of white-cotton smocks. (Lab coats? Painters’ smocks? “Exhibition” smocks?) A gracious host or hostess offered them a garment of the right size (there were even children’s sizes); as in The 2,000 Sculpture, they then walked around the work in an open corridor along the sides of the room. The feeling of contributing to a choreography, an unequivocal part of The 2,000 Sculpture, was underlined by their white clothing.

The first presentation too stressed viewer participation. Besides the fastidious selection of De Maria works from 1965 to 1988 arranged in the gallery, a painting by El Greco, The Apostles Peter and Paul, ca. 1605-1608, hung on one of the end walls, which was painted British Racing Green. On the wall opposite it you could see from a distance a large V, which from close up was revealed as the first letter of a text that continued, in much smaller print, “enus Cyteria. Jan Massys (1561), Kabinett 311, Nationalmuseum.” To complete the experience, then, you had to visit Stockholm’s Nationalmuseum, find Room 311, and see Massys’ Venus Cyteria. You were rewarded with a remarkable painting, and perhaps a hint as to how De Maria perceives his own work: a combination of the lusty materialism of Massys and the unsentimental spirituality of El Greco.

The 2,000 Sculpture has been in preparation since 1985, which may mean nothing more than that De Maria has been working on it for seven years. But as I move around the sculpture, watching how its character changes with the dusk—all artificial light has been removed—and noticing how long I have been in the room, and the time other visitors are spending there (rarely less than twenty minutes, many as much as a couple of hours), I am struck by a connection: between the time the artist gave the work and the time spent on it by the viewer. The thought perhaps seems banal, an intellectual cliché emerging from the ’90s hangover that closed the boisterous ’80s. Still, there may be something to it. For one’s response to the piece clearly has something to do with the care and fine tuning that have gone into it. De Maria’s art always seems laden with energy, exerting a magnetic pull on the viewer. I believe it is simply his way of working that is responsible for this attraction: the endless series of experiments with materials, mock-ups, test installations, and reconsiderations on the way to the final result. It is the fact that the works have had time to age in the studio, in a climate of total thought, that gives them their final charge. De Maria’s perspective is not short. He seems to see time as a positive force, and this may encourage us if we consider that the title of The 2,000 Sculpture may refer not only to the number of elements in the piece but to our way of reckoning time to the psychologically charged turn of the millennium. Is this work a bridge, an energized arc, into the 21st century?

Lars Nittve is the director of the Rooseum, Malmö.

1. Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, trans. Michael Eldred, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, p. 73.

2. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum V no. 10. June 1967, pp. 12–23.

3. See Jackson MacLow and LaMonte Young. eds., An Anthology, New York: IT Friedrich, 1963.