PRINT November 2013


Walter De Maria

Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977, Quemado, New Mexico. Photo: John Cliett.

MYTHS THRIVE on an absence of information. It would be unfair to say that Walter De Maria was given to self-mythologizing, but he was an elusive, at times even evasive, figure. He has certainly been the least visible public personality among his contemporaries. Does this partly account for the peculiar fact that,despite its obvious significance—and its inclusion in such landmark exhibitions as “Primary Structures” at New York’s Jewish Museum in 1966 and “When Attitudes Become Form” at Kunsthalle Bern in 1969—his art can almost be described as obscure? Given that certain works by De Maria are nonetheless fixed in the popular imagination, one may conclude that his reticence has only heightened the cultish stature of his historical identity.

An overview of De Maria’s career reveals a seeming disconnect: Two different artists appear to be in play. The work for which he is best known—to the broader public, at the very least—takes the form of large indoor installations and Land art projects. The most celebrated example is surely The Lightning Field, 1977, which consists of four hundred erect steel poles planted into a desert plateau in New Mexico, forming a vast grid measuring one kilometer wide by one mile long. De Maria’s early practice, however, reflects his close association with the Fluxus movement and La Monte Young. Work of that period—the late 1950s and early ’60s, during which time he moved from San Francisco (where he lived after attending Berkeley) to New York—largely consists of constructed boxes and various gamelike objects (as well as drawings and texts). Some were interactive, representing or instigating repetitive actions. One group of sculptures was called Boxes for Meaningless Work, 1960–61.

The early objects deploy various modalities of boredom and chance as alternatives to the focused attention associated with conventional aesthetic practice and the fetishization of craft. Music is one link between the early and later work: De Maria was a trained percussionist and spent some time in the early ’60s performing in Young’s circle (notably, with the Primitives, an early incarnation of the Velvet Underground), and he was turned around by Young’s monolithic approach to amplified sound, which De Maria referred to as “static” (a term he also applied to his boxes). The trancelike state of attention—the boredom—implied by repetition and drone was a significant model for the quasi-infinite spatial implications of his approach to Land art.

The later indoor installations, often consisting of long rows of polished steel elements that one must look at from the perimeter, are exquisite. Yet their vast dimensions (and equally vast ambitiousness—they are often based on complex computational schemes, some taking recourse to the I Ching, for example) can make them seem extravagant and adrift. In form they descend from The Lightning Field, but that work is otherwise their opposite: a perfectly modulated exercise in space and scale that we behold from both without and within. Expansive but wholly unimposing, The Lightning Field mostly consists of empty space. The polished poles have reflective surfaces, and they can be brought to the brink of invisibility by changing conditions of weather and light. Like coordinates on a perspectival grid, they map the plateau, yet when one walks among them, the grid dissolves.

The Lightning Field may conjure the sublime, but it skirts the inflated rhetoric that plagues the sometimes hubristic monuments of Land art. Its quality of being barely there can be ascribed to a good deal of De Maria’s early Land work: the fugitive Mile Long Drawing, 1968, for example, two parallel half-mile-long chalk lines in the Mojave Desert, spaced twelve feet apart, and the Vertical Earth Kilometer in Kassel, produced for Documenta 6 in 1977, a kilometer-long brass rod vertically sunk into the earth in such a way that only one flat end remains exposed to view. In 1963, De Maria made a series of spare “invisible drawings” (so faint they are difficult to see). Describing them to an interviewer in 1972, he added, “the whole notion of invisibility has become more and more important to me.” In his statement about The Lightning Field published in these pages in 1980, he wrote: “The invisible is real.”

Appropriately, then, De Maria himself at times seemed to disappear. Now that he is gone, we will miss him; but in a different sense, we’ve been missing him all along. At its best, De Maria’s work, functioning primarily as a kind of intervention, is antimonumental. Boredom and “meaningless work” turn out, then, to have been essential factors, motivating what can be called a strategic absence. That is, with certain projects, De Maria divests the work of complex or programmatic claims and even of obvious authorship (“I think to be a true Minimalist,” he also said in 1972, “you should almost nearly be invisible yourself”). This, in turn—following the logic of myth—invites a flood of associations, including big existential ones, for which the blankness finally seems like a necessary condition or ground. De Maria had little use for historical and exegetical accounts of his work and even tried to block efforts of this kind (at some projects, for instance, photography is prohibited): It was the possibility of an unmediated encounter that he wanted to preserve. As utopian as that idea might seem, De Maria was determined to make the work available in the present tense.

At The New York Earth Room, 1977, a permanent installation in a SoHo loft space, the present tense weighs heavily: The work’s 250 cubic yards of earth tip the scales at 280,000 pounds. This is the third iteration of a concept that the artist first brought to fruition at Heiner Friedrich’s gallery in Munich in 1968. (In 1974, Friedrich and Philippa de Menil would establish the Dia Art Foundation, which commissioned and to this day maintains the Earth Room, at 141 Wooster Street.) The exposed ingenuousness of the work’s fabrication makes its realization—the partial filling of the space with earth—forever appear to have just occurred. Thanks to a mere act of displacement, intimations of embodiment pervade the Earth Room’s still-startling means: volume and mass; scatter and containment; extension, compression, measure; plenum and void. In this way, the present is gradually supplanted in our imagination by the future and the past. The Earth Room is sly, solemn, and exhilarating; it is also grave.

Jeffrey Weiss is Senior Curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and an Adjunct Professor of fine arts at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.