New York

Walter De Maria

Heiner Friedrich Gallery

The fall season opens. No one’s much interested this year; people haven’t even gotten excited about the fall clothes collections, which are relatively more important to New Yorkers. Here and there the fringe elements climb into Punk skins, but it’s a façade of a difference. Things aren’t merely the same as last year, but pretty much the same as ten years ago. All that tautologous art has kept us at A equals A equals A; we haven’t gotten to B yet. One artist doesn’t even bother to paint this time around; just colored construction paper and two or three lines. A friend and I duck into a Soho bar to avoid the rain and the crowds. The sound system sends out Bob Dylan into the dark interior where people sit around with that look: confused, perhaps haunted. The couple next to us judges the comparative merits of Beatlemania versus the real thing. Others nervously anticipate the meanings inherent in the 10th-anniversary revival of Hair.

What the clever artist could do in this context! There is dissatisfaction and nostalgia—the feeling that nothing really big or new can be done, feeling secure and bored with the same old thing. The perfect art strategy, and beautiful: Walter De Maria piles 220,000 pounds of dirt into a gallery, dirt up to the bottom of the windows. He does the same thing (it’s now 10 years old) but he does what few have actually seen. We “know” this piece, this installation, this sculpture, from photographs of it in Germany in the Friedrich Gallery in 1968. This time we are confronted not only with the “real” thing, but with what we “know.” We are the provincial students who only knew the masterpieces from the art history books and were disappointed when confronted with the real thing.

What is the real dirt now? We are comforted, but a little stunned. Its success teeters on a tightrope of questions. Will it work? Will it live up to our expectations? Will it turn out to be another empty gesture? Is it necessary? Have we changed knowing about it, but never seeing it? Were we right about its implications? Do we need to go back to it? Have we gone forward?

It’s still audacious, no doubt about that. The earth stays cool in the gallery. It almost gives off a breeze. The lights are off and the landscape seems to go on forever. (The photograph never had that literalness that actual experience gives you.) You can’t step in. Someone tried and the glass plates which seal the whole thing off separated and dirt spilled out into the nonesthetic space. It upset the purity of conception. The distance is that of landscape painting—of being one step away from entering the space. The thing is very traditional. It looks ancient or prehistoric. I came upon it unexpectedly, and it had a grandeur not unlike memorable natural phenomena. It is something which seems to be sensible, but still extreme, more radical than you could have imagined. (I have to go back to Newman for an analogy—the feeling of simultaneous security and disbelief.) It is important to say that the “conception” is not as good as the perception—the dirt is better than the photographs of it, and the idea is banal next to the execution of it.

Jeff Perrone