New York

Walter de Maria

Heiner Friedrich Gallery

Walter de Maria’s The Broken Kilometer invites questions about rates of exchange, principally because the 500 two-meter-long brass cylinders look like substitutes for gold bricks. The gallery had an aura of Fort Knox, what with dazzling halide lighting illuminating the five rows of perfectly spaced cylinders. The Romans were the first to alloy copper and zinc to make brass, and, not surprisingly, they used the alloy for coins.

Is this highly polished, highly allusive installation part and parcel of the current rage for exhibitions of precious metals (e.g. Scythian gold)? At least one wag predicts next year the Met will sponsor an exhibition called, simply, “The Cash Show.” Granted, brass is not precious, and the diminishing silver content in coins rates our currency as only semi-precious now, too. De Maria’s installation proposes a brass standard to replace the gold, a metric system to replace the yard. Given “sandwich” quarters and the 1980 metric-switchover date, de Maria is ahead of his time. But, as Jean-Luc Godard says, “It’s easy to seem ahead of your time when you’re on time and everyone else is late.”

Brassiness is not a quality that this work could be accused of. There’s something dignified about the orderliness of de Maria’s rows, sober about the hue of the metal, peaceful about all those parallel lines. A farmer’s pride in spacing the rows is evident. The fixed point of view (spectators are not allowed “inside” the installation, they must observe from one end of the piece) is prescriptive and perfect: the viewer faces a tantalizing horizon of seemingly undulating brass cylinders that meld into a radiant vanishing point.

The theatricality of the installation—prescribed point of view and careful lighting—transforms what is essentially minimal sculpture into an epic tableau mort, transforms the minimalist gallery into a luminous, awesome chamber. It’s like being in the face of an altar for some yet unnamed faith.

The durability and weight of these cylinders (they are solid, not hollow, each weighing 75 pounds; scrap brass sells for about 60c a pound, so these conceivably could be scrapped for $45 apiece but are vastly more valuable because of their high polish) makes the installation feel, accordingly, durable and weighty. If this is an altar, then what is the faith? In the high refinement of metal? In our conventions of measurement? In order? It’s no accident that de Maria’s 2-meter-long cylinders remind one of the almost mythical meter bar kept under wraps at the Bureau of Weights and Measures in Sevres, France. De Maria believes in standards, believes in the security of heavy metal; his metal objects have always been a configuration of objectively valuable content in a deceptively simple form. Just like money in the bank.

Carrie Rickey