Walter De Maria

Museum Boymans-Van Beuningen

The opening comment by Wim Beeren, director of the museum, in the catalogue accompanying this show of Walter De Maria’s sculpture and drawings is his most interesting one. “Looking at the work of Walter De Maria, one has the feeling that the artist is absent. Today the monumentality of his works has an impact which does not imply an individual, but which compels us to look at them by the sheer virtue of their presence. This is how we look at ancient monuments which have been preserved and whose makers we shall never know.” Although the publicity around this exhibition emphasized De Maria’s name at the expense of all other information, Beeren’s remark was not without relevance. The steel rods that make up the principal work here, A Computer Which Will Solve Every Problem in the World/3-12 Polygon, 1984, lay timeless and untouchable, almost as impressive as the Thracian gold treasures that were the preceding exhibition in this space.

Yet at the same time, the piece is so imperious and self-assured that it was immediately clear that Beeren had told only half the truth. And even if De Maria could be said to be absent, such a work as this evokes the presence not only of an artist but also of a patron, whether institution or private owner. It’s true that we sometimes admire ancient monuments "whose makers we shall never know’ but we also remember the figures in whose names the monuments were made, and this show memorialized Beeren, the museum, and De Marias patron, the Dia Art Foundation. Moreover, if De Maria’s presence is invisible in his work, the reticence and silence over his process is surely unnecessary. The ritualistic, almost priestly atmosphere surrounding him and other artists connected with Dia has never made sense to me.

These considerations should not obscure the fact that A Computer . . . is esthetically an interesting piece. A roughly triangular arrangement of rows of parallel steel rods or bars lie on a silver-colored floor, lit both by natural daylight and by lamps specifically designed to spread their light evenly. The rods are polygonal, their number of sides increasing from three to twelve as the rows progress. The spaces between them are uniform within each row but not from row to row, so that the work seems distorted in unpredictable variations from some angles, and clear, straight, and open from others. Perhaps it was this almost playful property of the structure that brought De Maria to give the piece its ironic title. A Computer . . . has less to do with modern technology than with the I Ching, and in this it relates back to an earlier work relating to the Chinese oracle, 360°/ Ching/64 Sculptures, 1981; it lacks the strength of The Lightning Field, 1977, or Broken Kilometer, 1979, but it marks a logical step in De Maria’s art.

Paul Groot

Translated from the Dutch by Carolien Stikker.