Walter De Maria

For Walter De Maria, a work of art expresses the idea of realizing the absolute. There is also a global and historical aspect to De Maria’s art, which could previously be seen in his unrealized project Olympic Earth Sculpture, 1971, planned for Munich; it appears again in the two sculptures that De Maria created especially for this exhibition. (Eleven Part Circle of the Large Rod Series, 1986, was also included here, but had been exhibited elsewhere.)

The first, The Beginning and End of Infinity/The 25-Meter Rod, 1987, looked precious and auratic in the dim light of the gallery. This work consists of a solid brass rod, about 6 inches in diameter, resting on a 40-inch-high, white pedestal; the rod is actually composed of 50 sections, each a half meter long (about 20 inches). Its golden surface seemed to glow. In light of the pure spiritual beauty of this form, the paradox of the title loses its terrifying quality. The carefully wrought, sublime form can be seen as the dramatic materialization of an idea, akin to Barnett Newman’s concept of absolute emotion. De Maria addresses the viewer both emotionally and intellectually. As one’s eyes take in the 25-meter-long rod from its beginning to its end, the form suddenly corresponds to the idea expressed in the title, and the paradox disappears in that instant of sensual recognition. Through this “dynamic of viewing,” to use Rudolf Arnheim’s phrase, one experiences infinity (a moment of eternity) as something that really exists and yet something that is unimaginable within the realm of human knowledge. This has ultimately to do with experiencing oneself in two senses: in terms of one’s own identity and as a part of the infinite continuity of space and time.

De Maria also evokes this concept of eternity in the glistening white sea of rocks of his 5 Continent Sculpture, 1987. Here, it is expressed in the context of our earth, or nature, with quartz and white marble rising 30 inches high over most of the floor area of this former classical sculpture gallery and engulfing the plinths of five pairs of black-marble columns. Contained within a low rectangular structure, the white rocks fill the room except for a pathway around all four sides. The shimmering light of this blindingly pure field of stone looks as if it had been brushed on by a breeze, at once pink, green, pure white, sparkling, opaque, and of almost ethereal effect. Or geologically seen, it is 325 tons of stone of different ages, sizes, and origins (Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South America), chosen by the artist together with a geologist and Thomas Kellein, the exhibition organizer, especially for this global sculpture. It is a monumental work, as De Maria called the Olympic Earth Sculpture, but one “that does not scream the word ‘monument’ at us.” Nevertheless it is still a monument, but one that does not symbolize but represents a particular meaning.

As Kellein quotes De Maria, the work “expresses in a simple and unpretentious way the unity of the earth, including its spatial and temporal distance.” Here, just as in his DIA Foundation works Earth Room, 1977, Broken Kilometer, 1979, and Lightning Field, 1971–77, De Maria has produced abstract, untouchable images: monuments, as it were, but by no means “signs of power,” as Kellein maintains in the catalogue. In apparently infinitely empty rooms, these monuments suggest transcendental experiences, yet these experiences do not assert any content. The works thus focus on a moment of painful truth (through the experience of the limits of knowledge and the unattainability of the absolute) and on a moment of longing (transcending these limits). This dialectical tension produces the works’ overwhelming effect.

Ingrid Rein

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.