Walter de Maria – More than an Earthworks Artist

Walter De Maria was born on October 1, 1935 in Albany California. He studied history and art history at University California, Berkeley. In 1960 he moved to New York. In 1969 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. At an early age Maria was very involved with music, playing for orchestras and jazz bands. In 1963 he co-founded a gallery in Manhattan, New York, having a show of his sculptural work there the same year.

Prior to doing any real research on Walter De Maria, I had always viewed him as an Earthwork artist, one connected with the land and time. I have since come to a different understanding about his notion toward life and the work he produces. I have come to understand that he is not much of an Earthwork artist in the traditional sense at all. By traditional sense I mean one who wants to point viewers towards a connection with the land and an ultimate awareness and protection of our natural resources. Such an awareness as the one referred to in the work by Helen and Newton Harrison. These two artists “promote an ecological awareness through mural sized canvases, photographs, models and other visual material isolating environmental problems and the proposed solutions.” (Auping, Art in the Land, 99). In contrast I propose to present De Maria’s work as not neatly fitting into any single category such as Earthwork, Conceptual or Minimalism. But Rather as an artist “whose integrative approach shows a possible way forward for art production in subsequent years, aimed at a new, integrated experience of self and the world.” (DiamlerChrysler, 2004)

Walter De Maria has been lumped together with the movement titled “Earthwork” since its inception in the early 1960’s. This movement was building in intensity throughout the decade, reaching its zenith in 1969. (Hall, Art in the Land, p8) At this time many of the would-be Earthwork Artists, coming from their various disciplines—painting, sculpture, photography, crossed a common ground. (Hall, Art in the Land, 10) During this period De Maria was assembling his plywood boxes and geometric shapes as well as referencing his music background with the construction of the “Statue” of John Cage. “His work took something of a turn in 1966, however, when he showed Elle, in which a steel ball wobbled down an L-shaped groove.” (Hall, Art in the Land, 17) His work with metal continued into 1968. That year he presented Spike Beds-a grid of steel spikes, foreshadowing his most famous piece, The Lightning Field in New Mexico, 1977. It is at this point I see a divergence with De Maria’s work from that of his contemporaries. Much of their work—Christo, Goldsworthy, Smithson, and Helen and Newton Harrison, focused on the environment, drawing attention to our limited number of natural resources. Much of the work produced by these artists viewed “The land [as] not the setting for the work but a part of the work.” (Artforum New York, 1970) Not to say that De Maria would argue with this statement but it seems his work deals more with the complex issues that come from a zone not accessible to us—the sublime.

Free Shipping on Walter de Maria’s, Thoughts from the Lightning Field

In De Maria’s The Broken Kilometer, a work consisting of 500 highly polished brass rods, we begin to see what I mean by this reference to the sublime. In this piece each brass rod is 2 meters in length and 5 centimeters in diameter. If each one of these rods where placed end to end they would equal a distance of one kilometer. The work is installed with the 500 rods distributed throughout the space in 5 parallel rows of 100. Each row is spaced equally apart side to side. From one end of the space to the other the rods are spaced apart increasingly by 5mm. Nearest the spectator the first rods start out 80 mm apart, the last set of rods are spaced 580 mm apart. This same highly acute awareness to detail is represented in Equal Area Series where in this installation, De Maria presents 25 pairs of Circles and Squares. This time the solid stainless-steel plates–a pair consisting of a circle and a squares, increase incrementally by one inch in a progression away from the spectator. In Both installations De Maria is presenting his work in an increasing scale against “diminishing Perspective.” (Govan, 2004) This scale relationship and sense of perspective hearkens back to the ancient Greeks. Seen specifically in their architecture where no two vertical or horizontal lines run perfectly parallel. The columns found in the construction of the Parthenon, for example, are offset the vertical axis slightly so that their axis will cross in space and not run separated into infinity. The Egyptians had similar notions in their construction of the Pyramids and Sarcophagi. In these constructions it is thought that the alignment of the Pyramids has everything to do with the celestial arrangement directly above each structure. Furthermore, the Pharaoh within this great chamber is thereby directly connected with the afterlife and this notion of the sublime and inaccessible construct outside of our natural awareness. Also, “as defined in large part by eighteenth-century artists and writers concerned with reconciling our human-dimensioned existence with overwhelming qualities in the natural world and the greater universe, the sublime is a function less of scale, grandeur, or even beauty, all of which might be measured or comprehended, than of the transcendent implications of the incomprehensible.” (DiamlerChrysler, 2004)

De Maria’s The Lightning Field, probably points most clearly to this zone inaccessible by the human conscious. “His precise design and measure serve, among other things, to channel the sublime cosmic scale and explosive power of the natural environment into the artwork. (DaimlerChrysler, 2004) To give testament to the exactitude of De Maria’s ethic, a description of this grand installation is necessary.

The work is located in west central New Mexico, 2.195 m above sea level. 18.5 km east of the Continental Divide. Four-hundred custom-made, highly polished stainless-steel poles with solid, pointed tips are arranged in a rectangular grid array. They are spaced 67m apart; there are sixteen poles to the width (1km) running north-south, twenty-five poles to the length (1mi) running east-west. Only after a lightning strike has advanced to an area of about 61m above The Lightning Field can it sense the poles. “The experience of the work directly in nature, the effects of the changing light, the shifting space, heat and the sense of waiting for a specific event (the lightning) heightens the viewer’s sense of scale and time.” (Kastner and Wallis, Land and Environmental Art, p.109) Furthermore The viewing of The Lightning Field is a complicated process. Those seeking to visit the field must propose, in writing, to an office in Quemado, owned and operated by the Dia Center for the Arts. Permission granted, one then checks in with the office surrendering their car and all photo equipment into the hands of those running the office. Finally, $85 paid, it is only a short driven out to the site where the visitor occupies a homesteader’s cabin for a minimum of twenty four hours. The way in which The Lightning Field is viewed is dictated by Maria and Dia Center for the Arts, this alone creates an allure of its own. De Maria’s complex involvement with the sublime is further emphasized by the subtle details inaccessible to the uneducated and average viewer. For example, each measure relevant to the placement of the footings for the steel rods where triple checked for accuracy. “Each pole was cut, within an accuracy of 0.0002 of a centimeters to its own individual length.” (Artforum, April 1970) All poles are parallel and spaced apart to an accuracy of .25 of an inch. If each pole where laid end to end the distance would equal 25 km. The accuracy of the tips to one another form a plane level enough to support an imaginary pane of glass. Because De Maria’s central notion of the work is isolation, it is critical that the work be viewed from the ground, experiencing the sky-ground relationship. Furthermore it is essential that the work be viewed with only a few people. In fact De Maria and Dia have put in place a system forcing the field to be viewed by no more than six people at any one time. This measure and high degree of awareness to detail are central to much of De Maria’s work and reach a pinnacle in The Lightning Field. These notions enforce the idea of sublime and an attempt to connect human experience with the “infinitely expanding celestial universe.” The philosopher Immanuel Kant “described the ‘supersen-sible’ quality of things beyond the grasp of the senses and the imagination as a kind of infinity, which he called ‘the mathematically sublime.’” (DaimlerChrysler, 2004)

It is evident that De Maria shares many qualities with his minimalist, earthwork, and conceptual contemporaries. It is also evident that much of his work transcends any medium or category and provides an experience accessible to both the average and informed spectator alike. His work has stood the test of time as well as his title as artist, due in part because of his complex and overwhelming exactitude with a purpose of subtle disclosure. Finally, my notions (as an artist who uses photography as a tool) towards De Maria’s work has changed in that previously, though I have only experienced his work through catalogs and printed images, I saw his work for the photographs I had experienced. Those photographs have informed my work for years. I now understand De Maria’s work to reach beyond the image or installation and into an experience and a connection with a far greater force than conceivable.

~ John Trefethen


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