Remembering Walter de Maria

Walter de Maria died a few years back, and this post, from my old blog, was my moment of saying goodbye to an artist I loved. I am republishing it here because some things you just want to hold onto.

His life’s work is associated with minimal, conceptual, and land art and is profoundly exploratory: In addition to being a visual artist, he composed music (including Cricket Music, 1964, which was a recording of himself accompanying the sounds of crickets on the drums), produced films (Three Circles and Two Lines in the Desert and Hardcore, both in 1969), and was the drummer in the NewYork rock group with Lou Reed called  The Primitives, as well as an artist/musician in the collaborative group The Druds, which was a precursor to The Velvet Underground. It’s a lively and expansive oeuvre.

His most notable works are Land Art pieces and include The Broken Kilometer (1979), located in NYC and curated by the DIA Center, a the companion piece to Vertical Earth Kilometer (1977) located in Kassel, Germany, Seen/Unseen Known/Unknown (2000) at Naoshima,Kagawa, an island off the southern Japan coast on the Seto Inland Sea, and The Earth Room (1977), my favorite, a serene knee-high pile of dirt that fills the floor of a SoHo loft, which is the third Earth Room sculpture executed by de Maria, the first being in Munich, Germany in 1968, and the second at the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, Germany in 1974. (The first two Earth Room sculptures no longer exist; the third is curated and maintained by the DIA Center).

The Earth Room

The Earth Room is one of those places I have to visit every time I go to New York. For me, it literally brings the outside in and invites contemplation and questions:

Does anything grow here? Are there earthworms? Do they compost it? What do the neighbors think as they walk past it every day? Do they awaken in the middle of the night with the smell of roots and the taste of earth in their souls?

Do they look at their ceilings and feel a desire for land? Or do they just walk by and no longer see it?

Is it just another one of the strange wonders of the city? It also isn’t lost on me that this loft space now represents the absurdly expensive real estate in the heart of Manhattan, a city that has become affordable to only the few. It probably wasn’t so much so when de Maria installed it in the seventies, but what does it say now that such a rarified space is filled with the banished earth?

The Earth Room has a whimsical following in Manhattan. I love that it is there, an elemental oasis, and am amazed by it simplicity every time. I sit with this earth and feel like I am not even in the city.

The blogosphere is filled with first-hand accounts of visiting the Room, and they are all meditative.  It is an ordinary busy street in Manhattan, but when you go up the stairs to view the room, it feels like another world. Bill Dilworth, the keeper of the Earth Room (he waters and rakes the earth every week), sits behind a desk in a little room off to the side, and he’s so quiet you may not even notice him. If you want to talk, he will. Most visitors however are drawn immediately to the black field that lies serenely at the top of the stairs. A low wall prevents visitors from walking on the earth. There is nothing to do there really except gaze, breathe in the smell of the earth, and meditate. It never fails to clear my mind.

A really lovely video profile of Dilworth and his observations, A Loft Filled with Dirt, the Man Who’s Cared for it for 19 Years, was produced by Benjamen Walker and Andrea Silenzi for WNYC Culture and is well worth watching:

The Lightning Field

De Maria’s most famous and dramatic work though, is The Lightning Field (1977). I dream of it, literally, though I haven’t been there yet. I think it has that effect on people. Most art lovers know only through pictures thanks to its extreme out-of-the-way location and strict visitation policy.

It consists of 400 stainless steel posts arranged in a calculated grid over an area of 1 mile × 1 km in a remote corner of New Mexico. De Maria conceived the idea for the project in 1969, commissioned by the Dia Art Foundation, it took eight years to create. One of the many technical challenges was posed by de Maria’s requirement that all the poles must rise to a perfectly level height, despite gentle variations in the essentially flat site. To meet that specification, the 400 poles of the Lightning Field range in length from 16 to 27 feet, rising an average of 20 feet from the ground.  The time of day and weather change the view from within the Field dramatically: At certain times of the day, due to the light conditions, I am told you cannot even see the posts. The Field lights up during thunder storms, which are more likely to happen during July and August.

The name “The Lightning Field” is of course provocative and dramatic, appealing, I think, to one’s elemental sense of awe at the enormity of the universe. Books and websites feature De Maria’s photograph of a dramatic branch of lighting hitting one of the poles, which evokes a place of power and intensity. Lightning! Pow!

In actuality, lightning strikes are fairly uncommon and the Field is very safe and even quiet to walk in. Robert Fosdick, who lived at the site and directed its construction, and Helen Winkler, vice president of the Manhattan-based Dia Art Foundation, which sponsored de Maria and paid the costs of creating the Field both confirm its safety: Each pole is grounded, they point out, and there is no reason to expect bolts of electricity to jump across the 220-foot distance that separates the metal shafts.

The larger concern of the Field for me is much more about monumentality and scale, and the sense of emotion evoked by physically being in such a place. Landscape, nature, light and weather along with the sheer expanse of the space and the time it takes for the viewer to fully encounter it, all work together to create an intense physical and emotional experience.

Isolation, contemplation; the journey the viewer makes and the mystery inherent in the experience are the main point. De Maria was from the start firmly opposed the possibility that the work might be thrown open to hordes of quick-stop curiosity seekers, and selected the location for the Field to make superficial viewing difficult.

Getting there is not trivial– a visit has to be scheduled ahead of time, access is limited, a considerable amount of logistical hoop-jumping is involved in meeting up with the guide and getting to the site, and ultimately you have to be committed enough to seeing it to spend 19 hours with the site.

You must, in short, approach the experience as if you were a pilgrim (many writers have described their visits specifically as a pilgrimage) and experience the scale and expanse of the work over the course of the day, viewing it in different light conditions, with nowhere else to go. In a world geared toward tourism and consumerism, of fast, instant, purchased experiences viewed through tour bus windows or on the internet, the Field is to me a profound monument to the expansive and eternal. Since the Lightning Field was completed in 1977, fewer than 1,000 visitors have come to the site.

Art journalist Todd Gibson writes about his visit to the field in his blog From the Floor:

Actually spending time with The Lightning Field provides an experience that cannot be captured through photographs or descriptions. As the quality of light changes over the day,the work’s character changes.While the sun is high in the sky from mid-day into late afternoon, the poles almost disappear.They don’t throw a shadow, and the harshness of the light washes out poles more than three or four away from where you stand.

But as the sun drops in the sky when evening approaches, the field becomes different. A shadow grows from the base of each pole, giving it additional definition.The more veiled, angled light of evening begins to reflect off the poles, bringing into view the whole mile-long by kilometer-wide field. Watching this happen, it’s as if your vision suddenly sharpens.The field emerges from the landscape in its totality. If you happen to be there on a night that is not overcast and you get a brilliant orange sunset, the effect is stunning. The poles reflect that light, flashing orange, setting the field ablaze with color.

Land art is not about the hubris of the artist who places an object in the landscape in an attempt to draw the eye away from nature. At its greatest, it is about being willing to allow one’s art to be dwarfed by the magnificence of earth. Tyler Green, another journalist who visited the Field and wrote about it for ArtJournal:

The poles are farther apart than I expected.When the sun is high in the sky, between 10 am and 5 pm on June 29, the Field is almost invisible. During those seven hours, I could only see the Field where the aluminum poles stuck up beyond the tops of the surrounding mountains. From there, my mind voluntarily filled in the locations of the other poles, leading my eyes to where they were.

When I looked at the Field, I felt like I should be whispering. So I usually did.

Farewell Walter de Maria. You really were one of the best.