Walter de Maria
American Sculptor and Conceptual Artist
Born: October 1, 1935 - Albany, CA
Died: July 25, 2013 - Los Angeles, CA
"I think to be a true minimalist you should almost nearly be invisible yourself."
Walter de Maria bridged multiple movements of artistic practice that blossomed in the 1960s creating interactive sculptural installations and providing conceptual underpinnings to larger-scale sculptural work. In later projects he also connected viewers to nature by either embedding visual elements in nature itself, or by bringing components of nature inside gallery spaces. His most ambitious works were not only physically large-scale but also extreme in terms of exhibition duration - some lasting decades, whether indoors or out, conversely some were exceptionally ephemeral because they were exposed to the elements. His active participation in non-visual musical performances were similarly minimalist and large-scale and helped lay the foundations for later generations of musical performers using those characteristics.
Most Important Art
Walter de Maria Artworks in Focus:
Mile Long Drawing (1968)
This work consisted of two parallel lines drawn with chalk twelve feet apart, extending for one mile in the Mojave Desert in California. It was a simple and temporary piece, and one of the first of de Maria's works associated with the Land art movement, moving beyond the boundaries of gallery-based art as he brought a minimalist ideology outdoors into the landscape. The two dramatic lines focus attention on the characteristics of order, space, time, and measurement, and through this, de Maria began to explore some of the ways that people categorize nature along with the human impulse to make marks in the external world, possibly pointing to the ancient Inca Nazca Lines.Read More ...
The work also calls attention to the ephemerality of time, as its marks faded with the effects of the natural world. This ephemerality asks viewers to meditate on the reality of their lives as well, where change is constant and nothing remains intact forever. As the Mile Long Drawing disappears into its desert landscape it reflects upon time and memory. It becomes a living artwork revealing multiple meanings as its visual aspects change.
Childhood and Education
Walter de Maria was born in Albany, California, just across the bay from San Francisco. His parents owned a local restaurant and were socially active in the community, but their son was shy and focused on music as an early creative outlet. He learned to play the piano initially, and then moved on to perform on percussion instruments. He was also fond of cars and sports, which were among the first subjects for his drawings
He took his creative hobbies seriously and by the age of sixteen had joined a musicians' union. He attended college at the University of California at Berkeley where in 1957 he graduated with a BFA and in 1959 obtained his MFA. During his time at school he focused on history and then painting, while continuing to play jazz music, sometimes performing with his painting professor David Park. De Maria was involved in the burgeoning avant-garde arts scene in the San Francisco Bay Area. He got involved in "happenings" as well as musical and theatrical productions and began to explore three-dimensional art . His friendships with the composer La Monte Young and choreographer Simone Forti were key influences in this period of his life, pointing him towards both Minimalism on a grand scale and interactive sculpture as genres of artistic pursuit, as well as a conceptual starting point for all forms of more material creative outcomes.
In 1960 de Maria moved to New York City and delved into the downtown arts scene. There he continued to play a part in "happenings", helping to operate a gallery space with Robert Whitman on Great Jones Street for events and exhibitions, as well as starting to create his own 3-D sculptural works from wood. He made viewer-interactive pieces that were inspired by Dada and imbued with both minimalist and conceptual tendencies. One piece, Boxes for Meaningless Work (1961) asked for viewers to "Transfer things from one box to the next box back and forth, back and forth, etc." while being advised to "Be aware that what you are doing is meaningless." In 1960 he also married Susanne Wilson (who later called herself Susanna), after traveling to New York City together. The couple later divorced. Working as a clothing designer in New York City, Susanne also introduced de Maria to the eccentric artist Joseph Cornell, whose boxes of found, collaged elements were resonant with some of de Maria's own early, highly crafted, smaller-scale sculptural work before moving on to working in metal.
De Maria's longtime involvement with music continued during his early career. He composed two musical works himself titled Cricket Music (1964) and Ocean Music (1968), and played music in jazz and rock bands around New York City. In 1965 he joined the band The Primitives, which became the foundation for The Velvet Underground, the avant-rock group championed by Andy Warhol, icon of Pop art and which featured the musicians John Cale and Lou Reed. De Maria was also a part of an artist/musician collaborative group called The Druds, but avoided public recognition and celebrity. He rarely gave interviews and he tried not to be photographed.
By the late 1960s de Maria was beginning to become involved in the emerging Land Art movement. He continued working within Minimalist and Conceptualist structures, and was recommended for the Dwan gallery by fellow Minimalist and Conceptualist artists like Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre, but he started to also engage with aspects of nature. He filled the Galeria Heiner Friedrich in Munich with dirt in 1968 and that same year made Mile Long Drawing in the Mojave Desert.His relationship with Heiner Friedrich was an important one. The German art dealer became the founding director of the Dia Art Foundation in the United States, which funded four of de Maria's most important site-specific Earthwork installations in the 1970s: The Lightning Field, Vertical Earth Kilometer, Earth Room, and The Broken Kilometer.
De Maria had numerous solo exhibitions and created permanent sculptures that can be found around the world, from Paris to Munich, but a lot of his work remains as elusive as he was. Not much information about his personal life exists, and it seems de Maria wanted it that way. Still his importance was recognized by many in the artworld, he was described, for instance, by Michael Govan, the Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as, "one of the greatest artists of our time." De Maria went to California to visit his mother on her 100th birthday in the year 2013. Only a few days later he suffered a stroke. He remained there for treatment but died soon after in his sleep at the age of 77.
De Maria strongly influencedhis peers and later generations of artists who thought to work on ambitious scales, both in terms of physical dimensions and time duration - essentially expanding the scope of the Minimalist canvas. Moving beyond public sculptures that were installed in built, urban environments, de Maria helped establish Earthworks and Land Art as important modes of creative practice for contemporary art, not simply calling attention to the environment, but physically placing viewers and immersing them in it - the vast expanse of desert terrain being a particular favorite. De Maria, along with some of his peers, helped initiate the notion of art-interested viewers trekking not only to a particular museum location to view collections of art, but also to more unusual sites where singular works are located.
Influences and Connections
Artists, Friends, Movements
Artists, Friends, Movements
Useful Resources on Walter de Maria
| Walter De Maria: Trilogies (Menil Collection) |
By Joseph Helfenstein, Clare Elliot
| The Lightning Field (Dia Foundation) |
By Kenneth Baker, Lydia Cooke
| Art of Perceptual Experience: Pure Abstraction and Alternative Minimalism |
| Walter de Maria (ArtSpace) |
| Oral History Interview with Walter De Maria |
Archives of American Art
| Land Art: Earthworks that Defined Postwar American Art |
By Dana Micucci, Art Antiques
| Under The Radar: The Broken Kilometer, Grand Life || Walter De Maria, Artist on Grand Scale, Dies at 77 |
By Roberta Smith
| Walter De Maria's Grand and Gritty Home |
By Robin Finn
| ALONE IN A CROWD: THE SOLITUDE OF WALTER DE MARIA'S NEW YORK EARTH ROOM AND BROKEN KILOMETER |
By Jeffrey Kastner