Walter de Maria
American Sculptor and Conceptual Artist
Los Angeles, CA
Summary of Walter de Maria
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.
- As an early proponent of Minimalism, de Maria invested heavily in unusually stripped down, fundamental visual forms including everything from simple, yet bold lines to other abstract geometric shapes - channeling his study of the Eastern philosophical emphasis on simplicity.
- Perhaps most significantly, he developed a conceptual approach to earth-based works that both used the landscape as immersive "canvas" in what were exceptionally large-scale projects for his time, and also brought aspects of nature inside to force attention on the viewers' relationship to it in insistent ways that transcended previous representations by other artists.
- He was also influential on generations of the musical avant-garde, drawing on his studies in jazz and leanings toward a stripped down aesthetic to perform and develop intensely minimalist and conceptualist approaches to making sound which influenced composers and performers from La Monte Young to Sonic Youth.
Progression of Art
Mile Long Drawing
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.
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.
Triangle, Circle, Square
This work consists of three brushed stainless steel sculptures, each approximately 3 feet (1 meter) inwidth and length. The simple geometric forms demonstrate de Maria's earlier interests in minimalist sculptures, and his more conceptually-oriented inspiration fromZen Buddhist thinking. Asian influence was large during the 1960's in American art, as artists sought to transform human consciousness through a religious-like contemplation present in Asian philosophies. The Zen influence permeated the arts scene in many ways with notions of simplicity, sensitivity to nature, and a leaning towards intuition over rationalist knowledge. This particular piece was inspired by the work of a Japanese Zen monk named Sengai Gibon (1750-1837) and his painting Circle, Triangle, and Square in which he attempted to decidedly embody the universe. These three forms have been interpreted as geometries that represent infinity. They are interactive works and are a part of a game experience. They have hollow interiors with metal spheres within and come with instructions that the pieces are, "to disturb the purity of the symbol." This work also represents his involvement in the participatory "happenings" of the 1950's and his interest in task-like projects that were audience-interactive and game-like, proposing an approach to art-viewing that shifted from passive viewer experiences to more socially engaged encounters.
The Lightning Field
This may be De Maria's most famous work. It is an expansive installation of 400 stainless steel poles placed in a one-mile by one-kilometer grid. The rods are each two inches in diameter but extend upwards at varying heights ranging from 15 feet to 26 feet nine inches, in order to create a perfectly horizontal plane where their pointed tips stop.
This work is a significant piece of the Land art movement of the late 1960's, which began in the Southwestern United States. This piece lives in an obscure desert plain near Quemado, New Mexico, specially selected for its frequent lightning storms and isolation. The work incorporates the natural environment into art in a meaningful way, seeing the land as a critical aspect of the work, not merely a site for it. The locale was scouted precisely for its distance from other signs of human development and its ability to reflect the enormity of the landscape. The work communicates a variety of experiences of being in the landscape, and simultaneously asks individual visitors to meditate on the moment, while contemplating shifts in light and perceptions of time and space in their changing vastness.
The poles were placed outside, rather than in a museum or gallery so the work reveals the significance of the setting, beyond the built, sculptural aspect. The title calls attention to the tantalizing possibility of highly ephemeral illumination from irregularly occurring natural lighting strikes, potentially drawn down from the sky into the field by the rods. It also calls for awareness of the surrounding landscape, and the relationship between art and nature. The earth is an integral part of the artwork and acts as a canvas while also drawing attention to the sky as part of the larger environment, and our relationship to it. Visitors must travel to this remote location in order to view the work, therefore incorporating the journey away from the everyday as part of the experience of the piece, which initiates a total immersion of the senses while creating an unusual degree of intimate encounter with a liberating spirit.
The New York Earth Room
The New York Earth Room is both an art installation and an earth sculpture re-located in an interior setting. It consists of three connected gallery rooms in a loft at 141 Wooster St. in New York City, which are filled with 250 cubic yards of soil. This work is one example of De Maria's approach to Land art, while also demonstrating his investment in minimalistic and conceptual art practices. The dirt covers 3,600 square feet of floor space, with a depth of 22 inches, and a weight of 280,000 pounds. Upon entering the gallery one can smell the musty earth, and sense the warm humidity of the air. By placing something so simple and commonplace into a gallery setting, De Maria pushed the boundaries of what art can consist of. He highlighted the natural world while implying a critique of the usual material practices and values of the art world. This work, associated with the Land art movement, was rare in bringing parts of the natural environment into the art world instead of putting art into the environment. Through the familiar gallery lens, visitors are invited to reconsider their associations with the Earth. The space becomes a frame that prompts introspection regarding one's relationship to nature. This concept works especially well in in the very urban setting of New York City, proposing dirt as more valuable than it is often seen as or understood to be. It also challenges the typical experience of interacting with earth and soil, repurposing meanings of what both art and what nature might be. The dark brown soil remains watered by longtime caretaker Bill Dilworth, whose attention has allowed for the experience to continue for over thirty years from its inception.
Vertical Earth Kilometer
This work is a one kilometer long solid brass rod that is five centimeters in diameter. The rod has been inserted completely into the ground in a city park in Kassel, Germany, so that the top of the rod is flush with the surface of the earth. Thus the piece primarily exists beneath the surface of the earth, and viewers can only see the very top of the work. The top is flat and circular and is surrounded by a red sandstone plate that is two meters square. One must search for the piece since it is in an unassuming location and position in the landscape, therefore emphasizing the importance of the search and the journey itself. This seeking out is a significant part of experiencing the artwork. Viewers are left to imagine the associated space and distance. The long rod extends through six geological layers in one continuous kilometer. The abstraction of these concepts becomes its own focus. The physical measurement is hidden and so viewers' notion of the idea of measurement comes into play. The piece was controversial, as it was a costly and laborious installation, where in the end almost nothing remained to show for it in the visible realm, requiring viewers to solely conceptualize.
The Broken Kilometer
The Broken Kilometer is a work composed of 500 solid brass rods that collectively weigh nearly nineteen tons. It continues as another of De Maria's permanent installations in a New York City gallery space. This particular work lives at 393 West Broadway. This piece is a quintessential example of de Maria's modernist paradigm of display and perception. The rods have been meticulously installed in a large open room with Corinthian columns. They fill the length of the space, lined up perfectly in five rows. This piece explores issues related to landscape in a more oblique and measured way than most works by artists associated with Land Art. The importance of site in traditional Land Art is turned on its head here. Instead, de Maria offers the idea of a sort of "non-site," where the conceptual idea supersedes anything else.
One trajectory of the work is to suggest meditation on the very idea of units of measure. Each rod is two meters long, two inches in diameter and spaced apart by 5mm. If placed end to end, the rods would extend to one kilometer, but in the mode in which they are displayed, they form an array measuring 45 foot wide by 125 feet deep. The piece proposes that, with a shift in layout and perception, what seems simple might actually be more complex. This is a very representative aspect of de Maria's aesthetic, where working with exceptionally simple elements and themes, he creates a greater depth of perceptual understanding. Following the precepts of minimalism, the work's composition establishes a high degree of order, as the rods are meticulously organized in symmetrical form. He addresses the idea of an unseen or abstracted distance, where the gallery itself encompasses the unit of measurement, the kilometer, as it is broken down to allow for contemplation. In this act de Maria reveals the arbitrary nature of distance, but also heightens the viewer's ability to conceptualize it.
Biography of Walter de Maria
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.
The Legacy of Walter de Maria
De Maria strongly influenced his 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.