Walter De Maria's Legacy: Public Art as Pilgrimage

Public art in cities is becoming a mass-participation event, as the recent LumenoCity event at — make than on — Music Hall shows. Add that to ArtWorks’ wall murals and some of the “street art” projects presented by Contemporary Arts Center — Shepa

click to enlarge Walter De Maria's "The Lightning Field"
Walter De Maria's "The Lightning Field"

Public art in cities is becoming a mass-participation event, as the recent LumenoCity event at — make than on — Music Hall shows. Add that to ArtWorks’ wall murals and some of the “street art” projects presented by Contemporary Arts Center — Shepard Fairey’s citywide poster project and whatever JR has planned for his upcoming show.

This kind of lively, entertaining urban public art is a long way from the old-fashioned civic-virtue sculptures of decades past — both statuary and symbolically abstracted pieces like the controversial “Law and Society” limestone block given to the city by Cincinnati Bar Association. One can argue that the older, more traditional sculpture has more permanence and gravitas, but there is something cheerful about the attempts to bring color, fun and constant visual stimulation to the streets and building surfaces of older cities.  

But there is another kind of public art — one that has a far different goal that moves me more. And one of its greatest practitioners, Walter De Maria, died late last month at age 77. De Maria did urban public art, including the strange dirt-filled apartment known as “New York Earth Room.” But his greatest piece, 1977’s “The Lightning Field,” was ill suited for an urban — or any readily accessible — environment. In the remote landscape of western New Mexico, he installed 400 perfectly aligned stainless steel poles in an area measuring one mile by one kilometer (.62 miles). Supposedly, during storms they could attract lightning. 

“Lightning Field” is one of the premier examples of a contemporary earthwork, which a group of Minimalism- and Conceptualist-influenced artists made in our Western states beginning in the 1970s. They were drawn to the mythos of a West where landscape inspires awe because it is so vast and so impervious to the follies and tragedies of human behavior. What they created stands with Jackson Pollock’s Abstract Expressionist and Mark Rothko’s Color Field paintings as great statements of American post-war art. 

Unlike the “art is all around us” philosophy of urban street art, a key element to these earthworks is their isolation. To see them requires a pilgrimage — followed by meditative time alone. 

When I lived in Denver, I visited “Lightning Field.” The project is owned by the Dia Art Foundation, De Maria’s patron. (It also owns and/or financially supports several other remote earthworks — Robert Smithson’s 1970 “Spiral Jetty” in Utah, Michael Heizer’s ongoing “City” in the Nevada desert and James Turrell’s “Roden Crater” in the Arizona desert.)

I had to make a reservation with Dia to visit “Lightning Field.” It’s only open part of the year and requires an overnight stay, and only six people a day can be there. But as I could get there reasonably quickly, I got a last-minute vacancy and took it. I drove to the obscure hamlet of Quemado, N.M., where Dia had an office and where that night’s guests assembled by 2 p.m. We left our cars there and a Dia driver took us on back roads to “Lightning Field.” 

Upon approach, the site was expansive — an extended area of hardscrabble vegetation from which De Maria’s poles (or lightning rods) stood out like an immaculately ordered metal forest. We were dropped off at a small house on the property. 

We took our rooms — I had a bedroom entered from the building’s outside rather than interior — and then went out to walk the field. When you walk within its parameters, it is a completely enveloping, transporting environment, yet you can see the “trees” from the “forest,” so to speak. You become engrossed in its particulars; you think about sculpture’s powers. 

Dia provided tamales for dinner and then we talked. This was before cell phones, much less smart phones, so there were no electronic interruptions. There was, alas, no lightning to watch (strikes are actually rare at the site), but when a car drove by our house, we could see the headlights approaching from miles away. It was a fascinating example of how an art environment can heighten awareness. In the morning, there was another chance to walk in the field before we returned. 

It’s hard to have outdoor public art like that in the city, but you can have indoor installations that transform isolated or forgotten spaces. Two recent examples have been at the deconsecrated (and crumbling) Holy Cross Church in Mount Adams — Shinji Turner-Yamamoto’s “Hanging Garden” and Doug and Mike Starn’s “Gravity of Light.” I’ve said this before, but it’d be great if that church could be preserved for similar contemplative (rather than celebratory) public art installations.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]

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