Walter De Maria
Walter De Maria b. 1935, Albany, California; d. 2013, New York
4 x 42 x 22 inches (10.2 x 106.7 x 55.9 cm)
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Walter De Maria. Photo: David Heald
Walter De Maria is best known for his 1977 Lightning Field. A rectangular grid in New Mexico measuring one mile by one kilometer and containing 400 stainless-steel lightning rods, it serves as an arena for observing meteorological activity. The artist also endeavored to bring such ordered experiences of the landscape into the gallery, translating distance, measure, and nature into abstract tableaux known as Earthrooms, in which accretions of soil, rocks, gravel, or peat fill the floors of architectural structures. De Maria’s reputation as an Environmental artist—linking him with Michael Heizer, Nancy Holt, and Robert Smithson—acknowledges only one facet of his challenging oeuvre. Less appreciated is De Maria’s early association with Fluxus and performance in San Francisco prior to his arrival in New York in 1960. From his exposure to the work of composer La Monte Young and dancer Simone Forti, among others, De Maria developed an interest in task-oriented, gamelike projects that resulted in viewer-interactive sculptures. For example, his Boxes for Meaningless Work (1961) is inscribed with the instructions, “Transfer things from one box to the next box back and forth, back and forth, etc. Be aware that what you are doing is meaningless.” The artist retained a participatory component, but only metaphorically, in his small-scale, polished-aluminum floor sculptures in shapes that possess significant iconic impact—the cross, the six-pointed star, and the swastika. The hollow interiors of the sculptures form narrow channels containing metal spheres. By including these seemingly movable balls, De Maria again evoked the notion of game-playing, but given the narrative association of the symbols, it seems an ironic gesture.
Conceived of separately, but now often exhibited together, Cross, Star, and Museum Piece manifest how ancient symbolic configurations have undergone various interpretive transmutations: the cross, mark of Christianity, has also been discovered on ancient Egyptian tombs; the six-pointed star, sign of Judaism, first appeared on Bronze and Iron Age relics; and the swastika, emblem of Nazism, was once representative of prosperity, regeneration, and goodwill. By titling the swastika Museum Piece, De Maria seems also to have been commenting on the neutralizing effects of the museum environment, in which cultural artifacts, removed from their original contexts, can be reduced to visual equivalences.