The story behind Walter de Maria’s impressive Lightning field

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Walter De Maria - The Lightning Field, 1977, 400 stainless steel poles with solid, pointed tips, arranged in a rectangular 1 mile x 1 kilometer grid array, Catron County, New Mexico

Walter De Maria – The Lightning Field, 1977, 400 stainless steel poles with solid, pointed tips, arranged in a rectangular 1 mile x 1 kilometer grid array, Catron County, New Mexico

Published on: Monday September 9, 2019

Last updated

Introduction

The Lightning Field created by sculptor Walter De Maria is today celebrated as one of the 20th century’s most noteworthy installations of land art. As one of the seminal artists and the founding fathers of land art, Walter De Maria completely revolutionized the way in which audiences perceived art especially during the 1960s, which is when the land art movement was at its peak.

Walter De Maria

Walter De Maria is recognized for his massive and large-scale installations that explored the issues of time and space on a grand scale. Despite being one of the most notable contributors to land art, Walter De Maria was actually quite private and reserved. He was known of steadfastly refusing to take part in interviews and even attend his own gallery openings.

From utilizing lighting rods in New Mexico to highlighting chalk lines in the Mojave Desert, Walter De Maria’s art and his use of the earth as a medium helped to greatly inspire upcoming generations of artists. Although he worked on several notable installations over the years such as his Earth Rooms series1, his most noteworthy and most well-known piece was titled The Lightning Field and it was created in 1977. In addition to his massive scale installation, De Maria was also known for creating smaller sculptures and drawings.

Walter De Maria - The Lightning Field, 1977, 400 stainless steel poles with solid, pointed tips, arranged in a rectangular 1 mile x 1 kilometer grid array, Catron County, New Mexico

Walter De Maria – The Lightning Field, 1977, 400 stainless steel poles with solid, pointed tips, arranged in a rectangular 1 mile x 1 kilometer grid array, Catron County, New Mexico

Walter De Maria - The Lightning Field, 1977, 400 stainless steel poles with solid, pointed tips, arranged in a rectangular 1 mile x 1 kilometer grid array, Catron County, New Mexico

Walter De Maria – The Lightning Field, 1977, 400 stainless steel poles with solid, pointed tips, arranged in a rectangular 1 mile x 1 kilometer grid array, Catron County, New Mexico

Background

Walter De Maria was known for creating his enormous art installations that exceeded categorization. Influenced primarily by conceptual art, minimalism and land art, he was known for designing installations that featured unassuming shapes that would then be repeated on a large scale.

De Maria’s work in three-dimensional art started off when he was just a student at the University of California, Berkeley, which is where he was introduced to avant-garde events happening in the thriving San Francisco region. At the start of his career, he was known for creating sculptures that were influenced heavily by the traditions of Dada. Along with his traditional gallery sculptures, he also started experimenting with creating installations in unexpected locations.

Notable works

His first outdoors installation was created in 1968 and was titled Mile Long Drawing in which he drew two corresponding chalk lines across the Mojave Desert. His next piece was completed several years later in 1977 in which he filled a loft with soil2, therefore creating a boundary between nature and civilization. In addition to his sculptural pieces, De Maria also worked on films and even composed several songs during a short stint as a band member of the Primitives in 1965.

Walter De Maria - Mile Long Drawing, 1968, Mojave Desert

Walter De Maria – Mile Long Drawing, 1968, Mojave Desert

The Lightning Field, 1977

The Lightning Field was by far De Maria’s most notable land art. The Lightning Field was an expansive installation that consisted of about 400 stainless steel poles that had been placed in 1 mile by 1 km grid. The rods that were used were each two inches in diameter, but they extended upwards to reach different heights that arranged from 15 to 26 feet to create a flawlessly horizontal plane with the pointed tips of the rods.

Where & how it was created

The Lightning Field was commissioned by the Dia Art Foundation, which is to this day responsible for maintaining the installation, which can still be found at its original location. De Maria was able to set up the Lightning Field with the help of his assistants. Before settling on the empty plateau as the site of the installation, De Maria and his assistants had scoured America traveling to various locations in Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and California. Finally, the artist and his assistant settled for the site located in the east of the continental divide.

De Maria and his assistants set up the installation in the middle of the empty plateau, placing 400 stainless steel poles in a grid measuring 1 mile by 1 kilometer. The pols were placed 220 feet apart from one another. The shortest pole used measured 15 feet while the longest one measured 26 feet by 9 inches. The artist then set the steel rods in a concrete base so that they could survive the harsh winds experienced in the region.

Walter De Maria - The Lightning Field, 1977, 400 stainless steel poles with solid, pointed tips, arranged in a rectangular 1 mile x 1 kilometer grid array, Catron County, New Mexico

Walter De Maria – The Lightning Field, 1977, 400 stainless steel poles with solid, pointed tips, arranged in a rectangular 1 mile x 1 kilometer grid array, Catron County, New Mexico

Walter De Maria - The Lightning Field, 1977, 400 stainless steel poles with solid, pointed tips, arranged in a rectangular 1 mile x 1 kilometer grid array, Catron County, New Mexico

Walter De Maria – The Lightning Field, 1977, 400 stainless steel poles with solid, pointed tips, arranged in a rectangular 1 mile x 1 kilometer grid array, Catron County, New Mexico

Analysis

Today, the Lightning Field remains untouched in an obscure desert close to Quemado, New Mexico. Lightning Field incorporated the natural environment and transformed it into meaningful artwork. The site was sourced specifically for its isolated distance from human development as well as its enormity. Lightning Field was created to communicate a range of experiences from the audience and simultaneously, it asks the visitors that arrive on the site to meditate the changing perceptions of time and space.

The poles were placed methodically outside instead of being placed in a gallery or museum. As such, the land in which the poles were placed called attention to the importance of land in modern society. In the installation, the significance of the land goes beyond it being used as a setting so that it can take on a more sculptural aspect, therefore calling for the awareness of the landscape and its surroundings.

Walter De Maria - The Lightning Field, 1977, 400 stainless steel poles with solid, pointed tips, arranged in a rectangular 1 mile x 1 kilometer grid array, Catron County, New Mexico

Walter De Maria – The Lightning Field, 1977, 400 stainless steel poles with solid, pointed tips, arranged in a rectangular 1 mile x 1 kilometer grid array, Catron County, New Mexico

All images: John Cliett for Estate of Walter De Maria & Dia Art Foundation

Related readings

  1. https://publicdelivery.org/walter-de-marias-earth-rooms/
  2. https://publicdelivery.org/walter-de-marias-earth-rooms/
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