Walter de Maria - Portrait by Angelika Platen

Walter De Maria /   Walter Joseph De Maria

United States 1935 - 2013

Installation, Minimal Art, Land Art

Walter De Maria
Walter Joseph De Maria
United States
February 14, 2016
Ok, I know it's so damn corny to quote somebody just to describe yourself, let alone Confucius, but this quote says all about my relationship with Widewalls, so forgive me for doing this: Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life. Am I forgiven?

Walter De Maria never regretted the decision to forsake a music career in a band The Primitives (that will be known as The Velvet Underground), dedicating himself almost entirely to a different kind of art. We might never know the proportions of his promising career in the music industry, but the fact is that the art scene of the 60s and 70s was heavily marked by his enigmatic installations connected with Minimal, Conceptual, and Land art. Still the role model for the generations of the musical avant-garde that studied his intensely minimalist and conceptualist approach to making sound, this American artist made even larger impact by connecting multiple movements of visual artistic practice through his interactive sculptural installations and bridging the viewer and nature by either importing visual elements in nature itself, or by transferring its structural parts into the gallery spaces.

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Walter De Maria – New York Earth Room, 1977, Installation view – Image via

Change of Artistic Itinerary

De Maria was born in 1935, in Albany, California, near San Francisco, where his Italian-American family owned a local restaurant. As a boy, he was highly interested in music, one could say he was under Euterpe’s spell. At first, he played the piano, but gave up pretty soon, realizing that this instrument just wasn’t his cup of tea. He moved on to drums, taking private lessons. When he was only 16, he joined a Musicians’ Union, and everything indicated that it’s going to be one long love relationship between the artist and music. However, in 1957 he graduated history and art at the University of California, Berkeley. After two years, he also earned his MFA in painting. At the time, music was still pretty important to the artist – he even occasionally performed in a jazz group of his painting professor David Park, who was also a musician. Upon his graduation, he moved to San Francisco, entering very quickly to its cross-disciplinary avant-garde. This is when De Maria, an educated painter, changed his artistic itinerary, heading towards sculptures and using other media. He began participating and initializing so-called happenings while exploring a three-dimensional and interactive art. His friendship with the avant-garde composer La Monte Young dates back to this period of his’s life. Together with choreographer Simone Forti, La Monte directed the artist towards Minimalism and the viewer-interactive sculptures. One of the pieces he created in 1961 was a work titled Boxes for Meaningless Work, which would come 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!”

De Maria initialized so-called happenings while exploring a three-dimensional and interactive art

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Walter De Maria – Lightning Field, 1977 – Photo by John Cliett

New York and the Earth Art Movement

De Maria moved to New York in 1960. In the beginning of his New York life, he was writing conceptual pieces on art. He also participated in multimedia presentations he named Theater Pieces together with La Monte Young. He even composed two musical pieces – one titled Cricket Music in 1964 and the other Ocean Music in 1968. Next year, the artist produced two films: Three Circles and Two Lines in the Desert; Hardcore. New York also opened its music scene door to the artist who was a drummer in the band The Primitives, which will evolve to Lou Reed’s The Velvet Underground in the years to come. Very enthusiastic at the beginning, De Maria soon got tired and bored of dragging his drums around different bars and clubs: “I said to myself, do I want to go to rehearsal every day and every night, you know, take all these drugs?” Very quickly upon his leaving the band, The Velvet Underground was discovered and reinvented by Andy Warhol.

The year of 1963 was highly important for the artist. Robert Whitman and De Maria opened the 9 Great Jones Street gallery in New York. After a while, he held his first solo exhibition in this gallery. In 1965, he began to make sculptures in metal, encouraged by a strong support he received from Robert C. Scull, a taxi tycoon and the owner of a famous collection of Pop and Minimal art in the 60’s. Very fast, he became completely fascinated by industrially manufactured materials such as aluminum or steel. In 1968, he found a new passion. During this time, he made himself a key figure of the Earthworks movement (for example, a slow process of erosion or the movement of planets and stars). This movement originated from artists’ appetite to understand the processes of nature and to somehow control them. So for the occasion – he filled with dirt the Galerie Heiner Friedrich in Munich. During the late 60s and through the 70s he gave rein to his imagination, creating large-scale outdoor works, typically defined by some rather strange ideas. The Lightning Field made in 1977 in western New Mexico is De Maria’s most famous work. Almost 400 stainless steel posts arranged in a calculated grid, covering the surface of 1 mile per 1 km. This piece and its optical effects depended on the time of the day and the weather change – for instance, it would light up during thunderstorms.

He was completely fascinated by industrially manufactured materials such as aluminum or steel

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Walter De Maria – Time/Timeless/No Time, Installation view at Chicha Art Museum in Naoshima, 2004 – Image via

Legacy of Walter De Maria

Even though De Maria is best known for this type of installations dating back to the 70s, decades that would come didn’t harm his position in the artistic world. A great number of his exhibitions proved (over and over again) that the interest for his work does not get any colder – in fact, in 1989 the Assemblée Nationale in Paris chose to commission the artist to create their bicentenary celebration art piece. He chose to present a sphere of polished granite for this occasion – something comparable with a sculpture Large Red Sphere from 2002, weighing 25 tons and installed in the Türkentor, Munich. Walter de Maria died in 2013, on his way to his mother’s 100 birthday. Not only that he strongly influenced his peers and later generations of artists, his work also moved the boundaries of public sculpture helping establishing Earthworks and Land Art as important creative expressions of contemporary art. In accordance to this, he is also credited for accepting the fact that people can view collections not only at a particular museum location but also at more unusual places. In 2015 a movie titled Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art came out. This story was produced and directed by a filmmaker and art historian James Crump. The movie reveals to the public some rare footage of De Maria and his extant and non-extant works.

Featured image: Walter De Maria – Artist portrait, Hamburg, 1968 – Photo by Angelika Platen

YearExhibition TitleMuseum/GallerySolo/Group
2016An Imagined Museum Works From The Centre Pompidou, The Tate And The MmkMuseum für Moderne Kunst (MMK), Frankfurt/MainGroup
2016Walter De MariaGagosian Gallery, LondonSolo
2016Walter De MariaGagosian Gallery, LondonSolo
2014Walter De MariaGagosian Gallery, 980 Madison Ave., New York, NYSolo
2012Walter De Maria: The 5 7 9 SeriesGagosian Gallery, Rome, ItalySolo
2012Walter De Maria: The 2000Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles,CA (through 2013)Solo
2011Walter De Maria: TrilogiesThe Menil Collection, Houston, TXSolo
2010Walter De Maria: Large Red SphereMuseum Brandhorst, Munich, Germany.Solo
2010Silver Meters, Gold MetersDia Art Foundation, Beacon, NY.Solo
2007Walter De Maria: 13, 14, 15 Meter RowsGagosian Gallery, West 24th St., New York, NY.Solo
2007Walter De Maria: A Computer Which Will Solve Every Problem in the World / 3 – 12 PolygonGagosian Gallery, West 21st St., New York, NY.Solo
2007One Sun/34 MoonsNelson Atkins Art Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO.Solo
2005Walter De Maria: A Computer Which Will Solve Every Problem in the WorldDe Pont Foundation for Contemporary Art, Tilburg, Netherlands.Solo
2003Walter De MariaMuseum of Contemporary Art, Rome, Italy.Solo
2000Walter De Maria: The 2000 SculptureNationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof, Hamburg, GermanySolo
1999Walter De Maria: 1999 Milano 2000Fondazione Prada, Milan, Italy.Solo
1992Walter De Maria: The 2000 SculptureKunsthaus Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland.Solo
1992The 5 7 9 SeriesGagosian Gallery, SoHo, New York, NY.Solo
1990French Bicentennial SculptureAssemblée Nationale, Paris, France.Solo
1989Installation of 13, 14, 15 Meter RowsGagosian Gallery, 65 Thompson St., New York, NY.Solo
198913, 14, 15 Sided Open PolygonsGagosian Gallery, Madison Ave., New York, NY.Solo
1989Walter De Maria: Two Very Large PresentationsModerna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden.Solo
19895 Continent SculptureDaimler Benz, Mohringen, Germany.Solo
1988Walter De MariaMagasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall, Stockholm, Sweden.Solo
1987Walter De Maria: 5 Continent SculptureStaatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany.Solo
1986Large Rod Series: Circles/Rectangles 1984 1986Xavier Fourcade, Inc., New York, NY.Solo
1986New Work Series: Walter De MariaFogg Museum, Harvard University,Cambridge, MA.Solo
1984Walter De MariaMuseum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands.Solo
1981360 Degree I Ching / 64 SculptureCentre Georges Pompidou, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, France.Solo
1980The New York Earth RoomDia Art Foundation, New York, NY.Solo
1979The Broken KilometerHeiner Friedrich, New York, NY.Solo
1979The New York Earth RoomHeiner Friedrich, New York, NY.Solo
1979The Broken KilometerDia Art Foundation, New York, NY.Solo
1977The New York Earth RoomDia Art Foundation, New York, NY.Solo
1977The Lightening FieldDia Art Foundation, New York, NY.Solo
1974The Large Earth Room, 8 Sculptures, 44 DrawingsHessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt, Germany.Solo
1972SkulpturenKunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Switzerland.Solo
1969Beds of SpikesDwan Gallery, New York, NY.Solo
1968Walter De MariaNicholas Wilder Gallery, Los AngelesSolo
1968CA.50 m3 (1600 Cubic Feet) Level Dirt /The Land Show: Pure Dirt / Pure Earth / Pure LandGalerie Heiner Friedrich, Munich, Germany.Solo
19664 6 8 Series and other small metal sculpturesCordier & Ekstrom Gallery, New YorkSolo
1965Invisible DrawingsPaula Cooper, New York, NY.Solo
1963Early minimal wood sculptures9 Great Jones St., New York, NY.Solo