Standing in Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field

July 21, 2020

The political and social changes that occurred in the United States between the mid-1960s and early 1970s reflected on the generation of upcoming artists and the development of new approaches to art-making. One of the most compelling art phenomena at the time was Land Art, whose proponents decided to abandon traditional forms of representation and create large-scale interventions in nature.

Inspired by the environmental movement, Land artists started exploring the human interaction with nature, as well as concepts of alienation, solitude, contemplation, and transcendence in regards to the shifts caused by either celestial, earthly or other natural processes. Their large-scale projects were often dependent on the wealthy patrons and the local communities, while the final result seemed as self-sufficient and condemned to be perceived as the manifestation of "Art for art's sake" philosophy. Land art was more than that since it broke the codes of Minimalism and Conceptual art, and was indeed based on participation offering a valuable, sometimes reforming experience.

An artist considered one of the leading pioneers of this particular movement was Walter De Maria. This renowned figure started his career in the early 1960s while collaborating with the avant-garde composer La Monte Young in theatrical productions and happenings on the West Coast. Inspired by the electrifying atmosphere of the emerging art scene, De Maria started producing minimalist task-oriented sculptures inspired by Dada and Russian Suprematism. At the same time, he ran an exhibition space in New York together with his wife Susanna and had a significant role in the music scene as a member of the Primitives (along with Lou Reed and John Cale, the future member of the Velvet Underground) and artist/musician collaborative group called The Druds.

The artist realized his Land art interventions in the remote areas of deserts of the American south-west aiming to create powerful experiential situations. De Maria claimed that the work of art should tackle the observer to rethink the earth and its relationship to the universe.

In 1977 he made probably one of his most acclaimed pieces titled The Lightning Field which consists of four hundred stainless steel poles arranged in grid form covering an area of 1 mile × 1 kilometer. Under the influence of daylight and weather conditions the optical effects of the Lightning Field change, while the piece comes to full effect during thunderstorms.

The Lightning Field, 1977, Catron County, New Mexico

The Meaning of The Lightning Field

The project was commissioned by the Dia Art Foundation. Together with his assistants Robert Fosdick and Helen Winkler, Walter De Maria searched for the perfect site for five years. Finally, in a desert in New Mexico, they found an empty plateau where the poles varying in height were eventually installed on a distance of two hundred and twenty feet apart from one another; each pole is rooted in the concrete footing and is designed not to unfold under the winds of up to 110 miles (180 km) an hour.

The site was selected for its isolated distance from human interaction as well as its grandiosity. De Maria wanted to engage the visitors in a multisensory experience that alters the human perception of space and time. In a broader and perhaps more socio-political context, The Lightning Field tackled the modern understanding of the land and its potential to provide introspection rather than to be exploited for the sake of capital (an agenda that can be found in various practices of Land artists).

Although the maintenance of the project was initially run by Dia's Board of Trustees, the State of New Mexico, and De Maria's assistant Helen Winkler Fosdick, in 1996 The Lightning Field received a support grant by part by an endowment established by Ray A. Graham III and Lannan Foundation. Nevertheless, by 2012 this work needed reinforcement with an estimated cost of $400,000. This was eventually financed in joint efforts by De Maria’s gallerist Larry Gagosian, and Miuccia Prada. The works were initiated at the beginning of 2013 and finished a couple of months later.

The Lightning Field is a land art work in Catron County, New Mexico, by sculptor Walter De Maria. It consists of 400 stainless steel poles with solid, pointed tips, arranged in a rectangular 1 mile × 1 kilometre grid array. Editors’ Tip: Walter De Maria: The Lightning Field

Photographer John Cliett was commissioned by Walter De Maria (1935–2013) and Dia Art Foundation to document this enigmatic artwork over two seasons in 1978 and 1979, but until now nearly all the resulting shots remained in the artist’s archives. Tracing the course of a typical 24-hour visit to the site, the selection of images shows, for the first time, the rich complexity of place and land. This publication also includes the artist’s 1980 text on the work, “Some Facts, Notes, Data, Information, Statistics, and Statements,” originally published in Artforum; a selection of unpublished primary documents from Dia’s and the artist’s archives, including the photographer’s own notes and reports; and an essay by Dia director Jessica Morgan on De Maria’s complex relationship with photography.

Visiting The Lightning Field by Walter De Maria

This iconic site is open for six months a year only, and it can be visited via reservation (available in March for visits between May and October) for an overnight stay in the nearby cottage which provides shelter and simple meals for six-person during the visit. Trips to The Lighting Field consist of a long drive from a scheduled meeting point to the cottage. Camping at the location is not permitted.

The Lightning Field was a source of inspiration for many artists throughout the years. It was featured in the novel "Blinded by the Light" by Morgan Hunt, and some think this piece influenced author Cormac McCarthy's book "Blood Meridian." The composer John Mackey entitled his piece "The Lightning Field", while in 2017 Jason Rosenfeld wrote an essay Walter De Maria and The Lightning Field at Forty: Art as Symbiosis to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the work.

The impression is that the Lightning Field is a unique work that highlighted De Maria’s practice; although the artist created other equally interesting work such as The New York Earth Room, in the public sphere The Lightning Field remains celebrated as the most important Land art piece that stands shoulder to shoulder with Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson, The Sun Tunnels by Nancy Holt or James Turrell’s Roden Crater.

Featured image: Walter De Maria - The Lightning Field, 1977. Catron County, New Mexico. Photo by Retis via Flickr.

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