Pin It
Walter De Maria
Walter De Mariavia Wikipedia

How Walter De Maria turned the Earth into an art work

From lighting rods in New Mexico to chalk lines in the Mojave Desert, this Earth Day we look back at the seminal works from one of the founding father’s of land art

As one of the founding fathers of the 1960s land art movement, Walter De Maria is renowned for his monumental installations dealing with matters of time and space on a grand scale. Despite his reputation as one of the greats, Walter De Maria was a notoriously private man. A reserved individual, he steadfastly avoided interviews and gallery openings, and once described the New York art scene as “a hundred people pillow-fighting each other, blindfolded and swinging knives instead of pillows”. For the now legendary conceptual group show When Attitudes Become Form, curated by Harald Szeemann in 1969, De Maria submitted an elusive black phone with a sign that read: “If this telephone rings you may answer it. Walter De Maria is on the line and would like to talk to you.” The phone never rang.

Recently, over 40 of De Maria’s never before seen works on paper and several related sculptures went on view at the Gagosian in London in a show titled Idea to Action to Object. Given that today is Earth Day, we decided to look at the man behind some of the most seminal art to use the Earth as his medium, and gain a deeper understanding of his other works.


Around this time of the 1960s, artists such as Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, and Michael Heizer began to question the limitations of the institutionalised art world and ventured outside of cities, swapping the gallery for the blank canvas of nature. According to the documentary Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art (2015), the movement was a form of political rebellion against the constraints of the art world. “Moving out into the west was an anti-gallery statement,” says gallerist Virginia Dwan in the film.

Some of these earthworks were long-lasting and ongoing, like James Turrell’s Roden Crater, an extinct volcano in the desert that the artist has been converting into a site for celestial contemplation for over 40 years. While others such as Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” (1970) are more ephemeral. This monumental undertaking, which is probably the most famous piece of land art ever made, saw Smithson and two assistants move nearly 7,000 tonnes of earth, basalt and boulders to Utah’s Great Salt Lake, where it was arranged into a spiral form. In 1972, it became submerged and stayed so, until a drought caused it to reemerge 30 years later. The site was chosen for this reason, to demonstrate the idea that an artwork is never fixed and experiences decay. Entropy was a concept explored by Smithson throughout his career, and one that would influence De Maria.

De Maria’s most famous land art piece “Lightning Field” (1977) is a grid of 400 steel poles located in the desert near Quemado, New Mexico. The secluded location was chosen for its frequent lightning storms and the absence of human interferences with the environment. Similar to “Spiral Jetty” located in Utah, James Turrell’s “Roden Crater” in the Arizonian Desert and Nancy Holt’s “Sun Tunnels” in Utah Desert – both which are owned and maintained by Dia Art Foundation – the lightning grid was designed to be a site of pilgrimage, encouraging art viewers to feel immersed in the landscape.


Undoubtedly influenced by Smithson, time enters much of De Maria’s work in some way, whether it be through the creation of a permanent mark or leaving something more temporary. For “Mile Long Drawing” (1968), the artist chalked two parallel lines 12 feet apart for the length of a mile in the Mojave Desert in California. This was one of his first land art pieces which saw him transport his minimalist ideas from the gallery to the outdoors. Obviously, the markings didn’t last long as they were drawn with chalk, and so the temporary nature of the work draws attention to the passing of time and the idea is that change is constant.


“New York Earth Room” (1977) saw De Maria fill a Soho loft with 22 inches of soil. The exhibition was meant to last for three months but has never left, and is now owned and maintained by Dia Art Foundation. It is the third and final work in a series of earth rooms and is the only one remaining and open to the public today. Jerry Saltz once described the work as having an “almost shamanic transport of senses”, and considers the work to be an early piece of Relational Aesthetics, the movement coined by Nicolas Bourriaud to describe art based on human relations: “Every time I've ever been there, whatever stranger is standing at the glass with me has begun to talk. It's like travelling together, pointing out things, sharing inner thoughts and experience.”

Members of the general public are equally baffled by the artwork, but not entirely in a good way. As reported by Hyperallergic, reviewers on Yelp and TripAdvisor couldn’t see past the idea that this was a waste of prime real estate in the desirable Soho neighbourhood of New York City. “I had to see this just to experience the extravagant wastefulness of a dirt-filled room in pricey Soho,” wrote one Yelp reviewer. It wasn’t all bad. Some reviewers recognised the installation as a reprieve from the bustling streets of Manhattan. “Our city dulled senses were revived as we took in the moist, rich, clean earth smell. It made you want to lay and play in the dirt again like a kid. It was a very therapeutic, mind cleansing feeling to be here,” writes a TripAdvisor reviewer from Boise.


Asian philosophy had a significant influence on minimalist ideas of presence and absence in the 1960s. Many minimalist artists aimed to transform human consciousness by bringing about spiritual contemplation through their artworks. For De Maria, this meant that, “Any work of art should have at least ten meanings”. He embraced the idea of eastern philosophy and its focus on simplicity in his work, aiming to challenge contemporary methods of seeing and attention through his minimalist installations. He also valued experience over the discursive and intuition over logic, qualities central to Zen teachings.

“In Zen Buddhism, as in Minimalism, there’s an acceptance of blankness, emptiness, silence,” wrote Nick Currie in Mousse magazine, drawing attention to the sparsity of John Cage’s sound pieces. Cage, a friend of De Maria, was influenced by the teachings of D.T Suzuki, a Japanese professor who came to Columbia University 1950. His lectures opened Cage up to new ways of thinking about “art which removes the frame”, a line of thought which underlined his famously empty compositions such as “4’33”.

De Maria, along with many of his peers including Smithson, was influenced by Cage’s theories on modern music and compositional structure. His admiration for Cage is clear, with the artist creating “Cage II” (1965) in tribute to the composer. A foursquare geometry which exemplifies the purity of structure and order bound up with 1960s minimalism. “I never did like his music, actually,” De Maria, a musician himself, once said. “But the ideas were always well stated.”

De Maria’s Zen influences are stated more clearly in “Triangle, Circle, Square” (1972), a trio of geometric stainless steel sculptures. The piece is inspired by a Japanese Zen monk named Sengai Gibson (1750 - 1837) and his painting “Circle, Triangle, Square”. The three forms have been interpreted as geometries that represent the infinite – an idea we see today in the mirror-works of Yayoi Kusama, another artist associated with Zen thought.

“(Land art) was a form of political rebellion against the constraints of the art world”


“Happenings” was a series of performances founded by Allan Kaprow in New York City. The events combined elements of dance, theatre, music, poetry, and visual art to blur the boundaries between life and art, forging new paths in artistic practice. For one such event called the “Yard”, Kaprow invited visitors to climb around the walled-in backyard of the Martha Jackson Gallery which he had filled with car tires and objects wrapped in black tarp.

Before moving to New York City, De Maria participated in “Happenings” in San Francisco with his friends, avant-garde composer and Fluxus member La Monte Young and dancer Simone Forti among others. It was here that he developed an interest in game-like projects and artworks that incorporated an element of viewer-interaction.

For example, “Boxes for Meaningless Work”(1961) asked viewers to “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.” Many of De Maria's works have a participatory element, including the aforementioned “Triangle, Circle, Square” which has hollow interiors with metal spheres inside and comes with instructions that the pieces are, “to disturb the purity of the symbol.” By involving the audience, De Maria was creating an alternative approach to art-viewing that shifted from passive viewer experiences to more socially engaged encounters.


In 1965, he became a drummer in the Primitives with Lou Reed and John Cale, a band which was a precursor to The Velvet Underground. De Maria soon grew tired of lugging his drums around the tireless New York gig scene and grew weary of Reed's freewheeling ways. “I said to myself, do I want to go to rehearsal every day and every night, you know, take all these drugs?” the artist later recalled. Not long after he left, The Velvet Underground was taken up by Andy Warhol.