Walter De Maria, 1935-2013


Land art pioneer Walter De Maria passed away on July 25. According to Dia Art Foundation, De Maria died after suffering a stroke in Los Angeles. He was 77.

Though a favorite of art critics, De Maria was famously media-shy. He avoided exhibiting his work in major museums or institutions when possible, preferring less conventional venues. His most famous work, The Lightning Field (1977), a one-by-one-mile grid of 400 stainless steel poles standing upright on an isolated New Mexican plateau, can only be visited by booking an overnight stay (with a maximum of six guests per day).

De Maria received his bachelor’s degree in 1957 and a masters of fine art in 1959, both from the University of California at Berkeley. He moved to New York the following year, where he began working as a sculptor. Along with fellow artist Robert Whitman, De Maria opened the 9 Great Jones Street gallery in 1963.

De Maria gained prominence as a key figure of the Earthwork movement in 1968 with Mile Long Drawing, an ephemeral work for which the artist traced two parallel chalk lines along a mile long stretch of California’s Mojave Desert. That same year, he also created the Earth Room, filling Munich’s Galerie Heiner Friedrich with dirt. In 1977 the gallery’s American location hosted a second version, the New York Earth Room, which was permanently installed in 1980, courtesy of Dia. The organization also maintains De Maria’s companion pieces The Broken Kilometer (1979) and The Vertical Earth Kilometer (1977). The former, in Soho, New York, features 500 two-meter-long, solid brass rods with a two-inch diameter laid in five parallel rows. For the latter, De Maria buried a kilometer’s length of brass of the same diameter, oriented vertically, in the Friedrichsplatz Park in Kassel, Germany, as part of that year’s Documenta.

De Maria’s work has been the subject of major exhibitions at the Kunstmuseum Basel (1972); Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (1981); Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam (1984); Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart (1987); Moderna Museet, Stockholm (1988); Gemäldgalerie, Berlin (1998); Chichu Art Museum, Naoshima (2000 and 2004); Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (2007); and the Menil Collection, Houston (2011). Currently, De Maria’s installation Apollo’s Ecstasy (1990), a neat row of 20 bronze rods laid flat on the ground, is included in the “The Encyclopedic Palace” at the 55th Venice Biennale.

In addition to his sculpture and installation, De Maria was a musician and filmmaker. He composed two sound works (Cricket Music, 1964 and Ocean Music, 1968) and produced the films Three Circles and Two Lines in the Desert and Hard Core, both 1969. De Maria, who learned to play the drums in the fourth grade, briefly played with Lou Reed and John Cale in New York-based band the Primitives, which was a predecessor to the Velvet Underground.