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Walter De Maria (American, 1935–2013)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American sculptor. He studied history at the University of California, Berkeley (1953–7), and then art, under David Park (MA, 1959). In 1960 he moved to New York where he associated with other Californians including the sculptor and painter Robert Morris, the dancer Yvonne Rainer (b 1934) and the composer La Monte Young (b 1935). His sculpture of the early 1960s reveals a debt to Dada and other 20th-century avant-garde movements then under revision by young artists. His simple, often cryptically inscribed works owe much of their oblique spirit and deadpan execution to Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades, yet they explore the appeal of pure, usually serialized forms, which become characteristic of Minimalism.

De Maria’s first exhibitions consisted of machine-turned objects in highly finished wood, metals and other industrial materials. At the same time he began to experiment with alternative exhibition spaces such as the desert of the south-western USA. In early projects like Mile Long Drawing (1968; Mojave Desert, CA), comprising two parallel chalk lines extending over that distance, he showed an interest in austerity and economy of expressive terms, although always retaining monumentality.

During the mid-1960s De Maria engaged in numerous other activities, including the composition of two musical recordings (Cricket Music, 1964; Ocean Music, 1968) and the production of two films (Three Circles and Two Lines in the Desert; Hard Core, both 1969), and for a brief period he was the drummer for the New York pop group Velvet Underground (1965).

From 1969 De Maria’s work was divided between pieces developed specifically for conventional exhibition spaces and land art proposals. For New York Earth Room (1977; New York, Dia Art Found.) he brought 190 cubic m of soil into a 334 sq m. gallery space to create an environment where he attempted to close the schism between the civilized and the natural. In his later exhibition rooms he dealt with the polarities of science and the occult, mathematical progression and chaos and other opposing themes. He is perhaps most widely known for his vast, permanent work in the New Mexico wilderness, Lightning Field (1977), a rectangular plot pierced by 400 steel poles of even height in a region known for its frequent and sudden thunderstorms. The plainly artificial environment is subtly delimited by both its remote location and by the requirement of the visitors to remain at the site for 24 hours, thereby ensuring that the spectator invest in time and travel to view the work. This juxtaposition of nature and culture, artifice and entropy, serves as an index of his art. The delicate, if systematic, manipulation of isolated spaces is consistent throughout his work, and it is this persistence that allows him to claim that he feels ‘proud to have started minimal art and Land art’.

Derrick R. Cartwright
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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