As Dedalus Fellow in the Museum Archives, I received a travel grant to broaden my understanding of modern art. Last summer, I chose to journey to the American Southwest to view Earth art, Minimalism, and other forms of post-war abstraction in Texas and New Mexico. My goal was to examine the “art pilgrimage” from a critical perspective, while trying to achieve that spiritual experience associated with it: to turn myself into a pilgrim, while remaining grounded in art history.
My first destination was Lightning Field, Walter de Maria’s 1977 work near Quemado, New Mexico. The artwork, which comprises a grid of four hundred stainless steel poles, is located miles from civilization in a flat basin surrounded by mountains. Off to one edge is a cabin where visitors stay overnight. No photographs are allowed; de Maria insists on the primacy of one’s own, subjective experience of the work. Walking among the poles, my feet sank into soft clay. I watched the gleaming metal poles grow brilliant in the sunset, then fade. I listened to birds’ wings. I was rained upon. At night, I walked outside to deafening quiet and a Milky Way sky of exquisite clarity. It became clear why de Maria forbids photography: photographs would document only the New Mexico landscape, not the actual sensation of being here.