Walter De Maria – The Lightning Field

“Isolation is the essence of Land Art”, so says Walter De Maria, an American artist who is a contemporary of Donald Judd, Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson and Richard Serra and best known as a leader in the Land Art movement.  My wife and I recently visited his most famous installation, The Lightning Field, set in the scenic high desert of New Mexico about 40 minutes by car from the small, one-street town of Quemado.

To find the perfect spot De Maria searched several states over a five-year period before finding this flatter part of the desert 7200 feet above sea level.  The work, installed in 1977, consists of 400 polished stainless steel poles, tooled to perfect points at the top, averaging about 20 feet high.  The poles are equally spaced out in a rectangular grid one mile by one kilometer.

Getting to the Lightning Field, a three-hour drive from Albuquerque, requires some planning and a willingness to spend a night in a rustic log cabin at the site.  Reservations are required (May through October) as only six people can stay at the cabin at one time.  You are driven from Quemado to the site in the early afternoon of the day you arrive and picked up late morning the following day.

Arriving at the cabin which sits alone on the flat, scrub grass prairie, one is struck by the dynamic between the elaborately engineered installation and the untamed land.  As De Maria said “The land is not the setting for the work but a part of the work”. The cabin, a meticulously restored homesteader’s log structure, has a back porch that faces south toward The Lightning Field with the Sawtooth Mountain Range and the Allegres Mountains as its back drop.

Once you are settled in you find yourself heading for the benches on the back porch and looking out over the installation – marveling at first over the setting, the absolute silence (except for a few birds and the wind) and then trying to come to grips with the physical presence and precision in the placement of the 400 steel poles.

It should be noted that taking photographs of the installation is forbidden.  The three photos of the site appearing below are the copyright property of the Dia Art Foundation, New York, and written permission was given to me by the Foundation for their use in my blog.  I appreciate the cooperation of the Foundation in this regard.

Whether from the porch or when you are wandering out among the poles, you become fascinated by the engineering and planning that was involved in their placement.  And yet when looking at the poles off grid you are struck by the appearance of a helter-skelter randomness until you draw yourself back into the actual orderliness of their placement.

Photo: John Cliett. Copyright Dia Art Foundation, New York

Light is an integral part of this De Maria piece and is one of the reasons why your stay includes the experience of witnessing the light changes throughout the day. While pictures of this installation often show lightning striking the poles to spectacular effect (see photo below) – the absence of lightning during our visit did not take away from the experience of seeing the work’s transformation as the quality of light changed. 

Photo: Copyright Dia Art Foundation, New York

In this silent, vast landscape you witness the subtle variations in the appearance of the poles as the sun moves in the sky.  With the sunrise the poles furthest west seem to shimmer and in some cases appear fatter; by late morning some of the poles appear black; by early afternoon the poles seem to disappear.  At sunset the tips of the poles glow as if lit and then absorb all the remaining light of the day.

Sunset was my favorite time – the waving golden prairie scrub grass, the poles reflecting the last blaze of the sun.  A glow appears over the land punctuated by this man-made intervention.

Photo: Copyright Dia Art Foundation, New York

To add to our enjoyment of The Lightning Field the day we arrived, wind-whipped cloudscapes played across the immense sky adding a symphony of movement to the stillness of the installation and the land.

We shared our adventure with a young man from NYC, the other guest at the cabin.  Andrew was great company with a wide-ranging interest in contemporary art.  I knew we were going to get along when I observed the logo on his hat when we first met – “aNYthing”.  Over a glass of wine and dinner we discovered that the three of us have an interest in visiting the Naoshima Island Contemporary Art Museum located on a small island off the southern coast of Japan.  An added bonus to such an excursion would be to see the De Maria installation, Time/Timeless/No Time.

I would say that if you are up for a road trip in New Mexico, curious about an arrangement of stainless steel poles planted in the wilderness of the high desert, willing to share living space with strangers, willing to bear a bit of a chill at night, then start planning.  I came away with a new appreciation of  De Maria’s skill in creating a special experience by combining natural surroundings with a highly skilled and imaginative intervention.


About George

My long-time interest in Canadian and international contemporary art has led me to write and reflect on the artists I've met, the exhibitions that I've seen and the catalogues that I've read (I've been told I'm the only person that actually reads exhibition catalogues cover to cover). My interest began in the mid-1960's when I was searching for easy credits and I stumbled upon "Art Appreciation 101", and the rest, as they say, is history...
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19 Responses to Walter De Maria – The Lightning Field

  1. brian ballingall says:

    Very interesting post George.
    Your reference to the Naoshima Island Contemporary Art Museum caused me to reference it and to think of it as a way point on a future Asian visit.
    Thank you for the interesting post.

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  3. EDV Atelier says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience. It gives me more information about Walter de Maria’s work. I am writing you from Paris.

  4. Julia says:

    Thank you very much for this wonderful description!

  5. Logan says:

    Why don’t they allow photos to be taken?

    • George says:

      Must be a copyright issue – although when I approached the foundation for permission the foundation was very cooperative and provided me with photos (as noted in the credits) to use in my blog. I guess you just have to ask for permission.
      Thanks for your interest.

  6. Maria says:

    An art class lead us to your blog for images of “Lighting Field”, thank you for such a wonderful write-up of your experience. I love New Mexico and am now inspired to return and see this in person. Thank you!

    • George says:

      It really was a remarkable experience to see this installation through the cycle of mid-day, evening and morning – I hope you get a chance to experience this piece. You may have noted in an earlier posting that I have had the chance to see other site specific work – these visits have provided an unique insight to the artists and their work.
      What artistic styles/methods interest you?

  7. Chas Spain says:

    Wonderful post and insight into this work. Found you via the online course from Penn State on Art Techniques and Concepts which I’m really enjoying at the moment. This is quite an extraordinary work and great to hear your experience of travelling there.

    • George says:

      Thanks for your feedback. Sounds like an interesting course. Who are some of the artists that interest you?

      • Chas Spain says:

        Hi George. Now that’s a tricky one. I’m generally in a state of awe when confronted by artists who can make me look at the world in a new way or can transport me to another place, back or forward in time. But the group of artists who leave me spiritually recharged and invigorated are the artists of the western desert – working in many cases in the collaborative form of art making of their ancestors – their work seems to transcend time and meaning. Lovely post by Marcus Bunyan really describes my feelings about their work here As a desert lover I think you would really appreciate their work.

  8. Guy Amado says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience. And seems like that’s what it is all about, regarding this powerful work: experience. Isn’t it? Never been able to go to U.S. so far, but that would be one hell of a reason. This and to be at Donald Judd’s Marfa and Michael Heizer’s “Double negative” [if I can manage to locate it – what can be very difficult, from what I hear].
    Best regards,

    • George says:

      Thanks for your feedback.

      It was sad to learn the other day that De Maria passed away last summer (July 25th).

      We really enjoyed our visit to Marfa a couple of years ago. If you do get a chance to visit give yourself several days.

  9. Pingback: Walter De Maria The Lightning Field 1977 | Convoltn

  10. Martyna says:

    I have also really enjoyed your article. All the best, George!

  11. Nancy McAfee says:

    Did you ever get to Naoshima? I count it as one of the most amazing experiences in my life.

    • George says:

      Not yet but still on my list. A good friend brought me a copy of Tadao Ando’s reflections on his work
      on Naoshima so I have been enjoying the “island of culture” vicariously.

  12. Pingback: 超巨大な芸術作品「ランド・アート」 – TOKITOMA DESIGN ( トキトマデザイン )

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