“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.
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.
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.
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.