Walter De Maria and “The Artist” by Kenneth Koch (with a note on the Velvet Underground)

Lightning Field

Walter De Maria, “The Lightning Field” (1977)

A few days ago, the artist Walter De Maria passed away at 77.  As the New York Times obit has it: “Walter De Maria, a reclusive American sculptor whose multifaceted achievement and sly Dadaist humor helped give rise to earthworks, Conceptual Art and Minimal art, on an often monumental scale, died on Thursday in Los Angeles.”

De Maria is best known for his earthworks — vast, site-specific works of land-art, like his most famous piece, “The Lightning Field.”  As the NY Times describes it, “The Lightning Field”

opened in 1977 in western New Mexico after several years of trial-and-error construction. The work is a grid of 400 stainless steel poles averaging 20 ½ feet in height and spaced 220 feet apart covering an area 1 kilometer by 1 mile.  The possibility that lightning would strike the poles was rarely fulfilled, but the piece could look glorious at dawn or sunset, and its hard-won perfection — all the points of the poles were at the same level — brought a striking sense of order to the desert.

An intriguing but little-known fact about De Maria is that he was one of the original members of the band that quickly evolved into the Velvet Underground.  In 1964, De Maria, a drummer, met two young iconoclastic musicians, Lou Reed and John Cale, and formed a band, The Primitives:

The Primitives (l to r: Walter De Maria, Lou Reed, and John Cale)

The Primitives (l to r: Walter De Maria, Lou Reed, and John Cale)

By the 1965, De Maria had moved on and the band had been rechristened the Velvet Underground, but his presence in this important early version of the band is another sign of the fascinating cross-fertilization between avant-garde music, art, poetry, and rock music in New York in the mid-1960s.

Another interesting fact about De Maria is that his entire body of work seems to have been predicted by Kenneth Koch’s remarkable poem “The Artist.”  Surely one of Koch’s most original and hilarious poems, this eerily prescient work, which appeared in Koch’s 1962 collection Thank You, and Other Poems, presents the diary of a deeply earnest, wildly ambitious, and somewhat ridiculous imaginary artist.  The entries track his progress through a series of increasingly outlandish art projects that seem to preview much of what would occur over the next several decades in art: Pop, Conceptualism, Earthworks, installation art, and so on.  (“All of Pop Art is a trivial illustration of ‘The Artist'” by Kenneth Koch, John Hollander once observed).

Koch’s artist describes excitedly moving from his early work Play (“an open field with a few boards in it”) to the much more ambitious Bee: “a sixty-yards-long covering for the elevator shaft opening in the foundry sub-basement / Near my home.  So far it’s white sailcloth with streams of golden paint evenly spaced out  / With a small blue pond at one end, and around it orange and green flowers.”

The artist then pastes into his journal a faux newspaper clipping about an even more extravagant work titled The Magician of Cincinnati (not incidentally Koch’s hometown), that the now world-famous artist has created in Ohio:

They are twenty-five tremendous stone staircases, each over six hundred feet high, which will be placed in the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Louisville, Kentucky. All the boats coming down the Ohio River will presumably be smashed up against the immense statues… Five thousand citizens are thronged on the banks of the Ohio waiting to see the installation of the work, and the crowd is expected to be more than fifteen times its present number before morning….The Magician of Cincinnati, incidentally, is said to be absolutely impregnable to destruction of any kind, and will therefore presumably always be a feature of this part of the Ohio …

Koch’s portrait of the artist — part celebration and part satire of the manic and megalomaniacal impulse behind artistic creation (his own included) — becomes more and more absurd (“How naive the Magician of Cincinnati was! … I can’t fabricate anything less than what I think should girdle the earth”).  It culminates in a final diary entry about the artist’s ideas for a truly massive artwork:

June 3rd.  It doesn’t seem possible — the Pacific Ocean!  I have ordered sixteen million tons of blue paint.  Waiting anxiously for it to arrive. How would grass be as a substitute?  cement?

Koch’s poem strangely predates the flowering of Pop, Conceptual art, and Earthworks in the mid-to-late 1960s and 1970s.  Soon Claes Oldenburg would be making enormous soft sculptures of hamburgers and toilets, and Robert Smithson, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and Walter De Maria would be undertaking enormous projects that merged art with the environment, like Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” Christo’s “Wrapped Coast” and “Running Fence,” and De Maria’s “Lightning Field.”

Indeed, it can be hard to distinguish between De Maria’s works and those dreamt up by Koch’s fictional artist.  For example, here are a few more mentioned in the NY Times obit:

“Bed of Spikes” : “a bed of nails exaggerated to the sinister scale of railroad spikes”

“Mile Long Drawing”: “parallel lines of chalk 12 feet apart that extended across the parched Mojave Desert, accenting its flatness.”

“New York Earth Room”: “a 3,600-square-foot loft … filled with 22 inches of dark loamy earth (specially treated so that nothing is supposed to grow in it). The piece, which recreates one the artist first executed in Munich in 1968, exudes a slightly moist, muffling atmosphere and affords a sight so surreally, deliriously startling as to be simultaneously ridiculous and sublime.”

If you haven’t read “The Artist” by Kenneth Koch, do so right away.  The groundbreaking work of De Maria, Smithson, Christo, et al, will never look the same again.

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