Walter De Maria: Artist who forsook a career with The Velvet Underground to create electric, enigmatic installations

 

In the desert near Quemado, New Mexico stands a grid of 400 highly polished steel poles, each precisely 20ft 7½ins high, 220ft from the next and covering an area measuring a mile by a kilometre. Stories about these abound – that they are a CIA listening post; that they are part of the nearby Very Large Array observatory; that they are constantly being struck by lightning. None of these things is true: the poles are part of a Land art sculpture. But it was inevitable that they should lead to myth, as was the case with Walter De Maria, the man who made them.

Like his installation, called The Lightning Field, De Maria, who has died of a stroke at 77, was a figure of mystery. Everything about him was ambiguous, including the pronunciation of his name. (The stress fell on the first "a", so that "Maria" rhymed with "carrier".) Whether The Lightning Field, erected in 1977, is actually engineered to the extraordinary tolerances its maker claimed for it seems unlikely. Certainly, according to Robert Weathers, the cowboy who has tended the installation since its opening, it is hardly ever struck by lightning. Many of the stories about De Maria's life seem equally open to question.

What is known is that Walter De Maria was born near Berkeley, California in 1935, the son of an Italian-American restaurant owner. A shy child, he studied the piano and then, at the University of California, Berkeley, art history and painting. From there he moved across the Bay to San Francisco, joining the city's new cross-disciplinary avant garde: one friend was the composer La Monte Young, with whom De Maria collaborated in early Happenings. (In 1966, he would make Instrument for La Monte Young, "a sound sculpture for performance with amplification and acoustical design.") Around this time, too, De Maria married, although the marriage did not thrive and quickly ended in divorce.

The breakthrough in De Maria's work came in 1960, when, not quite 25, he moved to New York. Manhattan was the birthplace of the happening, the brainchild of Allan Kaprow (Obituaries, 17 April 2006). In 1962, Kaprow, De Maria and the future latex sculptor Eva Hesse organised a happening of their own, with Hesse dressed as a chicken. De Maria's taste for performance took other forms as well.

In 1965 or 1966 – the artist claimed, convincingly, not to be able to remember which – he joined a rock band called The Primitives, shortly to change its name to the hipper-sounding Velvet Underground. Enthusiastic at first, De Maria, by then a percussionist, soon tired of dragging his drums around the New York bar scene. He also wearied of the freewheeling style of the band's leader, Lou Reed. "I said to myself, do I want to go to rehearsal every day and every night, you know, take all these drugs?" De Maria later recalled. He decided not. Shortly after he left The Velvet Underground, the band was taken up by Andy Warhol.

This bad timing did not harm De Maria's career noticeably. In 1966, in the mode of Instrument for La Monte Young, he made a tall, thin stainless steel sculpture called Cage, named for the composer, John. If this is now recorded as an early piece of Minimalism, it also led directly, portrait to landscape, to the polished steel poles of The Lightning Field.

Like his fellow Dia protégé, Donald Judd, De Maria specialised in playing human perfection off against natural imperfection. Thus Vertical Earth Kilometre, a thousand-metre brass rod drilled into the earth below a park in Kassel, Germany, of which only one end, flat and two inches in diameter, is visible at ground level. As with The Lightning Field, the feel is both monumental and apocalyptic, as if De Maria is anticipating the day when Man's ingenuity has led to his extinction. This recipe was reversed in The New York Earth Room, also of 1977, in which one floor of a house in Wooster Street, Manhattan, was filled with earth to a depth of 22 inches. Standing on what is, in effect, an inside-out mudflat remains a disquieting experience.

Although De Maria's understanding of epic scale marked him, at heart, as an American sculptor, his grasp of self-promotion did not. Many US artists of his generation claimed to be publicity-averse while quietly playing the market when no-one was looking. De Maria, genuinely shy, was steadfast in his avoidance of interviews and gallery openings.

He described the New York art scene as "a hundred people pillow-fighting each other blindfold and swinging knives instead of pillows." True to his word, he shunned it. Asked to take part in an exhibition in Switzerland in 1969, he sent a black telephone to which was attached a card printed with the words, "If this telephone rings, you may answer it. Walter De Maria is on the line and would like to talk to you." It never rang.

As a result of all this, and in spite of the vastness of his US Land art pieces, De Maria became better known outside America than in it. In 1989, he made Monument to the Bicentennial of the French Revolution, a huge sphere of polished granite that now stands outside the Assemblée Nationale in Paris. The Germans and Japanese were particular fans of his brand of well-engineered Romanticism. In private as in public, De Maria remained a minimalist, keeping himself to to himself and never re-marrying after his early foray into matrimony. He died suddenly, of a stroke, in Los Angeles, there to celebrate the birthday of his 100-year-old mother.

Charles Darwent

Walter Joseph De Maria, sculptor and rock musician: born Albany, California 1 October 1935; married Susanna Wilson (divorced); died Los Angeles 25 July 2013.

Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker