Richard McCord: The Lightning Field
On a barren, isolated plain in west-central New Mexico, one of the most remarkable artistic creations of all time has quietly taken shape. Called the Lightning Field, it is a precise geometric collection of 400 gleaming metal poles rising from the earth over an area one mile long and one kilometer wide.
Built in secrecy, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, the Lightning Field has stood in place since 1977. It is a mystifying—some would say a pointless—work. It is hidden, and except for a trickle of visitors will remain so. It serves no practical purpose. It cannot be viewed in its entirety, and can hardly be spotted from the air.
The Lightning Field is cerebral and cold, or fiery and emotional, or both, or neither, depending on each viewer’s perception. It has stirred major artistic debate throughout the world. But whatever else might be said about the Lightning Field, one thing about it is beyond dispute: There is nothing else like it on Earth.
One of the largest, costliest, most sweeping and ambitious artistic projects of all time stands in virtual secrecy on an obscure plain some 33 tortuous miles from the village of Quemado in western New Mexico, about 240 miles from Santa Fe.
The Lightning Field, as the work is called, is the creation of internationally known artist Walter de Maria. It took de Maria nearly 10 years to complete, cost close to half a million dollars, and has been lavishly described by noted art authorities as “a major monument in the world today” and “as important as the pyramids.”
Yet the Lightning Field, completed in 1977, has been viewed by only a handful of people, each of whom made a special appointment to see it. You might be the next one.
The Lightning Field is an installation of 400 stainless steel poles, each two inches in diameter and approximately 20 feet tall, imbedded permanently at intervals of 220 feet, over a rectangular area measuring one mile on one side and one kilometer on the other.
Its creator, de Maria, is a 65-year-old, California-born “conceptual artist,” whose other notable works include a metal shaft sunk one kilometer into the Earth in Germany, a four-mile-long, six-foot-wide walkway cutting across an isolated stretch of Nevada desert, and a knee-high pile of dirt that filled the floor of a New York City gallery.
For more than 40 years de Maria has committed himself to such “Earthworks” (or “Land Art,” as he calls them), and in that time has won unstinting acclaim from many leading figures in the art world-and hostile skepticism, if not dismissal, from others.
Understandably, few of the latter number have been among those who have viewed the Lightning Field. But from the critics who have seen it, this creation emerges from any debate as an artistic triumph of historic proportions.
“Walter de Maria is not only an artist of great capacity but also one with the very special ability to create grand symbolism—of which the Lightning Field is his major achievement,” said Thomas Messer, former director of the Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art in New York City. “The Lightning Field is an expanse beyond what the eye can see, provoking the tension between heaven and earth. It symbolizes what men can achieve on this earth by reaching up to heaven.”
A less reverential but no less enthusiastic appraisal was given by Santa Fe resident Rosalind Constable, who for 20 years before her retirement served as avant-garde artistic adviser to Time-Life Inc. After visiting the Lightning Field, she said: “It was a fantastic experience—more an experience than a work of art, because of my own reactions to it. I thought it was absolutely beautiful and crazy to go to all that trouble to plant this bed of metal asparagus in the middle of nowhere.” Summing up, she added: “It will be appreciated as a terrific contribution to the modern art scene. I think it is as important as the Pyramids.”
Completely unreserved in his remarks was William Agee, director of the Fine Arts Museum in Houston, who also has visited the site. “An extraordinary experience-almost mind-boggling. The Lightning Field is one of the major pieces anywhere in the world. No doubt about it-a major monument in the world today. And in terms of the technology, the sheer work that went into it, it is a tour-de-force.”
The “sheer work” that culminated in the Lightning Field stretched over 10 years, according to Helen Winkler, vice president of the Manhattan-based Dia Art Foundation, which sponsored de Maria and paid the costs of his monumental New Mexico work.
The concept of the Lightning Field came to de Maria in 1969, Winkler said, and was followed by a five-year search for the right plot of Southwestern land upon which to build it. Production of the poles in New York took another year, followed by months of surveying the site. In June 1977 everything was ready for construction. A small crew moved in to build the Lightning Field.
Robert Fosdick, who lived at the site and directed the construction, recalled that many problems beset the project. After shipment from New York several poles were bent and mashed, and had to be retooled in a machine shop in Quemado. Predictably high afternoon winds confined installation of the poles to the early hours, and considerable experimentation preceded the final method of setting each pole in a concrete foundation one foot in diameter and four feet deep.
Although engineering the project had been assigned to a professional firm, a visual check during the installation revealed a pole clearly out of line. A subsequent recalculation of the entire project discovered no fewer than 18 similar mistakes. Another technical challenge was posed by de Maria’s requirement that all the poles must rise to a perfectly level height, despite gentle variations in the essentially flat site. To meet that specification, the 400 poles of the Lightning Field range in length from 16 to 27 feet, rising an average of 20 feet from the ground.
But once the necessary construction procedures were worked out, Fosdick said, the installation process reached an ongoing pace of 16 poles per day. (A pole went up every 22 minutes!”) And by Oct. 31, 1977, the sprawling work of art, stretching 25 poles long down its mile-length side and 16 poles long down the kilometer side, was completed. Completed, Winkler said, at a cost of about $500,000—and completed, Fosdick predicted, once and for all time.
“We’ve taken 120-mile-per-hour winds into consideration, as well as the soil of this area, the storms, everything we can think of. The only change we can expect to happen would be caused if the earth itself moved.”
And, according to both Fosdick and Winkler, the effect of lightning storms on the Field is only an incidental consideration, despite the work’s provocative name. Each pole is grounded, they point out, and there is no reason to expect bolts of electricity to jump across the 220-foot distance that separates the metal shafts. Fosdick said he had only once seen lightning strike a pole in the Field, and the only visible effect he noted was a slight halo at the top of the pole.
After de Maria decided to present his work to the public, the problem facing the lightning Field staff was how to deal with the people who want to see it. The chosen solution was to limit visits to the almost-impossible-to-find site to small overnight groups with advance reservations.
Absolutely abhorrent to de Maria and the Lightning Field staff is the thought that the work might be thrown open to hordes of quick-stop curiosity seekers, buzzing in and out, not willing to take the time needed to contemplate the piece, and cluttering up the experience of appreciative visitors.
That intense desire for continued isolation for the Lightning Field has been staunchly defended by the art authorities commenting on it. “It’s valid, yes,” said the Guggenheim’s Messer. “Conceptual art deliberately keeps its distance from the marketplace. Part of its message is to stay aloof from the mundane things.”
Since the Lightning Field was completed in 1977, fewer than 1,000 visitors have come to the site. But for the lucky few who do make the considerable arrangements to take their turn at the Lightning Field, Winkler said, “It’s such an opportunity—such an opportunity!”
If You Want to Go
According to the Dia Art Foundation, which administers the Lightning Field, visits will be offered each year from June to November, to pre-scheduled groups of from one to three people, for a one- or two-day overnight visit. Visitors will be met in Quemado and escorted to the Field, will be fed and lodged at the site, and will be asked to donate $30 to cover expenses.
Anyone interested in scheduling a visit to the Lightning Field should write for details to: Dia Art Foundation, P. O. Box 207, Quemado, NM 87829.