The Lightning Field is an iconic example of Land Art and the most famous work by the American minimalist and installation artist, Walter De Maria.
Located in the high desert terrain of remote and rural Catron County, The Lightning Field consists of 400 stainless steel poles arranged in a rectangular grid. This grid covers an area one mile by one kilometer and is composed of units measuring 220 feet along its horizontal and vertical axes and 311 feet along its diagonal axes. The poles are parallel and the distances between them are exact to within 1/25 of an inch. They are engineered to an accuracy of 1/100 inch and are sharpened to a point at the top, yet the height of each pole is specific to its place in the field’s uneven terrain, so that all rise to the same level, where they could support a hypothetical plane of glass.
De Maria claimed that “each measurement relevant to foundation position, installation procedure and pole alignment was triple-checked for accuracy.” What the historian Suzaan Boettger called “literalism for absurd effect,” the critic Roberta Smith characterized as “Duchampian with an ambitious 60s style added.” The Lightning Field calls out the meaninglessness of modernity’s obsession with ordering, measuring, and quantification.
De Maria (1935–2013) helped launch Minimalism with pieces like Boxes for Meaningless Work (1961) and High Energy Bar (1966), simple geometric forms that incorporate a box or plinth in the shape of elongated rectangles. De Maria coined the term “Land Art” and helped create the movement with his proposal for Mile-Long Parallel Walls in the Desert (1961–1963). Planned for a site in the American West, it was never executed, but the idea reappeared in De Maria’s Mile-Long Drawing (1968) of two parallel chalk lines laid down in the Nevada Desert.
The Lightning Field followed most directly from Bed of Spikes (1969; 153 11-inch tall, razor-sharp steel spikes organized on a rectangular plinth measuring 4 x 7 feet). Explaining the aggressive, even violent, quality of this piece, De Maria noted that beauty is heightened and enhanced when mixed with an element of danger. The implied shift in Bed of Spikes, from the beautiful to the sublime, was amplified at The Lightning Field, where both the vastness of the desert landscape in western New Mexico and the implied, if mostly absent, power of lightning became part of the work.
Despite its name, lightning strikes are rare and beside the point in a place where visitors are meant to experience the sublimity of space through time. This sublimity is enhanced by the privations that visitors must undergo in order to see The Lightning Field. The site is owned by the DIA Art Foundation, which controls access and requires that visitors book an overnight stay at the rustic cabin where they stay for at least 24 hours.
The Lightning Field juxtaposes two radically different landscapes: the classically ordered landscape of steel columns and the wild and desolate landscape of the American West. Culture is set against Nature, strict geometries vie with organic landforms, and one wonders whether De Maria intended The Lightning Field to say something about life and death. But such interpretations remain secondary to the experience of The Lightning Field, an exceptionally rich and affecting work that continues to draw hundreds of visitors every year.
Baker, Kenneth. The Lightning Field. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
Boettger, Suzaan. Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
Bourdon, David. “Walter De Maria: The Singular Experience.” Art International 12 (December 20, 1968): 39-43, 72.
De Maria, Walter. “The Lightning Field.” Artforum (April 1980): 51-59.
DIA Art Foundation. “Walter De Maria.” Accessed January 3, 2015. http://www.diabeacon.org/exhibitions/introduction/81.
Gussin, Graham. “Fade Away and Radiate.” Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context, and Enquiry,Issue 2 (2000): 62-68.
Kastner, Jeffrey. “Alone in a Crowd: The Solitude of Walter De Maria’s New York Earth Room and Broken Kilometer.” A Journal of Art, Context, and Enquiry, Issue 2 (2000): 69-73.
“High Priest of Danger.” Time, May 2, 1969: 56.
Nisbet, James. “A Brief Moment in the History of Photo-Energy: Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field.” Gray Room 50 (Winter 2013): 66-89.
Smith, Roberta. “De Maria: Elements.” Art in America 66, no. 3 (May-June 1978): 103-105.
Tiberghian, Gilles A. Land Art. Translated by Caroline Green. Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 1995.