– Spring/Summer 2000

Alone in a Crowd: The Solitude of Walter De Maria's New York Earth Room and Broken Kilometer

Jeffrey Kastner

Tags: Land art

If, as Walter De Maria once suggested, 'Isolation is the essence of Land Art',1 then his Broken Kilometer (1979) and New York Earth Room (1977) might be said, albeit in a rather perverse way, to be quintessential examples of the genre. Of course, there is much to distinguish the pieces from what we conventionally think of as land art.

Most obviously, unlike the specific work De Maria was discussing in his text - his own Lightning Field (1977), situated in desolate rural New Mexico - they are located not near some mesa deep in the lonely heart of the American West, but rather in one of the most heavily trafficked parts of the urbane American East. Among the longest-term residents of New York's SoHo district, the projects have for more than 20 years occupied two pieces of prime real estate in the heart of one of the city's most notoriously changeable neighbourhoods.

Yet familiarity, as it often does in the world of art, seems to have bred a kind of contempt for Earth Room and Broken Kilometer. Despite - or indeed, precisely because of - their stubborn longevity, the two pieces have become, for all intents and purposes, invisible. Sporadically visited, staffed by solitary gallery assistants at silent desks, the works are truly 'isolated', a solitude made more dramatic and poignant by the fact that, thirty feet away and oblivious to their existence, thousands of people swarm each day past the boutiques and bistros that have come to dominate the area. As one colleague said, 'Could there possible be a place less conducive to thinking about the "land" than a Manhattan art gallery?'

  1. Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field: Some Facts, Notes, Data, Information, Statistics, and Statements, Artforum, April 1980

  2. Michael Heizer, 'The Art of Michael Heizer', Artforum, December 1969

  3. Robert Smithson, The Spiral Jetty, originally published in Gyorgv Kepes (ed.), Arts of the Environment, 1972; reprinted in Jack Flam (ed.), Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996

  4. Robert Smithson, 'A Provisional Theory of Non-Sites', unpublished, 1968; reprinted in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, op. cit.

  5. Walter De Maria, 'On the Importance of Natural Disasters', originally published in La Monte Young (ed.), An Anthology, New York: George Maciunas and Jackson Mac Low, 1962; reprinted in Kristme Stiles and Peter Selz (eds.), Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996

  6. For an interesting personal meditation on the Peruvian lines, see Robert Morris, 'Aligned With Nazca', Artforum, October 1975

  7. Access to Lightning Field is strictly controlled by the Dia Foundation, which maintains a small cabin at the site that must be reserved in advance. Visitors are taken from a foundation office in the nearby town of Quemado by Dia employees to the work's location, where they spend the night and are picked up and returned to the town the next day. No photographs of the site may be taken by visitors. For a fuller discussion of the institutional regulation of Lightning Field, see John Beardsley, 'Art and Authorirarianism: Walter De Maria's Lightning Field', October, Spring 1981

  8. W. De Maria, op. cit.