Walter De Maria: Boxes for Meaningless Work
On ViewThe Menil Collection
Walter De Maria: Boxes for Meaningless Work
October 29, 2022–April 23, 2023
Just as you’re about to step into Walter De Maria: Boxes for Meaningless Work, you might notice a short, high-pitched sound underlying the other noises that occupy museum galleries. It’s the chirping of crickets, and because it emanates from a speaker hung near the ceiling, it seems to envelop the vestibule, both placeable and unlocatable. “Cricket Music” (1964) is pulled from the album Drums and Nature (1968/this facsimile, 2021), which features two long tracks: one of the insects humming and one of De Maria playing the drums. Launching the exhibition in this way is a canny choice for several reasons. It points most obviously to his understanding of sound and his musicianship—De Maria was the original percussionist for the Primitives, an early manifestation of the band that became the Velvet Underground. It sets the stage for the show’s experience, reminding us that De Maria was the artist behind several gigantic environments. And there’s nothing to see. At the same time he was creating mile-wide earthworks, the artist also explored invisibility, even in materially rich works like New York Earth Room (1977)—just reopened after a six-month renovation.
Drawn almost entirely from The Menil Collection’s holdings of De Maria’s archive, and curated by Brad Epley and Michelle White in the ring of galleries at the main building’s eastern end, Boxes for Meaningless Work is one of our best chances to see a large sweep of his production, from his earliest work, to the piece for which he is most famous, The Lightning Field (1977), to paintings completed just two years before he died in 2013. The first room is filled with wooden constructions, some of which may not have been seen since they were first displayed. Built from plywood, they suggest a playfulness in De Maria’s early practice that we could forget when faced with the glimmering perfection of something like The Broken Kilometer (1979). Adventures of Mr. Ball (1962), for example, creates a playground slide for a wooden ball, which permits it to take a rolling vacation through painted mountains, jungles, deserts, and oceans. Similarly, the plywood box in Ball Drop (1961/1964) includes two square holes, one at the top of its 6-foot height and one at the bottom; in its current installation, we cannot perform the required action, but it’s easy to imagine the satisfying THWACK that must ensue when wood ball smacks hollow box (the Menil posted a Tik-Tok video of a conservator dropping the ball, cheekily timed to the New Year’s Eve’s ball drop).
These and other box works, like Walk Around the Box (1961) or In This Box Is Contained the Spirit of a Young Man’s Heart (1964), place the young De Maria precociously among his somewhat older peers in terms of his interest in performance—both the artists’ and the works viewers’—and the development of conceptual objects that self-critically examine their own manifestations. De Maria was included in The Box Show of 1965, alongside Louise Nevelson, Robert Morris, and Andy Warhol, while Put One Box on Top of Another Box, Wait One Minute, Then Place the Top Box on the Floor (1961), with its accompanying painted instructions for use, feels like it stems from the ambit of John Cage’s 4’33” (1952) and Allan Kaprow’s Happenings (De Maria’s cricket-cage sculpture Statue of John Cage [1961, reconstructed 1984] is installed a few galleries later).
When these boxes were first shown in the 1960s, viewers could manipulate them. Boxes for Meaningless Work (1960/1961), a pair of low, open crates housing small pieces of wood, was intended to promote the movement of its objects between their containers, a grown-up version of kindergarteners’ Froebel Gifts. In their rawness and humor, the sculptures feel fresh, like they could be made now, in all the Derridean punning that accompanies that word (in French, now is maintenant—a grasping hand), but of course they are more than sixty years old, and the very immediacy of their materials makes them fragile and counterintuitively valuable. We are not permitted to handle Boxes for Meaningless Work, just as we cannot walk through the narrow The Arch (1964), which once marked the threshold of one of De Maria’s gallery exhibitions, or change the date on Calendar (1961–75). The curators have dealt with such limitations through intelligent exhibition design: we can project ourselves through Arch by grace of the caution-yellow The Statement Series: Yellow Painting / The Color Men Choose When They Attack the Earth (1968), installed at a distance in the next gallery. The Yellow Painting includes a small stainless-steel plaque affixed to its center that reads “the color men choose when they attack the earth;” it serves as a vanishing point for The Arch’s orthogonals and a mental beacon to move us forward. Cleverly, too, the date on Calendar is changed each day, conservation staff lowering the arc of its counting beam one link of a metal chain at a time.
This is not to say, though, that the exhibition does not take risks or that viewers may not participate beyond looking. Ocean Bed (1969) precisely re-imagines the original installation with a newly made, raspberry pink mattress and a pair of vintage headphones. In the accompanying recording, one ear hears waves from the Atlantic Ocean, and the other hears the Pacific. Rather than the soothing, lulling roll of water—and even though the surf isn’t particularly churned up—the results are turbulent, nearly nauseating. In the corner of the same gallery hangs One Hundred Activities (1960–61), a list of instigations that begins with a challenge to the inheritors of Action Painting: “Actually piss on somebodies painting.” In true proto-punk fashion, De Maria thumbs his nose at directives and rules: some of the later numbers are just smears of color. The loucheness of such potential pranks would find its counterparts in his later works such as Art by Telephone (1967–69), represented here by photographic documentation, in which a sign indicated that, “If this telephone [installed in the gallery] rings, you may answer it. Walter De Maria is on the line and would like to talk to you.”
The exhibition’s final room points to the artist’s interventions in the landscape, with the scrawled contents—framed drawings with the words SUN, CLOUD, MOUNTAIN, TREE, GRASS, RIVER, SKY, and FIELD written in their centers—of his Small Landscape box (1965–68) hung on a wall and the seemingly featureless stainless steel Gold and Silver Lightning Field (1993), a schematic of the earthwork’s layout rendered with gold dots inlaid into a silver-plated, stainless-steel box, installed nearby. Its opulent materials and otherworldly sheen call out to The Broken Kilometer and De Maria’s related works with highly polished columns and channels. It’s the apotheosis of the humble boxes in the first room, a physical object so honed that it reflects the white walls around it and visually dissolves. In this gallery, too, we circle back to the invisibility that pervaded De Maria’s investigations. For the vast majority of us, The Lightning Field is entirely imaginary: it exists, and we know it exists, but if we haven’t visited, it is present yet invisible. Indeed, those who have been to the site report that in certain light conditions, its four-hundred stainless steel rods do seem to disappear. Nearly imperceptible as well are the lines that constitute the exquisite Untitled [Pure Polygon Series] (1975–76), seven large drawings onto which De Maria faintly traced the perimeters of custom-made metal stencils. Even the artist himself evaporates in his Untitled [Shadow Self Portrait Drawing] (twentieth century), vaporizing in a haze of graphite and colored pencil: dust to dust. The entire gallery reaches for heaven while being firmly rooted in the earth. And once we leave, crickets.