The Lightning Field is a man-made wonder located in West Central New Mexico. A classic example of a grandiose art genre known as Earthworks that flourished in the '70s, the Lightning Field has been open to the public for nine years but remains something of a well-kept secret.

Conceived and executed by New York artist Walter De Maria (the original drummer with the Velvet Underground!), the Lightning Field is exactly what its name suggests; a square-mile field gridded with 400 stainless steel lightning rods.

Few of the thousands of tourists who trundle through the Southwest en route to the Grand Canyon check out De Maria's masterpiece; however, the Lightning Field has taken on the character of a Lourdes for the avant-garde. It boasts a laudatory underground reputation that inspires reverent pilgrimages from the media meccas of the coasts, and yet, there is virtually no evidence of its existence in Quemado, the New Mexican town that serves as a departure point.

The residents of this sleepy little burg are either unaware of De Maria's piece or simply aren't interested. One can't help but wonder what Robert, the Field caretaker who transports visitors to and from the remote site, must think of De Maria's operation. Depositing chic urbanites (who pay $65 for the experience) at a Spartan cabin in the middle of nowhere, this stoical cowboy must chuckle to himself.

A visit to the Field proves to be both more and less than expected. Though statistics claim an average of 60 days of visible thunder and lightning during the four-month period when the Field receives visitors, the sky remained bolt-free for the duration of my visit. Not only was there no lightning, the Field itself doesn't really read as a sculptural installation. The poles, which average 28 feet in height, are surprisingly slender and 90% of them are virtually invisible at midday due to the angle of the sun.

Nonetheless, the Lightning Field must be deemed a success--if only by virtue of the fact that De Maria manages to lure the cognoscenti away from VCRs and art openings to a ramshackle cabin where the only entertainment is barren land and sky. De Maria contends that the land is not the setting for the work but a part of the work, and this is truly the key to the Lightning Field; the piece is essentially about space (vast, empty stretches of it), sound (an entirely different vocabulary from that of the city), and silence.

Beyond that, the Field certainly succeeds in setting a fire under one's sensory apparatus. You're apt to find yourself scanning the horizon for clouds and sniffing the air for the scent of rain while at the site, and the absence of the distant whoosh of traffic is an odd and powerful experience for hardened city dwellers.

A walk around the perimeter of the poles takes roughly two hours and one encounters a variety of things along the way: dead animals in varying stages of decomposition, rabbits, lizards, birds, cows, mice, and small ponds--the result of a recent rain--that have given birth to entire ecosystems.

The site in New Mexico was selected after a five-year truck-trek scouring the states of California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona in search of a flat, isolated parcel of land subject to frequent lightning. Installed at a cost of $750,000 over a five-month period that concluded in November of 1977, the work was commissioned and is maintained by the Dia Art Foundation in New York, which coordinates the visiting schedule that runs from late May through early September. (Reservations must be made by written correspondence to the Dia Art Foundation, 155 Mercer St., New York, N.Y., 10012.)

Lightning must descend to roughly 200 feet above the Field in order to sense the poles and in the event of a lightning storm visitors are instructed to beat a hasty retreat to the cabin. Lightning strikes have done no visible damage to the poles and on the rare occasions when there is a strong electrical current in the air, the glow known as St. Elmo's Fire can be seen emanating from the tips of the poles.

De Maria considers isolation to be the essence of land art and feels that the ratio of people to space (a small amount of people to a large amount of space) is a central component of this particular piece. Consequently, not more than six people may visit the Field at a time and pilgrims are required to spend a minimum of 24 hours at the site.

The Lightning Field represents the culmination of De Maria's interest in land art, which began in 1961 with a piece titled "Mile-Long Parallel Walls in the Desert." The Lightning Field was conceived in 1969 and in 1974 a small lightning field (subsequently dismantled) was constructed in Northern Arizona. The New Mexican Lightning Field was built three years later.

Now 51, De Maria has gone on to tackle decidedly different challenges. Most of his post-Field projects have involved large-scale sculptures designed for interior spaces. A 1982 installation at the Paris Pompidou Center was based on the I Ching and consisted of wooden rods painted white; a show scheduled for this fall at the Xavier Fourcade Gallery in New York will consist of stainless steel sculptures.

The Lightning Field is a melancholy reminder of a recent period when the art world was in an unusually expansive mood. Earthworks--essentially massive exterior sculptures designed to enhance and play off of the natural environment--were the most ambitious manifestation of an aesthetic climate that, though colored with a certain arrogance, had an equal degree of humble egalitarianism. Art liberated from the elitest confines of the museum, existing in harmony with the natural order and so forth.

The popularity of the genre began to decline in 1973 when Robert Smithson, the most charismatic and successful Earthworks artist, was killed in a plane crash. A few die-hards continue: Christo flits around the globe recruiting collaborators for his cross-cultural extravaganzas, and L.A. artist James Turrell has spent the last decade customizing an Arizona crater so as to invest it with cosmic properties to rival Stonehenge.

For the most part, however, Earthworks have receded into history. In 1986, art is viewed more as a commodity than as an experience; moreover, Me Decade artists aren't quite so willing to share any potential glory with Mother Nature.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World