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Escapes: 'The Earth Room' and Other Art by Walter De Maria in New York

Walter De Maria's
Walter De Maria's "New York Earth Room" contains more than 280,000 pounds of soil. (Dia Art Foundation)
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By William Powers
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The scent of soil arrested my nostrils as I stepped into "The New York Earth Room" in Manhattan's trendy SoHo district. Before me: a fortune in indoor floor space tied up with nothing more than 280,000 pounds of loamy dirt.

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Stunned, for several minutes I could do little but stare. Light poured in through several windows, glistening on the textured soil. I vaguely registered the muted sound of a cab passing outside. Only a knee-high sheet of Plexiglas separated me from the dirt. There were no other visitors, but that was not particularly surprising. The art installation is way too avant-garde to advertise, or even put up a sign out front; you have to hear about it from someone in the know.

In the quiet behind me, I heard breathing and swiveled to see a tall man with an Elvis-style flop of hair: Bill Dilworth, the "Earth Room's" keeper. He told me that this "piece" has been on permanent display -- astonishingly -- since 1980. But the number of visitors has doubled since last year.

"Why is it becoming more popular?" I asked.

His cryptic reply: "Earth."

To clarify, he gestured out the window to a changing climate choked with greenhouse gases. "And there are two other reasons: First, we're in a recession, and the 'Earth Room' is free. Second, it's a sanctuary in crisis. Safe, and priestly."

And bizarre. On a tip from Dilworth, I walked up Prince Street to West Broadway and entered another chic SoHo building with vaulted ceilings and almost nothing else. The vast room was 99 percent empty space, with 1 percent occupied by 500 highly polished solid-brass rods arranged in rows. As I absorbed the luminous shine of that golden, broken kilometer, I gradually tuned in to the silence around it.

Both the "Earth Room" and "The Broken Kilometer" are the work of ingenious Manhattan artist Walter De Maria. Formerly of the Velvet Underground rock band, he's a towering figure in late-20th-century conceptual and minimal art, along with Andy Warhol, John Chamberlain and Dan Flavin. De Maria is best known for his answer to Stonehenge, "The Lightning Field," a visually arresting 1-mile-by-1-kilometer arrangement of lightning rods in Quemado, N.M.

De Maria's SoHo rooms have been loyally maintained in dirt and rods for 30 years by the low-profile but highly influential Dia Art Foundation, backed by an austere French clan, the de Menils of Texas. The foundation wants to tear down the idea of temporary exhibitions. "Bring the art to a place," said another of Dia's founders, Heiner Friedrich, "and let it speak over time."

When I returned to the "Earth Room" two days later, Dilworth was, of course, there. He has been there, in fact, for two decades. I was going to ask him about De Maria but instead heard myself ask, "Does anything ever grow in there?"

"Mushrooms, sometimes," Dilworth said. No, not Elvis; with his bushy eyebrows, Dilworth actually looked more like Tom Waits. He pushed the unruly bangs off his forehead and told me he "routinely" ate the mushrooms.

Indeed.

"Do you water it?" I asked. Yes, he rakes and waters the dirt and scrubs the walls clean of mold. The late-afternoon light cast an otherworldly phosphorescence on all that soil, and the silence grew thicker. Dilworth seemed heavy with intriguing secrets. So did De Maria's earth sculpture.

De Maria does not grant interviews to art historians or journalists. In fact, he never talks about his work, saying only that it's to be experienced directly or not at all. So I boarded a train at Grand Central Terminal to directly experience his 1976-77 "Silver Meters" and "Gold Meters" at Dia: Beacon, a mega-museum in the quaint riverside town of Beacon, up the Hudson from the city.

I knew the Dia foundation was flush with money. But I didn't realize it was fabulously, ridiculously flush with money until I arrived at Dia: Beacon's colossal 240,000 square feet of space housing the work of a few dozen contemporary artists. Joseph Beuys stacks framed photographs in piles, so the art is not visible to the viewer. Michael Heizer trenches deep holes in the museum floor; they're so deep that you can't see the bottom.

This is a theme of many Dia-sponsored artists, the idea of storage: representing not what humanity is now, but what it might potentially be.

At last, I arrived at De Maria's piece. A patch of floor is illuminated by 16 squares, barely visible amid oceans of empty space. In precise proportions, the artist embedded a pound of pure gold and silver, most of which we can't see.

And that's when I finally began to get it. It's like the words left out of a poem: De Maria and his colleagues affect us not because of what is there, but because of what is not there.

A week later, back at the "Earth Room," Dilworth said, "Sometimes they go in."

"You mean visitors walk onto the earth sculpture?"

He nodded gravely. I asked him how he responded.

"I usually let them," he said, adding that when they leave, he rakes away their footprints.

Then Dilworth went quiet. He sat, sagelike, as I watched the late-afternoon light nestle amid folds of rich soil. New York's concrete and commercialism felt light-years, rather than mere feet, away. In a posh SoHo space where something should be for sale, a bunch of dirt has sat silently for three decades. Perhaps that is how De Maria seeks to change the world: by clearing out unexpected spaces where our imagination might grow.


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