Walter de Maria's 'Lightning Field' Encompasses a Vast New Mexican Vista

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 13, 2009


Only six people are allowed to see it every day, and only for six months of the year.

It's thousands of miles from the big art scenes on either coast, and hours from the nearest city.

Photos are not allowed, so it barely even circulates in pictures.

There's even a tiny chance that, if you don't follow instructions, it could help you wind up dead.

And yet, for many of the few who've made the pilgrimage, it turns out to be "one of the great works of art of the last century."

That, at least, was the judgment of one art-historian friend, not usually prone to hyperbole, when he returned from a summer visit to "The Lightning Field," a huge work of "land art" hidden in the middle of New Mexico. His rave got me to go.

A classic patch of sagebrush-covered land, set on an empty plateau 7,200 feet high. A ring of jagged mountains at its edges, out-cliche-ing any Hollywood western. And in the middle, 400 lightning rods, custom-made from stainless steel and laid out in a grid that stretches a mile in one direction and a kilometer in the other. Set 220 feet apart, the rods tower to several times the height of a tall man; whatever kind of mound or furrow they get planted in, their tops all reach to the same table-flat height.

This is that "great work of art," built in 1977 by a 42-year-old New Yorker named Walter de Maria, who got his patrons at the Dia Art Foundation to buy the land and commission its conversion into art. De Maria and his work are famous in the art world. What seems strange, once you've visited his masterwork, is how they could be so little-known outside of it.

"Lightning Field" kept me looking and thinking for longer than I've ever spent with any other work of art, at least all in one stretch. I wandered the site nonstop from afternoon to night of one long summer's day, and then from before dawn to almost noon the next.

I admit that I lucked out. There were evening thunderstorms the first day I went, and the mountains all around were bright with lightning. (De Maria chose the area partly for its electrical storms: They occur on something like 60 days each year.) Although no strikes hit the rods while I was looking -- you're not supposed to be out among them, anyway, when a storm's right overhead -- that could have been for the best.

There's no doubt the piece looks great by storm light, when it's likely to give as many goose bumps as "Las Meninas" or the Sistine ceiling. But the best thing about "Lightning Field" is that it seems to work at least as well, or better, by any other kind of light, at almost any moment that you come across it.

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