Walter de Maria - Biography and Legacy
American Sculptor and Conceptual Artist
Los Angeles, CA
Biography of Walter de Maria
Childhood and Education
Walter de Maria was born in Albany, California, just across the bay from San Francisco. His parents owned a local restaurant and were socially active in the community, but their son was shy and focused on music as an early creative outlet. He learned to play the piano initially, and then moved on to perform on percussion instruments. He was also fond of cars and sports, which were among the first subjects for his drawings
He took his creative hobbies seriously and by the age of sixteen had joined a musicians' union. He attended college at the University of California at Berkeley where in 1957 he graduated with a BFA and in 1959 obtained his MFA. During his time at school he focused on history and then painting, while continuing to play jazz music, sometimes performing with his painting professor David Park. De Maria was involved in the burgeoning avant-garde arts scene in the San Francisco Bay Area. He got involved in "happenings" as well as musical and theatrical productions and began to explore three-dimensional art . His friendships with the composer La Monte Young and choreographer Simone Forti were key influences in this period of his life, pointing him towards both Minimalism on a grand scale and interactive sculpture as genres of artistic pursuit, as well as a conceptual starting point for all forms of more material creative outcomes.
In 1960 de Maria moved to New York City and delved into the downtown arts scene. There he continued to play a part in "happenings", helping to operate a gallery space with Robert Whitman on Great Jones Street for events and exhibitions, as well as starting to create his own 3-D sculptural works from wood. He made viewer-interactive pieces that were inspired by Dada and imbued with both minimalist and conceptual tendencies. One piece, Boxes for Meaningless Work (1961) asked for viewers to "Transfer things from one box to the next box back and forth, back and forth, etc." while being advised to "Be aware that what you are doing is meaningless." In 1960 he also married Susanne Wilson (who later called herself Susanna), after traveling to New York City together. The couple later divorced. Working as a clothing designer in New York City, Susanne also introduced de Maria to the eccentric artist Joseph Cornell, whose boxes of found, collaged elements were resonant with some of de Maria's own early, highly crafted, smaller-scale sculptural work before moving on to working in metal.
De Maria's longtime involvement with music continued during his early career. He composed two musical works himself titled Cricket Music (1964) and Ocean Music (1968), and played music in jazz and rock bands around New York City. In 1965 he joined the band The Primitives, which became the foundation for The Velvet Underground, the avant-rock group championed by Andy Warhol, icon of Pop art and which featured the musicians John Cale and Lou Reed. De Maria was also a part of an artist/musician collaborative group called The Druds, but avoided public recognition and celebrity. He rarely gave interviews and he tried not to be photographed.
By the late 1960s de Maria was beginning to become involved in the emerging Land Art movement. He continued working within Minimalist and Conceptualist structures, and was recommended for the Dwan gallery by fellow Minimalist and Conceptualist artists like Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre, but he started to also engage with aspects of nature. He filled the Galeria Heiner Friedrich in Munich with dirt in 1968 and that same year made Mile Long Drawing in the Mojave Desert.His relationship with Heiner Friedrich was an important one. The German art dealer became the founding director of the Dia Art Foundation in the United States, which funded four of de Maria's most important site-specific Earthwork installations in the 1970s: The Lightning Field, Vertical Earth Kilometer, Earth Room, and The Broken Kilometer.
De Maria had numerous solo exhibitions and created permanent sculptures that can be found around the world, from Paris to Munich, but a lot of his work remains as elusive as he was. Not much information about his personal life exists, and it seems de Maria wanted it that way. Still his importance was recognized by many in the artworld, he was described, for instance, by Michael Govan, the Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as, "one of the greatest artists of our time." De Maria went to California to visit his mother on her 100th birthday in the year 2013. Only a few days later he suffered a stroke. He remained there for treatment but died soon after in his sleep at the age of 77.
The Legacy of Walter de Maria
De Maria strongly influenced his peers and later generations of artists who thought to work on ambitious scales, both in terms of physical dimensions and time duration - essentially expanding the scope of the Minimalist canvas. Moving beyond public sculptures that were installed in built, urban environments, de Maria helped establish Earthworks and Land Art as important modes of creative practice for contemporary art, not simply calling attention to the environment, but physically placing viewers and immersing them in it - the vast expanse of desert terrain being a particular favorite. De Maria, along with some of his peers, helped initiate the notion of art-interested viewers trekking not only to a particular museum location to view collections of art, but also to more unusual sites where singular works are located.