Summer 2021 Issue

Light and Lightning:
Wonder-Reactions at Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field

In this second installment of a two-part essay, John Elderfield resumes his investigation of Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field (1977), focusing this time on how the hope to see lightning there has led to the work’s association with the Romantic conception of the sublime.

<p>Walter De Maria, <em>The Lightning Field</em>, 1977, long-term installation, western New Mexico. Artwork © Estate of Walter De Maria. Photo: John Cliett, courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York, and © Estate of Walter De Maria</p>

Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977, long-term installation, western New Mexico. Artwork © Estate of Walter De Maria. Photo: John Cliett, courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York, and © Estate of Walter De Maria

Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977, long-term installation, western New Mexico. Artwork © Estate of Walter De Maria. Photo: John Cliett, courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York, and © Estate of Walter De Maria

Romanticism is where the modern age began, and its sublime light has often been observed to be shining from The Lightning Field, Walter De Maria’s installation of four hundred highly polished stainless steel poles set in a huge grid on a remote site in New Mexico. The frequency with which visitors have spoken of the work as sublime or transcendental has been encouraged by the extensive literature that has grown up on “paths to the absolute” in modernist art—stretching the heritage of Romanticism into the early twentieth century, then down through Abstract Expressionism to land art, the movement in which this, De Maria’s most important work, belongs.1 But is The Lightning Field’s Minimalism a modern version of Romanticism as such interpretations imply?

The Wayside Chapel

A 1947 essay by the Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko begins, “The Romantics were prompted to seek exotic subjects and to travel to far off places. They failed to realize that, though the transcendental must involve the strange and unfamiliar, not everything strange or unfamiliar is transcendental.” True enough; but there has long been an association between the distant and the transcendental. And Rothko himself, who claimed that “pictures must be miraculous” and deliver a “religious experience,” spoke of wanting people to go to a far-off place to see his work: alone in “a kind of wayside chapel, not one in the city where you could just drop in, but more out of the way, a destination outside the city.”2

This was far from a new idea within Romanticism. Peter Brown, the great scholar of Christianity in the late-antique world, has explained that the cult of the saints required that their remains be placed outside the walls of the city, a practice eventually leading to the creation of relic-rich shrines that became the object of pilgrimages, often to far-off places.3 In words that reverberate for our experience of The Lightning Field as well as for Rothko’s desired wayside chapel, Brown speaks of how the “therapy of distance” created by a long pilgrimage carefully maintained tension between distance and proximity. This, he said, “ensured praesentia, the physical presence of the holy . . . the greatest blessing that a late-antique Christian could enjoy.”4

San Estevan Del Rey Mission Church at Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico. Photo: Smith Collection/Gado, courtesy Getty Images

An imposing example of a place of pilgrimage lies about halfway between The Lightning Field and Albuquerque, its closest city—namely, the San Estevan Del Rey Mission Church at Acoma Pueblo, a National Historic Landmark and one of the longest continuously-occupied buildings in the North American subcontinent. The relative proximity of the two extraordinary structures is telling. It invites us to ponder the Romantic poet William Wordsworth’s admonition that we be conscious of “the accuracy with which similitude in dissimilitude and dissimilitude in similitude are perceived.”5

Both sites confirm that there is a persistent place for pilgrimage in a secularized society, but Acoma Pueblo has been surrendered to destination culture and the “place-based marketing” of cultural tourism. The Lightning Field, guarded by the Dia Art Foundation and following De Maria’s instructions, has been fortified against it.6 This is ironic insofar as the former resembles a fortress and the latter is transparently open. And while they similarly maintain a tension between distance and proximity as you approach them in the New Mexican desert, they do so in dissimilar ways. The 35-foot-high seventeenth-century adobe church perches atop the 357-foot-high mesa that supports Sky City, a traditional Acoma Pueblo settlement, visible from even a long distance. The Lightning Field cannot be seen until you arrive there after a long journey, and even then is at first all but invisible under the glare of even a cloudy early-afternoon sky. But then you arrive into a light, open field. In contrast, entering the church, you at first seem plunged into near darkness owing to the paucity of the small windows in the almost ten-foot-thick walls.7

“The land is not the setting for the work but a part of the work.”

Walter De Maria

The church and the Field continue to respond to each other in similar-and-dissimilar ways; which is to say, the meanings of The Lightning Field gain focus in the work’s comparison to the ancient place of worship. They are similar in the obvious dissimilarity of both to the Gothic wayside chapels favored by Romantic painters: the church is a hybrid of Spanish-colonial and Puebloan styles; the Field is a distant descendant of a colonnaded classical temple. Materially they differ utterly: the massive church was built of stuff from the locality—sandstone, clay, and straw for the walls, together with ponderosa pines from Mount Taylor, twenty-five miles away, for the forty-foot-long vigas, or beams, that support the roof some fifty feet above the nave—about twice the height of The Lightning Field. As such, it is the church that patently constitutes a realization of De Maria’s statement about the Field: “The land is not the setting for the work but a part of the work.”8 The church has the character of a solid citadel rising miraculously from the stone of the mesa, whereas the rows of steel poles composing De Maria’s work, manufactured in New York and New Jersey, rise out of the rough and irregular desert floor to produce a contrast between the work and the land.

Nonetheless, the Field does fulfill its creator’s claim, for it has atavistic agrarian associations. Adjacent to it is the refurbished log cabin where visitors stay overnight, a product of the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave tracts of land to citizens who were required to “improve” them by building a dwelling there and by cultivating crops or grazing animals. And, as explained in part 1 of this essay, walking into the Field you are conscious of the age of the land, of its impediment to moving quickly through it, and of how difficult it had to be to plant clean rows in such a terrain.

Drawing attention to the massive amount of post-hole digging it took to site the Field’s four hundred poles, literary scholar Christopher D. Campbell has pointed to the work’s possible influence on the enigmatic epilogue of Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel Blood Meridian. This speaks of “a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground,” trailed by wanderers who “move haltingly in the light,” following “one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it.”9 Needless to say, The Lightning Field was constructed in no way like this; indeed, a charming “toys-for-boys” photograph shows a grinning De Maria seated on the massive auger truck from Holco, Inc., Albuquerque, that drilled the holes.10 Still, the association summons consciousness of an ancient landscape once worked with rudimentary tools, an image that seems appropriate to the Field when you trudge through it on an uncomfortably, even blazingly hot day, pondering the sequence and causality of the poles.

Going through the Field in bad weather is even worse, since you have to navigate your way across the broken ground, and up and down the mounds and hollows, of a patch of desert whose ground elevation varies by more than eleven feet. Where the Mission Church is inspiring to visit in all weathers because of its sturdy, elevated setting, our experience of the Field varies enormously owing to the openness of the site to the weather and to the highly porous ground on which it is built. This drains slowly in downpours, especially in its lower sections—as critic Kenneth Baker learned when visiting the site in February 1978. He had been told that mud would be part of the experience, but was not prepared for the vast pools of it that forced him continually to revise his path through the Field: “Meanwhile great braids of mud accumulate around the soles of my boots, making every step more difficult until they fall off of their own weight and new ones begin to form.”11 In the words of a fifth-century bishop quoted by Brown on the siting of early pilgrimage shrines, “Nulla est religio in stagno”—There can be no religion in a swamp.12

Friedrich Schultes, woodcut of an Aeolian harp, or Windharfe, 1684. Photo: courtesy Deutsche Fotothek

The Aeolian Harp

If the Field does not offer a conventional religious experience, what about the transcendental in Romanticism to which Rothko referred? “It is only with the advent of Romanticism that the literary act came to be conceived as a sort of raid on the absolute and its result a revelation,” observed Jacques Rivière, a prominent French man of letters of the period immediately following World War I.13 Recalling these words in 1940, the modernist T. S. Eliot bemoaned, “And so each venture / Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate / With shabby equipment always deteriorating / In the general mess of imprecision of feeling / Undisciplined squads of emotion.”14 This was the problem—and is the problem in thinking in terms of succession from Romanticism old to new. For instance, we cannot imagine De Maria speaking as Rothko did of his art communicating squads of emotion, “tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on,” and claiming that “lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures” as a result.15

Nonetheless, words are not deeds. The impact of Romanticism did produce among many modern artists what now seems to be a “general mess of imprecision” by turning on the hot tap of emotion. Clement Greenberg was indubitably correct in saying that “the hard-headed, sober, ‘cold’ side of Modernism . . . part of what makes it react against Romanticism,” produced its finest achievements.16 Hence, while Rothko intended his paintings to produce a highly emotional reaction, the means of his doing so were coldly calculated. They involved the creation of a pictorial performance in the picture plane that appears to float on or forward of the literal surface of the painting, which then appears to expand or contract in a viewer’s temporal perception of a work.17 The effect is of a disembodied light situated in an unlocatable space, as the literal experience of a painting gives way to a virtual one. This is analogous to how one’s experience of The Lightning Field is driven by the perceptual activity that De Maria programmed it to deliver in the hard-headed, sober, cold manner that shows in its construction.

In part 1 of this essay, I observed that when touching the poles on a windy day, one both feels and hears a vibration; and I quoted Baker saying that at the poles’ brightest, they become “beams of dazzling light that pierce the air like tones. . . . I can hardly believe it doesn’t disturb the wide silence of the plain.”18 The increase in energy experienced from this intensification of light is also transmitted through other senses, in the bipolarity of touch and by being heard; and visual attention, too, can have the quality of a sort of listening.

In 1946, before Rothko became the Rothko we know, he made a painting that, as art historian David Anfam points out in his catalogue raisonné, has “stretched across its center, a horizontal band of three parallel red lines that suggest nothing so much as the strings of an Aeolian harp”—a reading reflecting the painting’s title, Aeolian Harp/No. 7. Anfam was interested in how this feature reveals the artist’s “painterly metamorphoses” of objects in such transitional works.19 We may be more interested in the object itself.

The Aeolian harp, lute, or lyre, as it is variously known, usually comprises a long narrow box with a sound hole and ten to twelve strings strung lengthwise between two bridges. It is meant to be placed on a windowsill, or kept outside, where the play of the wind across it will produce sound. Described by one scholar as “that favorite Romantic toy,” it appears in the poetry of Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, among others, the “music” produced by the wind flowing through the strings being understood to deliver nature’s transcendent powers autonomously to the listener.20 Moreover, as a vehicle for transmitting the improvisations of nature itself, it could, for the Romantic poet, represent the involuntary motivation of the creative act, in which the poet, as Wordsworth put it describing his commerce with the moods of the natural world, is “obedient as a lute / That waits upon the touches of the wind.”21

The reflective poles of the Field, polished to the highest degree possible for stainless steel used outdoors, produce constantly changing images of whatever is around them on the earth and in the sky.

Let us leave aside the superficial visual similarity between the taut strings of the Aeolian harp and the poles of The Lightning Field. More important here is how Rothko’s mature paintings, which after 1948 rarely contain stringlike elements,22 were nonetheless conceived as functioning like that “Romantic toy” in delivering an experience of the transcendental to their viewers. De Maria’s work has been thought to do the same. The reflective poles of the Field, polished to the highest degree possible for stainless steel used outdoors, produce constantly changing images of whatever is around them on the earth and in the sky.23 This, together with the changing heard and felt vibrations that they deliver, is not so distant from the function of the Aeolian harp of Romanticism and its autonomous delivery of nature’s transformational powers.

But what about voices from outer space? Not far east of The Lightning Field on US Route 60, Jodie Foster heard signals from the Vega star system at the Very Large Array, a component of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, where scenes of the 1997 film Contact were shot. Construction on the Very Large Array began in 1972, the first of its twenty-eight antennas was installed in 1975, and it was completed in 1980 as the largest configuration of radio telescopes in the world. It was, therefore, begun before and built contemporaneously with The Lightning Field. The antennas, massive radio telescopes with dishes eighty-two feet in diameter, are distributed along the three, thirteen-mile-long arms of a Y-shaped track, which can hardly be missed since at one point it intersects with US Route 60 at a level crossing.

To add to this association, the artist Terry Winters, who assisted De Maria in the construction of The Lightning Field, tells us that in early December of 1977, after the Field was completed, he went with De Maria to New York’s Ziegfeld Theatre to see on its big screen the newly released Steven Spielberg movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “The experience,” he recalls, “was uncanny—funny overlaps of sculptural obsession, the American West, and astronomical wonders.”24 I think it is fair to see these funny, uncanny overlaps in The Lightning Field itself. And let us not forget that in 1976, the year before the Field was built, David Bowie was “The Man Who Fell to Earth” in the movie of that title directed by Nicolas Roeg, and the region of the earth onto which Bowie fell was—as of course it had to be—the New Mexico desert. Conversely, Baker, whom I mentioned earlier, said to himself, “Being here is like being on another planet!”25

The Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array, Socorro, New Mexico

The Romantic Sublime

Baker then qualified his statement, saying that his exclamation “really expresses an unaccustomed consciousness of being on this planet, on being on a planet at all.”26 De Maria originally called his creation the “Mile-Long Lightning Field”;27 the title he ultimately gave it leaves it to us to discover the area of space on the earth of the planet that it occupies. John Beardsley, one of the many writers about The Lightning Field, observes that “at all times the piece is an experience in the demarcation of space, referring through the use of the mile and the kilometer to the manner in which much of the earth has been divided and brought under human sovereignty.”28 Similarly, Baker writes that “the poles calibrate the space of the plain in a manner that links pictorial perspective conventions and the modern Western mania for appropriating and subduing the earth.”29

Such interpretations have led some critics to claim that the poles have a bellicose appearance, one suggesting that they are “elegant, potentially lethal forms [that] stir associations to high-tech weaponry and its ancestry of spear, dart, and arrow . . . [and] conflate symbolism of weapons and the human figure to evoke a vision of society as a war of each against all.”30 Another remarks that their situation only two hundred miles from Los Alamos invites us to see them as “modern tapering missiles pointed into an unsuspecting sky, constructed just over two years after the fall of Saigon, in the feverish midst of the Cold War.”31 While De Maria was certainly interested in danger—of which more in a moment—imagining the poles as modern weapons to be launched into the sky is difficult to align with their function of representing the earth below and the sky above them.

As for earth brought under human sovereignty, it hardly needs saying that the Field makes reference to this condition. It is itself the most recent of a succession of landscape colonizations of its particular site, ranging from that of the earliest indigenous peoples, through America’s annexation of lands from Mexico, to the recipients of that parcel of land through the Homestead Act.32

Moreover, though it may seem a minor point, the Field is not precisely one mile by one kilometer in size; and I think we should be wary of saying that anything about this artist’s work is insignificant. De Maria himself was precise, writing, “The Lightning Field measures one mile by one kilometer and six meters (5,280 feet by 3,300 feet).”33 One kilometer and six meters, the modern French metric dimension, is as close to one kilometer as was possible when the old Roman/English system of measurement governed the distance between the poles (220 feet). It may be too much to imagine that the slight mismatch of the two systems is a reminder of the near impossibility of agreement upon the divisions through which the earth has been brought under human sovereignty. At the Field itself, it is an unnoticed acceptance of an inevitable incompatibility—unnoticed because the power of the continually changing whole, transmitted by changes of light on the poles, overrides it. And our experience of nature behaving autonomously in so vivid a manner tells us—in words not written about The Lightning Field, by the philosopher Stanley Cavell—of “the release of nature from our private holds,” adding, “No doubt such art will not repeal the enclosure acts, but it seeks to annul . . . our attachments to enclosure. It reasserts that however we may choose to parcel or not parcel nature among ourselves, nature is held—we are held by it—only in common.”34

one of the lessons of the Field is that nature is ultimately beyond our control.

And one of the lessons of the Field is that nature is ultimately beyond our control. As we shall see, this is partly a consequence of De Maria’s preoccupation with danger and vast spaces; but it is readily noticed as the appearance of the Field changes in response to changes in the lightness of the sky. De Maria insisted that “because the sky-ground relationship is central to the work, viewing The Lightning Field from the air is of no value.”35 The “sky-ground relationship” is at its most dramatic, of course, when lightning occurs. “Did you see lightning?” is the first question you are asked when you tell someone you have visited The Lightning Field. As Kathleen Shields, a longtime manager of aspects of the site, has observed, it is what people hope to see: “The desire to witness lightning’s spectacular discharge of this energy, combined with the awareness of its force and the peril it poses, aligns with a commonly held romantic notion of the sublime.”36

This brings us to the term “the sublime,” with which the present text began. It goes back even beyond the Roman Longinus’s foundational first-century AD essay “On the Sublime,” but its importance to this context is that it became fundamental to Romanticism through the treatises of Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, of 1747 and 1790 respectively.37 Although Kant had a reservation about the term, as we shall learn, and while it was not without its early detractors, who famously dubbed it just a step from the ridiculous, it has long passed into the vernacular to mean the affectingly spectacular.38 For both Burke and Kant, however, the sublime had two defining characteristics: it described a “vastness” or “magnitude” whose extent was impossible to grasp, and it was “fearful” in its effect, as opposed to the calming influence of the “beautiful.” As mentioned earlier, De Maria was interested in both danger and vast spaces. Without making reference to the sublime, one or the other of these attributes of it appears in notes and drawings he made around 1960, had become an obsession by a decade later, and were of critical importance to The Lightning Field. By 1972 he was envisaging the creation of “a vast spatial experience.”39 This would be created by the effects of light upon the Field. Earlier, in 1969, his interest in the fearful had led to Time magazine dubbing him the “High Priest of Danger.”40 In the Field, danger would be created by lightning.

Walter De Maria, Beds of Spikes, 1968–69, stainless steel, five sculptures, each spike: 10 ⅝ × 1 × 1 inch (27 × 2.5 × 2.5 cm); each plate: 2 ⅝ × 78 ¾ × 41 ¾ inches (6.5 × 200 × 106 cm); each sculpture, overall: 13 ¼ × 78 ¾ × 41 ¾ inches (33.5 × 200 × 106 cm), Kunstmuseum Basel © Estate of Walter De Maria

Announcing the completed Field in Artforum in April 1980, De Maria wrote that “The Lightning Field began in the form of a note, following the completion of The Bed of Spikes in spring 1969.”41 That sculpture had appeared in his exhibition Danger, at the Dwan Gallery, New York, in the year of its making; and it was definitely a dangerous work. Burke wrote, “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the idea of pain and danger . . . is a source of the sublime.”42 The Bed was so fitted. Not only might you accidentally fall on the spikes, but naming it a bed was also an invitation to try it out.43

The art historian James Nesbit learned that, while working on this sculpture, De Maria wrote, “I am trying to understand . . . the relationship between Danger—Time—Pleasure,” and told a journalist that “if there’s no danger, then the meaning of the piece isn’t there.”44 Had anyone still doubted that danger was on De Maria’s mind, in 1960 he published a short text, “On the Importance of Natural Disasters,” which included the statements, “I like natural disasters and I think they may be the highest form of art possible to experience,” and “If all the people who go to museums could just feel an earthquake.”45 This unamiable suggestion appears to have led him to ask himself, What if people could just feel a bolt of lightning—or at least see one?

In searching for a site for The Lightning Field, De Maria insisted that it must have “high lightning activity.”46 In commissioning John Cliett to photograph the Field, he requested that images with lightning be among those taken; this required obtaining a high-speed camera trigger designed by NASA to study lightning at Florida’s Cape Canaveral launch site,47 and half of the eight Cliett photographs De Maria selected for publication with his Artforum statement show lightning on or around the Field.48 On the other hand, he had privileged reflectivity over conductivity—light over lightning—in his choice of the type of metal for the poles: the commonly used, extremely reflective, type-304, austenitic stainless steel, which is not very magnetic and a relatively poor conductor of electricity.49 Had he wanted to encourage lightning strikes, aluminum and, better still, copper would have been preferable. Contrary to the assumption produced by the photographs, instances of lightning around the Field are uncommon, and of lighting actually striking the poles rarer still. De Maria did state in the Artforum piece, “The light is as important as the lightning.”50

Publication of the lightning photographs in Artforum, and then in other publications and on Dia’s own website, opened a Pandora’s box in the reception of the Field: insofar as they encouraged an understanding of the work as excitingly dangerous that was unlikely to conform to visitors’ experience, their proliferation came to worry both the artist and the foundation.51 Dia subsequently removed such photographs from its site and added the statement, “A full experience of The Lightning Field does not depend upon the occurrence of lightning.”52

Nonetheless, when lightning does occur, the experience may be enjoyed from the porch of the log cabin. As Kant wrote of lightning, thunderclaps, and volcanoes, “The sight of them becomes all the more attractive the more fearful it is, provided we are in a safe place.”53

Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with a Tree Hit by Lightning, 1651, oil on canvas, 39 × 52 inches (99 × 132 cm), Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen, France. Photo: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York

The Classical Sublime

The critic Jon Cook makes two important observations on the sublime within Romanticism. First: “From a historical distance the sublime can seem the invention of a culture which wanted to feel more secure by frightening itself.”54 We may want to ask ourselves whether a hope to see lightning in the Field also has that motivation. Second: speaking of the second characteristic of the Romantic sublime that I mentioned earlier, an object’s vastness or magnitude whose extent is impossible to grasp, Cook suggests that “it renewed the mystique of art, allocating to it the privilege and burden of expressing the inexpressible, at a time when there was considerable concern that art was losing its value by becoming a commodity in the market-place, subject to a commercial organization of production and consumption.”55

Similar claims were made of some land art created earlier than The Lightning Field, effectively back-projecting such work into the aesthetics of landscape design in Burke’s eighteenth century, not only to the “sublime” but also to the “picturesque,” halfway between the sublime and the beautiful.56 In 1968, just before De Maria began conceiving The Lightning Field, critic Sidney Tillim complained in Artforum of the “overcultivation” and “sentimental” understanding of nature implicit in such land art and its interpretation.57 Whether or not De Maria read this essay—we may presume that he did—his work firmly distinguishes itself from what Tillim called the “New Picturesque.”

One way in which the Field escapes any nostalgic compensatory thrust against the incursions of the commercial is that it is a patently modern, industrial construction. I suspect that only those who know that stainless steel was invented in 1913, and first employed for building construction in the 1920s, would even vaguely associate the material of the four hundred shining poles with the Art Deco structures for which it was soon widely used. In any event, it is unsurprising that one source of the sublime for Burke has been unanimously disregarded by those who have written about the Field: that “the effects of a rugged and broken surface seem stronger than where it is smooth and polished.”58 Experience of walking within the Field, however, shows that these two kinds of effects seem even stronger when juxtaposed, as they are by the broken ground and the polished poles sited on it.

Many observers have remarked on a contrast between the smooth and polished poles “inside” the Field and the rugged and broken surface “outside” it. These two zones have been said to be, respectively, ordered and disordered, cultivated and wild, a plantation and a plain, a fold and a field. These contrasts speak broadly of culture and nature—as does speaking of “inside” and “outside” at all. De Maria’s siting of the Field on an open, uncultivated expanse encourages—and disputes—these antithetical readings, which may be summarized by one critic’s statement that stepping outside the grid “creates an immediate discomfort, a yearning to return to the fold, to the ‘civilized’ space of the field itself.”59 I am far from sure that the return produces unallayed comfort: it can be bewildering “inside,” and this complicates one’s wonder-reaction at The Lightning Field.

Paul Cézanne, Pines and Rocks (Fontainebleau?), c. 1897, oil on canvas, 32 × 25 ¾ inches (81.3 × 65.4 cm), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Lillie P. Bliss Collection. Digital image: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, New York

“Bewilderment” originally meant being led astray, lured into the wilds. As experienced “inside” the Field, it is an alertness to the wildness of nature that is normally “outside” but is now beneath your feet. The encounter is choreographed by the continuing and continuous spatial displacement of the poles as you walk through the Field, which, as I explained in part 1 of this essay, makes it easy for you to stray from the straight and narrow. But finding and losing your own sense of symmetry and order within the work’s symmetry and order is integral to the narrative that De Maria designed. Losing your way within the Field can be unsettling, but it is not the panic we imagine in the familiar “wild wood” of northern landscape painting and children’s fiction, or of a scene like that in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, set in Muir Woods, north of San Francisco, and recalling Albert Bierstadt’s “Romantic” big-tree paintings.60 The feeling is far closer to the unsettled response of careful viewers to the “classical” order of impossibly straight, parallel, seemingly ever-immobile pines in Paul Cézanne’s painting of the forest of Fontainebleau at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. It is not that all of this seems “against nature,” but rather—and wonderfully—“against what we know of nature,” and therefore of a singularity whose order serves more than a merely formalizing purpose.61

Likewise, being “inside” The Lightning Field is not being in a “civilized” space set “against nature,” which is “outside.” It is a place where wonder may be a situated response to a reminder of the regularity, structure, and order of nature; and where changes within that order produced by the changing light become even more wonder-inducing precisely because they are reflected, literally so, in the ordered structure itself.

The scholar Louis Marin used the oxymoron “classical sublime” to refer to the seventeenth-century painter Nicolas Poussin’s firm control of effects in his paintings of lightning storms constructed around geometrically rigorous clusters of buildings.62  The Lightning Field similarly employs what Marin calls “a ‘formatting’ of space according to a stable and immobile order,” the poles constantly mirroring nature’s autonomously durational changing appearance—and then, like Poussin’s buildings, being instantaneously altered at moments by “re-markings of the effects of the irruption of the sublime,” when lightning strikes, say, or, rather more often, at sunset.63 But those dramatic markings create an effect of gratification, not fearfulness. Visitors may therefore be forgiven for supposing that the Field was built to show how the sublime is, as Kant thought, “almost too much” to comprehend—and has been reserved for those special occasions when lightning does fall.64

The Templum

Comparing The Lightning Field to the church at Acoma, I called the Field a distant descendant of a colonnaded classical temple. The largest such temple, the classical scholar Faya Causey tells me, was the Ionic Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, longer than a football field and in one reconstructive plan comprising one hundred columns, of which only a portion of a single column remains. We may wonder whether De Maria knew of such a prototype.

In fact, Causey suggests, the sources of the Field may go even further back to the templum of an ancient Etruscan belief system, later incorporated in Roman traditions, about spaces and boundaries.65 The word templum derives from the verb “to cut out,” and the structure was not roofed but an open rectangle, a delineated, inaugurated space marked out—cut out—from the landscape, oriented to the points of the compass, as is The Lightning Field. In this projected transposition of the celestial region, priests observed and interpreted signs, notably lightning, for the bolts were understood as communications from the gods. The section of the sky where the lightning originated was very important, as were the bolts’ physical details. Those looking long and impatiently for lightning at The Lightning Field may well have thought of Waiting for Godot while doing so. More to the point, though, is that the rectangular space of the templum was understood to mirror the space of the heavens where the gods lived, and the priests’ markings of the field to record markings of the sky. Perhaps we may imagine the demarcated ground, as well as the imaginary flat plane of the top of The Lightning Field, as reflections of the celestial realm above.

However, if this too is almost too much to comprehend, what is never too much is the continual wonder experienced while viewing the Field—wonder caused by the continual sudden surprises in its appearance, which its classically stable and immobile order has been designed to produce all through the day. In René Descartes’s famous account of the wonder reaction, he stressed that it was “when the first encounter with some object surprises us . . . this makes us wonder and be astonished.”66 De Maria’s great work is a field of many close encounters of this first kind.

1 Three very different arguments are presented in: Robert Rosenblum, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko (New York: Harper & Row, 1975); Maurice Tuchman, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985, exh. cat. (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1986); and John Golding, Paths to the Absolute (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).

2 Mark Rothko, “The Romantics Were Prompted,” Possibilities 1 (1947–48), p. 84; Rothko, quoted in Seldon Rodman, Conversations with Artists (New York: Devein-Adair, 1957), p. 93; Rothko, quoted in James E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 376. I discuss these issues in “Transformations,” in Glenn Phillips and Thomas Crow, eds., Seeing Rothko (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2005), pp. 101–22.

3 Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), esp. chapters 5 and 6; pp. 86–127.

4 Ibid., pp. 86–88, an important extended account of the pilgrimage experience.

5 William Wordsworth, preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1800, in The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, ed. W. J. B. Owen and Jane Worthington Smyser (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), vol. 1, p. 148.

6 Prior to covid-19, six people could visit The Lightning Field daily from May 1 through October 6; a maximum of 1,104 visitors per year, as compared to the roughly 55,000 per year who visit Acoma. This limited access, along with the constraints on publication of images, is decried in John Beardsley, “Art and Authoritarianism: Walter De Maria’s ‘The Lightning Field,’” October 16 (Spring 1981), pp. 35–38, and more generally in Anna Chave, “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power,” Arts Magazine 64, no. 1 (January 1990), pp. 44–63.

7 This experience is also created by the wayside chapel that Rothko did finally get to have built at the Menil Collection in Houston.

8 De Maria, “Some Facts, Notes, Data, Information, Statistics, and Statements,” Artforum 18, no. 8 (April 1980), repr. in Walter De Maria: The Lightning Field (New York: Dia Art Foundation, 2017), p. 17. For additional information on the creation of the Field I am indebted to Elizabeth Childress, director, and Michael Childress, archivist, at the Walter De Maria Archives, and to Helen Fosdick, affiliated with the project from its inception.

9 Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, 1985, quoted here from Christopher D. Campbell, “Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field and McCarthy’s Enigmatic Epilogue: ‘Y que clase de lugar es este?,’” The Cormac McCarthy Journal 2, no. 1 (Spring 2002), p. 40. Available online at (accessed November 30, 2020).

10 See Walter De Maria: The Lightning Field, p. 10, for the photograph, and pp. 111–13, for Robert Fosdick’s essay “Technical Development of The Lightning Field, 1976–1977.”

11 Kenneth Baker, The Lightning Field (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), p. 14. Dia’s limitation of visits to the Field to the period May 1–October 6 was contrived in order to reduce the likelihood of such experiences.

12 Brown, The Cult of the Saints, p. 125.

13 Jacques Rivière, quoted in T. S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, 1933 (repr. ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964), p. 120.

14 Eliot, “Four Quartets: East Coker,” V: 7–11, 1940, repr. in The Poems of T. S. Eliot, ed. Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), vol. 1, p. 191; the association with Rivière’s words is noted on p. 952.

15 Rothko, quoted in Rodman, Conversations with Artists, p. 93.

16 Clement Greenberg, “Necessity of ‘Formalism,’” in Clement Greenberg: Late Writings, ed. Robert C. Morgan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), p. 47.

17 Rothko spoke of the surfaces of his paintings either expanding or contracting: see Breslin, Mark Rothko, p. 301.

18 Baker, The Lightning Field, p. 17.

19 David Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas. Catalogue Raisonné (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 57, referring to cat. 308.

20 M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953), p. 51.

21 Wordsworth, The Prelude, 1805, vol. 3, pp. 137–38. Coleridge’s poem “The Eolian Harp” (1795) is commonly cited as the first full exposition of the association, although it does have precedents. An early discussion of this now familiar subject appeared in Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp, to which its author returned in Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973).

22 A great exception is No. 5/No. 22 of 1950, in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and cat. no. 442 in Anfam, Mark Rothko.

23 I am grateful to Michael Childress of the Walter De Maria Archives for the information that De Maria ordered “Type 304 welded ornamental stainless-steel tubing, 240 grit buffed and polished.” This is a #6 finish, which produces finer directional lines and is more reflective than #4 (the nearest lower number), which is commonly used for dairy and sanitary projects, but not moving into the #7 or #8 finishes, which are more highly reflective but require more maintenance than possible for external uses. Helen Fosdick points out that very little maintenance is required of the Field’s poles, as the weather takes care of the cleaning.

24 Terry Winters, “Field Work (for Hayden),” in Katherine Atkins and Kelly Kivland, eds., Artists on Walter De Maria (New York: Dia Art Foundation, 2017), p. 90.

25 Baker, The Lightning Field, p. 19.

26 Ibid.

27 See ibid., p. 7. The Field was originally intended to be one mile square, with twenty-five poles in each direction. That would have taken it right to the northern edge of the lot that De Maria and Dia had purchased, however, hence the reduction of the north-south length to just over one kilometer. See James Nesbit, “Land Is Not the Setting: The Lightning Field and Environments, 1960–1980” (PhD diss., Stanford University, September 2010), p. 246, n. 79.

28 John Beardsley, Earthworks and Beyond: Contemporary Art in the Landscape (New York: Abbeville, 1984), p. 62.

29 Baker, Minimalism: Art of Circumstance (New York: Abbeville, 1988), p. 127. This and the preceding observation of Beardsley’s are brought together in Campbell, “Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field,” p. 51.

30 Baker, Minimalism, p. 127.

31 Jason Rosenfeld, “Walter De Maria and The Lightning Field at Forty: Art as Symbiosis,” Brooklyn Rail, December 2017–January 2018. Available online at (accessed February 27, 2021).

32 Landscape colonizations are the subject of Alicia Inez Guzmán, “Connected in Isolation: Land and Landscape in New Mexico and the Greater Southwest” (PhD diss., University of Rochester, New York, 2016). Guzmán’s chapter 3, pp. 132–76, “Searching for Site: Real Estate and the Blank Canvas in American Land. Art of New Mexico and the Southwest,” is largely concerned with The Lightning Field. Drawing on the papers of Robert Guido Deiro, the site locator for the Field, at the Center for Art and the Environment, Nevada Museum of Art, it contains fascinating information on De Maria’s requirements for the site and its selection and purchase, more specific than that provided by De Maria as cited in notes 8 and 10 above. Among its surprises is the news that De Maria appears to have briefly considered a housing project of “ranchettes,” small artists’ houses, as part of his plan; p. 167.

33 De Maria, “Some Facts,” p. 18. Even though the size of the Field was not De Maria’s first choice (see note 27 above), it is characteristic of his practice that he thus adopted it.

34 Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film (New York: Viking, 1971), p. 114. Cavell is writing of the modernist paintings of Jackson Pollock, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski, and of his friend Michael Fried’s appreciation of them. Neither was enamored of Minimal art and both would likely object to my application of these words to an example of it.

35 De Maria, “Some Facts,” p. 18.

36 Kathleen Shields, An Essential Solitude: Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field Revisited (New York: SNAP, 2020), p. 125.

37 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 1747, is readily available in online versions. The citations given here are to the Harper and Brothers, New York, edition of 1844, on Google Books:,+A+



=PR2&printsec=frontcover (accessed February 27, 2021). Immanuel Kant’s discussion of the sublime appears in part 1, book II of his Critique of Judgment, of which there are many editions that maintain the method of pagination that I use here. The appropriately enormous literature on literature on the sublime includes a useful recent anthology: Robert R. Clewis, ed., The Sublime Reader (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).

38 The association with the ridiculous apparently originated in the expression Du sublime au ridicule il n’y a qu’un pas (From the sublime to the ridiculous is just one step), coined by the eighteenth-century French historian Jean-François Marmontel and popularized by Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason (1793).

39 See Shields, An Essential Solitude, pp. 33–36, referring also to notes and drawings that date back to around 1960.

40 Time 93 (May 2, 1969), p. 54, quoted in Nesbit, “Land Is Not the Setting,” p. 79.

41 De Maria, “Some Facts,” p. 17.

42 Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry, part I, section VII, p. 51.

43 I wonder whether, in conceiving this work, De Maria had in mind Thomas B. Hess’s comparison of Willem de Kooning to the mythical robber Procrustes, who “cut and stretched travelers to fit his bed,” a reference inspired by the artist’s Woman I. Artnews 52, no. 1 (March 1953), p. 31.

44 De Maria, letter to Robert Scull, January 20, 1969, Folder 5, Scull Papers, Archives of American Art; Grace Glueck, “New York Gallery Notes: Trends Down, Sales Up,” Art in America 57, no. 2 (March/April 1969), p. 119; both quoted in Nesbit, “Land Is Not the Setting,” p. 82.

45 De Maria, “On the Importance of Natural Disasters,” May 1960, in La Monte Young, An Anthology of Chance Operations (New York: Heiner Friedrich, 1970), n.p., and recently in Atkins and Kivland, eds., Artists on Walter De Maria, p. 71.

46 De Maria, “Some Facts,” p. 17.

47 See Jeffrey Kastner, “The God Effect: An Interview with John Cliett,” Cabinet 3 (Summer 2001), p. 91, cited in Nesbit, “Land Is Not the Setting,” p. 143.

48 On photography and the infrequency of lightning at the Field see notes 3, 5, and 8 in part 1 of this essay.

49 See Fosdick, “Technical Development of The Lightning Field,” p. 112, and the confirmation by Michael Childress in note 23 above.

50 De Maria, “Some Facts,” p. 19.

51 An author long in the De Maria/Dia team that manages the Field recently wrote at length of her concern that Cliett’s photographs have come either to define the work or to signify “a desire to exalt the work, to romanticize nature,” and notes that almost two decades before making the Field, De Maria had written, “End all photography of art.” Shields, An Essential Solitude, p. 87; De Maria, “One Hundred Activities for Rich and Poor,” 1960–61, unpublished, quoted in ibid., p. 90.

52 Dia Art Foundation, “Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field,” available online at (accessed February 27, 2021). My emphasis. (This statement was controversial within the Dia circle because it was so explicit; see note 5 in part 1 of this essay.) In addition, Walter De Maria: The Lightning Field, published by Dia in 2017, featured some fifty of Cliett’s photographs, of which only six contained images with lightning.

53 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, part 1, book II, sec. 28, p. 262.

54 Jon Cook, introduction to William Hazlitt: Selected Writings, ed. Cook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. xix.

55 Ibid.

56 John Dixon Hunt and Peter Willis, eds., The Genius of the Place: The English Landscape Garden 1620–1820 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), is an exemplary collection of source materials. Both earlier and later examples of land art than De Maria’s that suggest that back projection may be found in Kastner and Brian Wallis’s massive compendium, Land and Environmental Art (London: Phaidon, 1998).

57 Sidney Tillim, “Earthworks and the New Picturesque,” Artforum 7, no. 4 (December 1968), p. 43.

58 Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry, part II, section VIII, p. 91.

59 Campbell, “Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field,” p. 52.

60 Albert Bierstadt’s and other artists’ big trees are discussed in Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), pp. 185–201.

61 The distinction between something appearing “against nature” and “against what we know of nature” was made by Saint Augustine of Hippo. See Caroline Walker Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity (New York: Zone Books, 2001), p. 48.

62 Louis Marin, “The Classical Sublime: ‘Tempests’ in Some Landscapes by Poussin,” in Sublime Poussin (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), pp. 120–40. The relevant landscapes, painted in 1651, are catalogued in Pierre Rosenberg and Keith Christiansen, Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions, exh. cat. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008), Tempest, cat. no. 55 (and its Calm companion, cat. no. 56), p. 57; pp. 260–67. The subject is broadly discussed in René Démoris, “From The Storm to The Flood,” ibid., pp. 91–101.

63 Marin, “The Classical Sublime,” pp. 136–39, includes discussion of durational versus instantaneous change, the latter an interruption of the former, dividing its flow.

64 Kant, Critique of Judgment, part 1, book II, sec. 26, p. 253, compares erhaben (the “sublime”), the “almost too much,” to ungeheuer (usually translated as the “monstrous”), the “absolutely too much,” defeating rather than challenging our capacity for conceptual comprehension.

65 See, for example, Nancy T. de Grummond, “Thunder versus Lightning in Etruria,” Etruscan Studies 19, no. 2 (2016), pp. 183–207; Ingrid E. M. Edlund-Berry, “Ritual Space and Boundaries in Etruscan Religion,” in de Grummond and Erika Simon, eds., The Religions of the Etruscans (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006), pp. 116–31; and templum in William Smith, William Wayte, and G. E. Marindin, eds., A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (London: J. Murray, 1890–91). I owe these sources to Faya Causey.

66 René Descartes, The Passions of the Soul, trans. S. Voss (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989), p. 52; cited in Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity, p. 41, in a broad discussion of wonder especially as understood in the Middle Ages, pp. 37–75. My emphasis.

For part 1 of this two-part essay, see "A Day in the Life of the Lightning Field"

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