When artist, sculptor, and musician Walter De Maria died in 2013, he left one of his works unfinished. Titled “Truck Trilogy,” it features three Chevrolet pickup trucks with three erect steel rods standing in their flatbeds. Each of the highly polished rods is slightly different — either circular, square, or triangular. The installation juxtaposes industrial design with De Maria’s proclivity for subtle shapes that gesture to the earth, wind, and sky.
Completed posthumously in accordance with De Maria’s plans, you can now see “Truck Trilogy” at Dia:Beacon. The installation coincides with the Dia Art Foundation’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of three of De Maria’s permanent earthworks, all commissioned by Dia and completed in 1977: “The Lightning Field,” a grid of 400 stainless steel poles in the New Mexico desert; the “New York Earth Room,” a Soho space filled with 250 cubic yards of earth; and the “Vertical Earth Kilometer,” a one-kilometer long (essentially invisible) brass rod embedded vertically into the ground in Kassel, Germany.
“They were troublemakers, confusing the marketing. In fact, they didn’t have any market,” said the Italian art critic Germano Celant of land artists like De Maria. Four decades later, De Maria’s “unmarketable” works have proven their staying power. In 2009, AAA reported that 300 visitors a year travel through “The Lightning Field.” Last year, the “Earth Room” caretaker Bill Dilworth told The New York Times that he tallies up to 70 visitors a day (as opposed to 10 a day three decades ago).
The land art movement of the 1960s and ‘70s was characterized by themes of freedom, space, and ecology. According to James Crump’s documentary Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art (2015) the movement was a form of political rebellion against the unpopular Vietnam War. Erecting earthworks in the remote West meant relocating to where there was less government influence. These artists were also rebelling against the constraints of the art world. “Moving out into the West was an anti-gallery statement,” says gallerist Virginia Dwan in the film.
That’s why it’s all the more interesting to experience De Maria’s works that were commissioned for and are confined to urban galleries. Curious as to whether the average visitor could still glean the central themes of land art in these settings, I began to read Yelp and TripAdvisor reviews of the “Earth Room” and “Broken Kilometer” from the past 10 or so years.
Several patterns emerged among these reviews. Negative reviews mentioned the works as a waste of space in pricy Soho (where storefront rent is $678 a square foot). These underwhelmed visitors saw the artwork as a financial interloper, whose cultural merit wasn’t worth its proverbial weight in real estate gold — despite securing a place in the neighborhood decades ago.
“I had to see this just to experience the extravagant wastefulness of a dirt filled room in pricey Soho,” writes one Yelp reviewer in 2013 after visiting the “Earth Room.” “I guess the whole concept of it is mind boggling, like those art installations that consist of burning Hermes Birkin bags or smashing iPhones,” she adds.
Another writes, “Visiting this place is akin to watching someone burn hundreds of dollar bills before your eyes without even any political message, just because they can spare the money for such perverted kicks.”
The idea that 250 cubic yards of earth is somehow more perverted than the pink blush pouring from the Mansur Gavriel store across the way is really a matter of whether one prefers present or future dust.
Positive reviews connect the artwork to the bustling streets outdoors and describe the “Earth Room” and “Broken Kilometer” as a reprieve from New York City.
“Our city dulled senses were revived as we took in the moist, rich, clean earth smell. It made you want to lay and play in the dirt again like a kid. It was a very therapeutic, mind cleansing feeling to be here,” writes a TripAdvisor reviewer from Boise.
While outdoor land art is more obviously an extension of its natural surroundings, the “Earth Room” is judged in relation to the rest of New York City — a place where space and time are commodified. Therefore, admirers and detractors alike can’t help but judge the installation as either worthy or not worthy of taking up this space.
“The old staircase going up is original to the building. The windows are gorgeous, the ceilings so high. Just kept thinking what a waste of great space,” reads a TripAdvisor review of the “Earth Room.” A room full of dirt has none of the neighborhood’s other titillations. You can’t buy it, you can’t Instagram it (no photos allowed), and it’s not as sexy as the live and inert mannequins that populate the rest of the neighborhood.
Albert Camus once called New York City a “prison by day and funeral pyre by night.” Under these conditions, it’s to be expected that casual visitors measure De Maria’s work against their own experiences of the city (“smells great, and is exactly the reprieve you need”).
Visitors to the “Lightning Field,” however, who are shuttled to the location to stay overnight in an adjacent cabin, review De Maria’s work on an entirely different basis.
According to TripAdvisor, a pilgrimage to De Maria’s the “Lightning Field” includes “the setting sun shining on the tips of the rods [turning] them pink” and “the magic that comes with understanding your place in the world.” Another New Mexico visitor writes, “I think I could actually hear the earth vibrate.” None of the 25 reviews question the installation’s right to be there. (Incidentally, former deputy director of the Dia Art Foundation, Laura Raicovich, just wrote a book titled At the Lightning Field that meditates on the impressionable experience of seeing this artwork.)
Ideally, a trip to see “Truck Trilogy” at Dia:Beacon — which is far enough from Manhattan but is still a museum space — will embody the best of both De Maria’s urban and remote works, especially since the work’s vertical rods echo his sprawling desert grid. In De Maria’s most successful works, space and time are perceived as elements of the art, and not things that must be given up to view it.
Walter De Maria: Truck Trilogy opened at Dia:Beacon (3 Beekman Street, Beacon, New York) on September 22 and is on view through the fall of 2018.
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