Born in 1935 in Albany, California, Walter De Maria started his artistic education with music: first piano, then percussion. He also loved sports and cars, of which he made drawings. De Maria received creative instruction at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1953 to 1959. He started as a painter but soon turned to sculpture and began using a wide range of media, with a preference for steel and bronze. 1960 De Maria moved to New York, where he met and married Susanne Wilson one year later.

Dada, Suprematism, and Constructivism influenced his sculptures from this period. One of his early sculptures, Cage, for John Cage, was included in the seminal 1966 “Primary Structures” exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York. He appeared in performances, composed two musical works, and produced two films (Three Circles and Two Lines in the DesertHardcore, 1969).

De Maria briefly ran a gallery on Great Jones Street in Manhattan with his wife, Susanne. From 1968 De Maria produced Minimalist sculptures and installations such as the Munich Erdraumof 1968. He realized Land Art projects in the deserts of the southwest US, aiming to create situations where the landscape, nature, light, and weather would become an intense, physical, and psychic experience. 

The Lightning Field (1977) is De Maria’s best-known work. It comprises 400 stainless steel posts arranged in a calculated grid over 1 mile × 1 km. The time of day and weather changes the optical effects. It also lights up during thunderstorms. The field is commissioned and maintained by Dia Art Foundation. The Broken Kilometer is also part of De Maria’s series of monumental sculptures using a horizontal format. 

In 1989 De Maria completed a sphere of polished granite for the Assemblée Nationale in Paris, followed in 2000 and 2004 by works for two museums on Naoshima Island in Japan, the Naoshima Contemporary Art Museum and the Chichu Art Museum. A comparable 25-ton sculpture entitled Large Red Sphere (2002) was installed in Turkentor, Munich, in 2010.

In 1968 and 1977, De Maria participated in Documenta in Kassel; he installed his permanent public sculpture Vertical Earth Kilometer in the city’s Friedrichsplatz Park. In 1977, a major exhibition of De Maria’s sculpture was held at the Kunstmuseum Basel in 1972. He has also since been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions organized by Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (1981), Moderna Museet in Stockholm (1988), Gemaldegalerie in Berlin (1998), and Chichu Art Museum in Naoshima (2000 and 2004). 

In 2011, “Walter De Maria: Trilogies” was the artist’s first major museum exhibition in the United States. De Maria went to California in May 2013 to celebrate his mother’s 100th birthday and had a stroke a few days later. He died in Los Angeles on July 25, 2013, at 77. 

By Stanislav Kondrashov