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Unveil the Artist: Walter De Maria

What does public art look like in New York City? What happens when the City changes, but the art remains the same? How does art in public space appeal to modern audiences if you can’t find it on social media?

Walter De Maria is not a household name. Though he made large-scale, location-specific art pieces that have captured public attention in cities throughout the world, he kept a low profile in his life and career. He was a mystery to the press, seldom making public appearances or speaking out about his life or work.

De Maria preferred to make art for outdoor spaces; wide accessibility to the public was essential to him, but he offered very little explanation for his art. Communicating what his pieces mean, it seems, was never De Maria’s priority. After his death in 2013, today’s audiences contemplate their resonance.

Walter De Maria was born in 1935 in California. After earning his MA from UC Berkeley in 1959, he moved to New York. For many years, he worked out of a studio in the East Village. His work received much more exposure and acclaim abroad than they did in the United States, but of his few pieces that are still on view to the public today, two are in New York.

The pieces, The Broken Kilometer and The New York Earth Room, are both in SoHo. They’ve been seen, acclaimed and appreciated by thousands of tourist throughout the past 4 decades, but you won’t find photos in your news feed; photography is not allowed in either exhibition. Both large-scale pieces are free and open to the public Wednesday – Sunday 12pm – 6pm, but they’re hard to find if you’re not looking for them; when you get to the address, you’ll need to ring a buzzer. A human who personally tends to De Maria’s masterpieces will let you in.

The Broken Kilometer at 393 West Broadway is a series of 500 brass rods, each 2 meters long and 5 centimeters wide. The roads are arranges in 5 rows of 100. From the front to back of the piece, the spaces between rods increase consecutively. The entire Broken Kilometer is 125 feet long and 45 feet wide, in a SoHo loft that could easily be mistaken for an office or apartment.

The Broken Kilometer is maintained by Dia Art Foundation, who commissioned the piece in 1979 and has pledged to preserve De Maria’s work. Every two years, the rods are individually polished and re-leveled. Patti Dilworth looks after the exhibit.

Just around the corner you’ll find the other large-scale Walter De Maria installation, The New York Earth Room. The Earth Room is in another SoHo loft, filled with 140 tons of dirt. The exhibition opened in 1980 and was set to stay up in that space for three months. Almost 40 years later it remains as De Maria built it, open to the public, resonating in new ways with an ever-changing neighborhood in a rapidly-evolving city today.

Bit Dilworth is the painter who’s been looking after The Earth Room for 28 years (he’s also Patti’s husband!). Bill rakes, waters, and tends to the soil–the same material that was installed 4 decades ago–every week. When The Earth Room was built, nearly 3500 people visited the space per year. Today, the exhibition sees an estimated 16,000 visitors per year.

De Maria was never vocal about the meanings and metaphors behind these pieces. They are huge, public, and permanent, inviting the interpretations of an audience as diverse as New York City itself. As public conscience shifts around issues of time, space, and climate change, so does the meaning of De Maria’s New York artwork.

Can art be understood without the context the artist originally intended? How do De Maria’s pieces reflect New York today?