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The Walter De Maria: Trilogies exhibition at the Menil Collection is a sparse, elegant, and highly controlled experience. Despite this, the show manages to play nimbly with the essential premise of a retrospective, offering three series of new works that are each complete on their own, but reprise and revise older pieces, just as the Menil mines its own institutional legacy.1
The exhibition begins in the museum’s foyer, where viewers are surrounded by three large monochromatic canvases—one yellow, one red, one blue—that articulate the De Stijl ideal of the integration of painting and architecture to construct a utopian environment, here reworked through the lens of Minimalism. Like Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman’s series Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue? (1966), De Maria engages with the legacy of the European avant-garde while advancing post-war ideals of American painting. Together, the three paintings form The Statement Series (2011); however, one of the works, The Color Men Choose When They Attack the Earth (1968), has greeted Menil visitors in this space on and off since the painting’s addition to the collection in 2006. The Color Men Choose When They Attack the Earth (1968) is a twenty-foot-long canvas evenly painted the same shade of yellow as the Caterpillar company’s earth moving machines and affixed with a stainless steel plaque engraved with the titular words. In the Minimalist context in which it was made, the work might be discussed in terms of its lack of painterliness, its extreme abstraction, its scale, or its lateral format and inscription, which allude to the landscape. With the addition of Red Painting and Blue Painting (both 2011), made especially for the exhibition and with the dimensions of the Menil foyer in mind, The Color Men Choose When They Attack the Earth is repurposed in The Statement Series as Yellow Painting to become part of an open-ended site-specific installation.2
There are slight yet significant differences between the older and newer paintings in the Statement series that in some ways amplify the passage of time between the works’ creation. The edges of the newer paintings are crisper, more precise, and their engraved plaques explicitly formal in their reflective qualities and more universal (and thus blander) in their messages—“No War No” at the center of the red painting; “Yes Peace Yes” in the middle of the blue painting. Yet when these paintings are put into conversation with each other, they subsume the space to reinforce their formal materiality as a vehicle for an aesthetic experience—one as appropriate to the Menil’s ethos as a museum as De Maria’s as an artist. The collaborative efforts between institution and artist are alluded to in the exhibition’s brochure, which credits both Menil director Josef Helfenstein and De Maria for their organization of the show.
Although this is De Maria’s first museum exhibition in the United States, working with institutional support has been an essential aspect of his practice. He is best known for 1977’s The Lightning Field, a site-specific installation located in New Mexico consisting of four hundred vertical metal rods that, if the weather is amenable, facilitate a fantastic electric display. Funded and maintained by the Dia Foundation, which was founded in 1974 by Philippa de Menil (daughter of Menil Collection founder Dominique de Menil) and Heiner Friedrich, who was De Maria’s dealer, The Lightning Field exists outside of the institution but is only possible because of it.
The rods have become a familiar sign in De Maria’s oeuvre, and they appear here as well. The exhibition continues in the Menil’s west gallery, where three shiny 1955 Chevrolet Bel Airs are each pierced through the front and rear windshield (which are now made of plastic rather than glass) by a twelve-foot stainless steel rod. In 1978, art critic Kenneth Baker described the stainless steel rods at The Lightning Field, writing, “up close, the poles are compelling evocations of speed and force, though their fixity seems absolute. They display their formal affinities with weapons (the spear, the bullet, the missile) and with instruments (antennas, probes, needles).”3 Now unmoored, the rods even further cultivate associations with velocity with their (almost) seamless penetration, but they also mark the cars as caught specimens, like insects pinned for entomological observation.
And yet, the addition De Maria makes to the cars is far less compelling than the cars themselves, which are so striking in their own right. At first the Bel Airs appear to be meticulously restored—glossy Gypsy Red and Shoreline Beige paint, full tires, chrome fenders, sleek fins—but they lack some of the features of functioning cars. Side mirrors and tail pipes are absent, for example, as well as the motor fluids4 necessary for driving (perhaps because the possibility of dripping oil would have disrupted the purity of the otherwise immaculate machine aesthetic).
The brilliant environment cultivated by the Menil also enhances this aesthetic. All of the Menil’s famous louvers are opened, which, along with the northern-facing wall windows, allow for as much natural light as is architecturally possible in the gallery. Ceiling lights contribute to the gleam, making the slick surfaces of the cars as alluring as in a showroom. But the cars are carefully parked on individual white pedestals meant to insure that the vehicles are seen as sculptures rather than commercial objects. Nonetheless, there is a tension between seeing the cars as artworks and seeing the cars as commodities, which is echoed in the dynamic between the hand labor that is involved in restoration and the cars’ mass manufacture.
As a work, the Bel Air Trilogy was “made” in 2011, but the cars rolled off the assembly line in 1954–55 when De Maria was an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, just embarking on his career as an artist. Though De Maria has stripped the Bel Airs of certain attributes, he had them customized with a signature and recurring feature of his work—the stainless steel rod—that drives home the Dadaist act of appropriation. It is an appropriation that goes beyond the aesthetics of the object to leverage the symbolic resonance of the era. For there is something nostalgic about these mid-century automobiles—which can represent the height of American engineering, industry, and postwar optimism—just as much as they now speak to the passage of time and a slip in status since that moment. The fact that these cars are called classics speaks to this as well, implying an apex of a specific style as much as a sense of universal timelessness.
The Channel Series (1972), owned by the Menil, also flirts with the gulf between physical and temporal states. Like the rods of the Bel Air Trilogy, the Channel Series foregrounds square, circle, and triangle shapes, also in stainless steel, here hollowed out and placed on a pedestal on the floor. The channel allows for moveable balls to glide around the perimeters of the shapes; as with the cars, visitors are tempted but not allowed to touch. Far less symbolically charged than his earlier Museum Piece (1966), a swastika in the same format as The Channel Series, De Maria now seems to comment on the purity of geometric abstraction, unencumbered by the specificity of historical associations. Yet he has also created a game in which viewers are not allowed to indulge because of the works’ display in a museum. Instead, De Maria plays with the implied neutrality of the institutional context, which emphasizes the predictability of each ball’s prescribed course, a passage that is endlessly looped.
The exhibition’s dialogic format thwarts the idea of the chronological, allowing for the fluid variations within a structure that De Maria once observed were inherent both to the language of abstraction and the freedom of jazz (Walter de Maria, interview with Paul Cummings, October 4, 1972, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institute for American Art). Underscoring this is the phenomenological experience that inflects all the works in the exhibition as viewers become aware of their own position as reflected in the sculptures’ metallic surfaces. Though the photographs in the accompanying catalogue erase this aspect, when viewed in person, the works become less hermetic, instantly specific, subject to our cycles of approach and recession. We can then trace riffs and rifts within the system, as between our movements (or art movements5) and the shifting landscape that De Maria’s career has traversed. And, like De Maria, we can acknowledge our own role in the reflexivity of the enterprise.
Assistant Professor of Art History, School of Art, University of Houston
1 One exception is De Maria’s High Energy Bar (1966), displayed at the end of the hallway just past the entrance to the west gallery. Though it is not cited in the exhibition brochure or wall text, it is included in the catalogue.
fn2. One is particularly reminded of De Maria’s insistence that “every good work should have at least ten meanings, I mean truly. . . . You’ve got to have ten meanings, I mean like think of the hard edge sculpture. You look at it, you get that plain red, yellow or blue, you get the plain geometric content, you get the combination of those two things and you get maybe the massiveness of it, maybe that’s four things, but that’s only four. That’s far short of being a successful work” (Walter De Maria, interview with Paul Cummings, October 4, 1972, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institute for American Art). After the close of the exhibition, the Menil Collection announced that it will purchase Red Painting and Blue Painting.
fn3. Kenneth Baker, The Lightning Field, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008, 21. In some sense the rods can be seen as a distilled iteration of De Maria’s violent Bed of Spikes (1968–69). When Bed of Spikes was first exhibited at the Dwan gallery, visitors had to sign waivers releasing the gallery of responsibility should injury occur (James Meyer, ed., Minimalism, London: Phaidon Press, 2000, 281).
fn4. Brad Epley, Shelley Smith, and Tom Walsh; Gallery Talk, Walter de Maria: Trilogies—Behind the Scenes; Menil Collection, December 9, 2011.
fn5. De Maria’s works can fit within the frameworks of Minimalism, Conceptual Art, Earth Art, and, with the introduction of the Bel Airs, Pop Art.
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