(Revisiting) The Earth Room
Walter De Maria

Walter De Maria, The New York Earth Room, 1977. © The Estate of Walter De Maria. Photo: John Cliett
“Look, look, the emperor has no clothes”

The room was quiet. This was Walter De Maria’s Earth Room, located on Wooster Street, in the Soho district of Manhattan. It’s hard for one to think of the concept of an Earth room in relation to an artist. We refer to it as Walter De Maria’s “Earth Room,” as if this stretch of soil, or any stretch of soil, could ever belong to a man. In the Dia Foundation funded white-cube gallery, where De Maria’s 1977 permanent installation resides, I shared the space, in 2018, with the room’s keeper. For the exception of the faint distant sound of the Fire Department truck, howling at the traffic, nothing could be heard but our unsynchronized breaths. I was instructed not to take any pictures, and to remain within a safe distance of the Plexiglas facade that separated my body from the Earth’s. In that instant, the Earth, much like art, suddenly felt highly privatized: collected, claimed and deposited on the second floor of a nondescript building somewhere in lower Manhattan. Something didn’t feel quite right about all of this. Perhaps, as city dwellers, we are not used to experiencing the Earth in the quiet atmosphere that is harbored here. When I think of soil, I think of Land, I think of belonging, and what it entails to demand for the right and ownership of a Land. When I think of soil, I am also filled with the sensation of my feet coming in contact with the Land, the Earth, the planet. In De Maria’s “Earth Room” there exists no such sensation.

The viewer is asked to observe it from a distance. Perhaps this is why it has stayed in pristine shape, something that can strike someone as completely unnatural. Perhaps, this is why vegetation started to sprout discreetly, outside of the existence of man. Some critics have dubbed the “Earth Room” as an escape [1] from the unforgiving streets of this noisy city; others called it “The Emperor’s New Cat Box. [2]” In the midst of contemplating the extremely dark manure-brown of the soil in contrast with the white walls of the building, one can’t help but wonder about the origins for the need of such an “escape.” The 280,000 pounds of moist Long Island dirt –in the spirit of mysticism and undeniable ties between Dia’s founders and Sufism– is meant to provide an avenue and space of transcendence. In the late 1970s in New York, Dia’s selection of artists and the commissioned work presented a sort of austere and seemingly ascetic new approach to contemporary art. This was quite alien to the art scene at the time.

Walter De Maria, born in 1935, was an American artist, sculptor, illustrator and composer who lived and worked in New York City. His artistic practice is most widely connected with Minimal art, Conceptual art, and Land art of the 1960s.

Like many of his installations, but most specifically his “Lightning Field,” De Maria, who died of a stroke at the age 77, was a figure of mystery. What is known is that he was born in Albany, California, to an Italian-American restaurateur. He studied the piano and later majored in art history and painting at the University of California in Berkeley. His move across the Bay to San Fransisco proved to be quite influential. He joined the city’s fresh new scene of cross-disciplinary avant garde artists, forming a friendship with the composer La Monte Young, with whom he would later collaborate.

However, the real breakthrough in De Maria’s career happened in 1960, when he moved to New York, slightly shy of twenty-five years of age. Manhattan, with its dazzling lights and very happening art scene, offered De Maria a taste for performance art that took other forms.

Steering away from labels such as minimalist, conceptual artist or even a land artist, De Maria’s work incorporated aspects of all three approaches to making art. It is evident that his multi-disciplinary background feeds into his later works. His involvement with the music scene creates a vibrant image of an artist who was dipping his fingers in many different alleyways. Sometime between 1965 or 1966, De Maria joined a rock band called The Primitives (it later went on to become The Velvet Underground). By then a percussionist, he soon tired of dragging his drums around the New York bar scene. In a 1972 oral history interview with the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, speaking of his decision to not go down this path, De Maria ponders “I thought, are you going to play or are you going to do the sculpture? You know, are you going to be an artist or a musician?”

In 1966, he created a tall, thin stainless steel sculpture entitled Cage, named for the composer, John. Situating De Maria next to the likes of John Cage, creator of 4’33’’, models a scenic vision of artists working on and around the transcendental experiences of art and silence. This early piece of Minimalism led directly to the polished steel poles of The Lightning Field.

De Maria, one of Dia’s protégés, specialized in pinning human perfectability against natural imperfection. Land art expanded the boundaries of art by the use of unorthodox materials. These materials were often extracted from the Earth, including soil, rocks, vegetation and water found in relevant sites. The art movement centered on a rejection of the commercialization of art making. De Maria’s Earthworks felt both monumental and apocalyptic. As if he was in on a secret that no one else knew. As if knowing and anticipating the day when humankind’s enterprise has led to its extinction. This phenomenon, however, was reversed in The New York Earth Room, which contrasted with the hard metal of his earlier pieces. Standing near what is essentially an inside-out mudflat, remains, forty-one years later, a disquieting experience. Harboring a certain sense of circularity, it literally brings earth art to the city.

The ties between the Dia Art Foundation and Sufism are undeniable. The silence with which you experience spaces such as The New York Earth Room is a prime example of this. You are compelled to speak in a lowered voice, as if not to awaken the work, or offend it. The philosopher Otto Bollnow, in “On Silence,” speaks of silence as “the ground from which all speech emerges and into which it falls back.” The use of the term “ground” is oddly apt. The elevated stature of a second-floor loft on Wooster Street – which houses The Earth Room – is reminiscent of a space-time-continuum of silence from which all speech would emerge.

De Maria’s Earth Room exemplifies the ascetic formalism that distinguishes several of Dia’s artists. The Dia Art Foundation, launched under various aliases and in near-secrecy in 1974, is a nonprofit organization that initiates and preserves art projects. Its founders were Philippa de Menil, daughter of Houston arts patron Dominique De Menil and youngest scion of the Schlumberger oil fortune. and her husband, German art dealer and visionary Heiner Friedrich. They envisioned Dia as a space that would support artistic endeavors "whose nature or scale would preclude other funding sources."

The name "Dia," taken from the Greek word meaning "through," was chosen to suggest the institution's pivotal role in enabling artistic projects that might not otherwise be realized. Alternatively, and perhaps more fittingly, the word Dia’ in Arabic translates to “shine,” most commonly used in Islam for its reference to “light” or the “light of God.” The kind art put forth by Dia in the 1970s represented a radical departure in artistic practices. It was often large in scale and occasionally ephemeral or site-specific.

Together, De Menil and Friedrich created a refuge from the speculative art market then taking shape in New York, and a new standard of monumental and spiritually charged ways of experiencing art. Take, for instance, a SoHo gallery floor buried permanently beneath black earth, its layers suggesting a duration spanning epochs, reminiscent of a cross-section reference drawing from a geology school textbook.

A few years after commissioning The New York Earth Room, the enigmatic Friedrich left New York and disappeared; Philippa de Menil, on the other hand, had long since ceased to exist. In 1980, she had shed her western identity and had become a Sufi dervish, going by the name of Fariha al-Jerrahi. When the austere house of Dia fell – due to financial difficulties– Fariha moved on. The Sheikha now splits her time between a hilltop in Yonkers and retreats with dervishes in Turkey.

Hermann Minkowski, Albert Einstein’s college professor in mathematics, arrived at a new way of thinking about space and time in 1906: “space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality." Sufi mysticism is characterized by asceticism, and the renunciation of material possessions. It is, in essence, an understanding that space by itself and time by itself will fade away, but their union will preserve a different reality. In the quietude of The Earth Room, such a renunciation of time and space is overwhelmingly present, creating the space-time-continuum of silence from which all speech could emerge.

[1] "Escapes: 'The Earth Room' and Other Art by Walter De Maria in New York." The Washington Post. May 20, 2009. Accessed January 16, 2018. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/19/AR2009051903443.html.

[2] Hess, Thomas B. “The Emperor’s New Cat Box.” New York Magazine, October 31, 1977, 102-105. 

New York, Beirut