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Walter De Maria and The Black Rock Desert

Walter De Maria died on July 25, 2013.  De Maria was known best for his land art.  Kenneth Baker described De Maria's The Lightning Field as "one of the 20th century’s grandest and greatest artworks" 

However, before De Maria created The Lightning Field in 1977, and before Smithson created Spiral Jetty in 1970, in 1968, Michael Heizer created a series of land art pieces in the Nevada and California deserts.  One of those locations was the Black Rock Desert.  In 1969, De Maria created a 16mm movie called "Hardcore" that was filmed in the Black Rock Desert.  The movie featured De Maria and Heizer.  

The thesis of my book about the Black Rock Desert is that interesting people have been doing interesting things there.  One of those people was De Maria.  I was long aware of Hardcore and that there was a photographic print of the desert from around that time.  I wanted to reproduce that print in my book, so I eventually sent an email to Kenneth Baker at the San Francisco Chronicle, who was kind enough to give me some clues as to the name of De Maria's assistant.  Baker also suggested contacting the Dia Foundation.

Through some sleuthing, I found the telephone number of De Maria's studio.  I called a few times and left messages.  I also wrote a couple of letters.  I had no response, so in January, 2013, I finally called Dia.   At Dia, someone suggested I send email to them and they would forward it. 

In the interim, I bought one of the 300 prints of De Maria's still image of the Black Rock Desert.  The image has special meaning to me because it has the railroad in the distance with the mountain known variously as Mt Trego, Old Razorback and Sleeping Elephant in the background.

I heard from my contact at Dia that De Maria did not want to participate in my project and that the image was not a still from the movie.

I was, well, furious.  I considered throwing an artistic tantrum and tearing up the print and mailing it.  I considered burying it in the desert and taking a picture.  Fortunately, I calmed down and realized that my project was very far beneath a world class artist such as De Maria and that I should not be surprised that he said no.  I said unkind things about the back east art scene to my friends.  To De Maria's credit, Heizer is said to be even more reclusive. 

Eventually, I grew up a little bit and went on with my project.

Fast forward to the July, 2013, when De Maria died at age 77 in Los Angeles after visiting his 100 year old mother in May and having a stroke.

There were many articles about De Maria after he died.

The one that means the most to me is Kenneth Baker's blog entry "Walter De Maria remembered (sort of)".  In that entry, Baker writes about meeting De Maria at The Lighting Field by happenstance.  At the time, De Maria had vetoed the publication of an essay by Baker that was to be the first part of Baker's book about The Lightening Field.  Before turning in for the night, De Maria did acknowledge that Baker's observations in the essay did seem apt.

I was struck by how the fact that a far more professional writer than I had had their project nixed by De Maria.  Baker did go on to write a book about The Lightening Field.  I have not read the book so I have no idea how involved De Maria was in the project.

I was also struck by the fact that Baker responded to my email and gave me some tips on how to try to get my project approved anyway.

In the end, after having visited The Lightning Field, I agree with Baker that it is a great piece of art. 

I also feel that my small project stands in the shadows, not on the shoulders, of great artists like De Maria.


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