In the early 1960s Walter De Maria began tracing “invisible drawings,” which consisted of graphite lines rendered so lightly that they operated at what he described as the “the threshold of visibility.” De Maria argued that these drawings had the effect of doubling the viewer’s senses, throwing into question the categories of what is seen and what is known. De Maria had an abiding interest in exploring the limits of perception, and this tension between apprehension and comprehension offers a rubric for understanding the artist's formally Minimal and Conceptual practice.
De Maria subversively deployed linear systems of measurement throughout the 1970s. The Broken Kilometer (1979), for example, consists of five rows of one hundred two-meter-long rods. When placed end-to-end they measure precisely one kilometer. Installed as a permanent Dia site at 393 Broadway in New York , the rods appear to be spaced evenly along the floor, however, the distance between rods increases by five millimeters with each rod. This serial composition results in a paradoxical effect that renders metric distance visually obsolete through its very physical presence.
In another large-scale installation, The Lightning Field (1977), also commissioned and maintained by Dia, four hundred polished steel rods are planted in the high desert of New Mexico. Arranged in a grid that is one mile by one kilometer, De Maria juxtaposes the metric and imperial systems against each other and the seemingly endless void of the desert landscape. The result brings into focus the dissonant play between the relative and the absolute.
Walter De Maria