The Lightning Field: How Walter De Maria’s Land Art Lodestar Communes with Cormac McCarthy, Herman Melville, and Web3

It’s more colorful on the high desert plains of western New Mexico’s remote Catron County than most Americans probably think: a rainbow of gold, sanguine, and umber, blotted with shocks of assertive teals and jades, and accents of muted violet. A dozen miles east of the Continental Divide, at an elevation of 7,200 feet, the sky is inescapable, glowing so blue that it borders on the psychedelic. Here, in 1977, Walter De Maria, along with a small army of surveyors, engineers, contractors, patrons, and local high school students, installed the artist’s best-known work, The Lightning Field. Four hundred stainless steel poles, one placed every 220 feet, mark a precise rectangular grid that measures one mile by one kilometer. Each pole is machined to two inches in diameter, though, to account for the uneven terrain, their heights vary—between 15 feet and close to 27 feet—such that their tips reach an effectively level plane.

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As the sun rises and relaxes from its midday meridian, the poles reflect the surrounding earth and sky, creating the illusion that they have disappeared. At sunset and sunrise, they vibrate in voltaic pinks and oranges, as if 400 leviathan blacksmiths have pulled screaming hot spears from a forge buried beneath the Colorado Plateau. Frequent electrical storms bombard the region throughout the summer months, but despite De Maria’s evocative title, lightning strikes are rare. To misunderstand this fact is understandable; primary among the limited documentation De Maria approved for public distribution are John Cliett’s sensational 1978–79 photographs capturing spidery, glowing bolts smiting the poles.

Clawing out of the earth among De Maria’s scattered legion of silver palisades are crunchy patches of pastel bunchgrasses and rabbitbrush. Between the skeletal vegetation, the chalky dirt resembles Nesquik chocolate powder, and in the raking afternoon sunlight, footprints from visitors who have stalkedthis tract’s perimeter since the last rain appear deeper than they actually are.Scat from pronghorn, jackrabbit, and coyotes, plus bone-dry cattle-pat mounds, cast diminutive pockets of cartoonish useless shade. It is a hypnotizing topography, to be sure, yet so much of America’s tremendous Southwest is equally compelling, much of it more so. There are mesmerizing sites within a few hours’ drive: the beguiling Bisti/De-Na-Zin badlands; the verdant Gila Forest with its hot springs, canyons, and ancient Mogollon cliff dwellings; the jaw-dropping Painted Desert; the towering Tsé Bit’a’í, or Shiprock. These places are also—for better or worse—far more accessible to the average person.

The Lightning Field is open only to approved visitors, who request reservations months in advance via the Dia Art Foundation, the New York–based organization that commissioned and maintains the work. Then, May through October, a maximum of six visitors per day reports to Dia’s barebones offices in Quemado, New Mexico. The main drag there is spartan but practical, with McCoy’s Hardware and Feed, the Largo Motel, the Rito Quemado convenience store, a few auto repair shops, and Cafe Chubascos, which deserves a signal boost from Guy Fieri. From Quemado, a Dia staffer hauls visitors in a large SUV to the site, roughly an hour away. There’s a well-appointed early 20th-century homesteader cabin at the northern end of the field, which has five beds across three bedrooms, plus two full baths, a kitchen with ample provisions, and—somewhat irritatingly, though not Dia’s fault—5G cellular coverage. Before departing, the staffer recommends walking the perimeter of the field prior to transecting it, a soft edict which, judging by the eroded, quadrate path, most visitors observe. Per De Maria’s explicit parameters, photographing the property is forbidden, though it’s doubtful anyone with a smartphone heeds this.

Illustration for Art in America of The Lightning Field by Thomas J Gamble.

From the reservation protocols to the vegetarian enchiladas waiting in the refrigerator, the Lightning Field experience is scripted to the point that critic John Beardsley, writing for October in 1980, took both De Maria and Dia to task. Such a “directive posture” was, Beardsley argued, either “defensive or condescending.” In contrast, other earthworks such as Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (1969), Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), and Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels (1973–76) are freely experienced.

De Maria scholar Jane McFadden, in a 2017 lecture, noted “the tendency of [The Lightning Field] to evoke a personal narrative,” a trope that makes me hesitant to attempt a firsthand account, especially when the encounter is so controlled. Perhaps consuming a heroic dose of psilocybin or surreptitiously interacting with other visitors as if it’s an episode of Nathan Fielder’s TV series The Rehearsal might shake things up. But I had, by design, the same experience as anybody else. What I didn’t feel was the oft-reported transcendence, even as the poles glowed dramatically at sunset and sunrise.

To a lifelong New Yorker or Chicagoan seduced by what is a sublime, otherworldly environment, I imagine walking De Maria’s installation offers a rare, consequential moment of eco-spiritual communion. But as someone who spends a significant portion of my time outdoors in the American West, I found myself wrestling with the cognitive friction between such accounts and The Lightning Field’s proximity to military and governmental research sites, including the US-Mexico border wall, Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, and the Trinity test site (the explosion of which, in 1945, was very likely visible from the cabin’s porch). Such a paradox undergirds all earthworks in the American West, where romantic mythologies, historical bloodguilt, fetishized desert aesthetics, and libertarian potentialism tenuously dance between black sites and proving grounds.

I’m not alone in my crankery. Back in 1981, critic Kenneth Baker identified symmetries between De Maria’s imperial-metric grid and “modern Western mania for appropriating and subduing the earth.” More recently, in 2018, attorney K-Sue Park, whose scholarship examines colonialism, private property, and displacement, posited that The Lightning Field invokes “the sightlines of a Western perspectival view and the mark of the surveyor’s lines on the land.”

The April 1980 issue of Artforum featured The Lightning Field with Cliett’s now famous photographs punctuating a text by De Maria that details the work’s planning, installation, and materiality. The text is unromantic and technical, offering no historical information about the plot Dia purchased for the installation, or the region more broadly. Still, as curator John Elderfield has observed, by 1977, De Maria had demonstrated an exacting, almost pathological specificity across his interdisciplinary output. It’s reasonable to speculate that allusions to land surveying and Manifest Destiny were conscious. Surveyors were, of course, integral to producing the work.

Back in 1969, De Maria released Hard Core, a short anti-Western film shot in Nevada’s Black Rock desert with a score featuring two experimental solo drum sound collages. Panoramic landscape shots are interrupted by two cowboys (one of them played by Michael Heizer) loading their guns. Tension builds as De Maria’s militaristic drums pierce a hypnotic soundtrack of ocean waves, suggesting the imminent arrival of syncopated, machined grids supporting railroads, telegraph networks, and agriculture. Calm returns as night falls but is soon shattered by a ridiculous, protracted shootout lacking the payoff of a death scene. Instead, the camera cuts to the face of an Asian girl, presumably likening the expansionist violence of the American frontier to the escalating imperial violence in Vietnam. It’s ham-fisted, but not parochial.

A landscape with silver lightning rods and bolts of lightning shooting down.
Walter De Maria: The Lightning Field, 1977, long-term installation, western New Mexico.

Dia no longer features Cliett’s most kinetic photographs of The Lightning Field on its website, stating that “a full experience … does not depend upon the occurrence of lightning.” But long before the arrival of the so-called “experience economy,” De Maria’s wide dissemination of the stunning documentation complicated deeper discourse from the start. In foregrounding the chance of electrical spectacle, visitors are tantalized by a potentially epic experience in which they’re the main character, a purchased adventure to recount to envious friends at dinner parties back home. This baiting technique amplifies visitors’ subconscious consumer identity while muting reverberations of the indigenous subjugation and environmental extraction that purloined, parceled, and productized the Southwest.

The work’s exclusivity exacerbates such obfuscations. Add a quaint, chic cabin that offers zero context—sociocultural, economic, or ecological—about homesteading in the Southwest, and visitors to The Lightning Field, as attorney Park proposed, are left with “an experience of the land that is romanticized, commodified, specialized, and rarefied into a history-less meditation on space, nature, and the universal self.” Thoreau would have loved it.

THROUGH THE HOMESTEAD ACT OF 1862, the United States government released into the public domain enormous swaths of land taken from Mexico and Native Americans. Lured by in-kind acreage and pipe dreams of prosperity, homesteaders plunged into inhospitable country where they identified overland routes and located abundant natural resources, acting as human surveying stakes in advance of the imminent excavators of empire. Four million homesteader claims were filed, 1.6 million of which ultimately resulted in deeds. In the Southwest, work to improve the parched terrain, a caveat of being granted a deed, proved grueling. Many homesteaders abandoned their plots (and cabins), but succeeded in beta-testing the desert for land speculators from the East, who soon swooped in to hoard, chop, and flip quadrants in advance of railroad lines, new markets, and statehood for Texas, California, New Mexico, and Arizona. As Park points out, homesteaders, whether they stuck it out or not, were useful: they cleared land, introduced disease, and chased off game, while also ruining life for Indigenous people and pushing tribes to cede land to the United States.

An old-fashioned lodge building with a thatched roof.
Illustration for Art in America of the lodge at The Lightning Field by Thomas J Gamble.

Amid this kinetic reshuffling of people, property, and profit, it became difficult to discern between speculators and fraudsters. Several years after the Mexican-American War, super-grifter James Reavis, dubbed the “Baron of Arizona,” spun an elaborate, multigenerational yarn to exploit lineal land grant terms of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the 1854 Gadsden Purchase. Reavis pocketed an estimated $5.3 million in cash—$173 million in 2022—while nearly swindling what would become the states of Arizona and New Mexico out of some 18,000 square miles of land. Following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the black-market slave trader and knife eponym James Bowie (who later died at the Alamo) and his brother, John, duped more than 100 Arkansans into purchasing former Spanish land grants in Louisiana to which the Bowies never held title.

The 19th-century misrepresentation problem was not limited to a few bad apples; it was systemic. City boosters east and west of the Mississippi—including in metropolises like Chicago—instrumentalized the expanding reach of newspapers and wires to exaggerate their population numbers, economic opportunities, and industrial infrastructure, thus coercing people and private enterprise to relocate. Corporations got in on the scams too. After the federal government granted railroad companies 150 million acres to expand transportation and shipping networks to pump economic growth, several rail executives turned around and sold the land, using the profits to bribe public officials to overlook their monopolization schemes.

Gluttonous land and transportation speculation bubbles—debt pyramids built on imprudent or nonexistent currency reserves—repeatedly crashed the economy. Throughout the 19th century, the United States averaged a widespread financial collapse every 20 or so years, with generation-defining crises in 1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, and 1893. Every high noon begets a sunset.

CORMAC MCCARTHY’S BLEAK ANTI-WESTERN novel Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West (1985) imagines the heinous, mid-19th-century exploits of the Glanton gang, an actual band of scalp-hunting mercenaries, as they wreaked havoc, primarily upon Indigenous people, across northern Mexico and parts of the American Southwest. The massacres are so numerous, and McCarthy’s prose so peculiar and unemotional, as to render abject violence a confounding banality.

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Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, New York, Modern Library, 2001; 384 pages.

Blood Meridian closes with a terse, cryptic epilogue in which a man uses an implement to dig a pattern of holes across an unidentified plain. Behind him, “gatherers of bones and those who do not gather” shadow his progress over the landscape. Interpretations of the 200-word coda abound. The digger could be priming the land for fence posts, telegraph poles, or railroad expansion; in any case, he represents industrial civilization bringing order to a feral West. Some scholars hypothesize an authorial vanity: the digger is McCarthy, the man of letters, bringing critical reflection to a whitewashed period of American history. And the gatherers of bones? Between 1870 and 1883, white hunters slaughtered millions of bison across the Great Plains and the Southwest for their hides, leaving their carcasses to rot in the sun. Poor homesteaders and Native Americans collected the bones, which could be sold to fertilizer manufacturers or sugar refineries, or turned into home goods like buttons or china. Those “who do not gather” bones might be Easterners of higher socioeconomic means: industrialists, bankers, land speculators, and military men.

In 2002, writer Christopher D. Campbell made the entertaining case that Blood Meridian’s epilogue could have been inspired by McCarthy’s witnessing the installation of The Lightning Field. Campbell cites geographic and chronological symbioses, as well as the remarkable frequency with which McCarthy describes lightning throughout his oeuvre. Irrespective of whether Campbell’s proposal that the construction of The Lightning Field inspired Blood Meridian is empirically true, it summons an ontological truth, mirrored in the other direction: narratives of settler colonialism are embedded in every site of American Land art. Without catastrophic frontier violence upon the Apache, Comanche, Zuni, Hopi, Navajo, and others, there would have been no desert homesteaders, no New Mexican statehood, no acreage for the Dia Art Foundation to purchase, and, thus, no Land art in Catron County.

Additional parallels between McCarthy and De Maria start to hum: Both artists share a penchant for aesthetic austerity, employ repetition as a fundamental formal strategy, and are known to have quoted Herman Melville. Blood Meridian is filled with overt syntactical and thematic nods to Moby-Dick. And De Maria’s paperback-size stainless steel sculpture titled Melville (1967) bears the engraved opening lines of Melville’s final novel, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade.

De Maria was himself a bit of a confidence man. Ten years after Melville, he extended the trust game of sculpture with his Vertical Earth Kilometer, asking art world intelligentsia to take him at his word that he had driven a kilometer-long solid brass rod into the earth in the Friedrichsplatz Park in Kassel, Germany. He also convinced oil heiress and Dia cofounder Philippa de Menil to underwrite his absurd, enormous, unsellable impulse in the New Mexican desert.

Melville’s The Confidence-Man takes place in the heyday of legendary hoaxer P.T. Barnum, spiritualist swindlers, and humbuggery of all sorts. The meandering story unfolds over a single day on a riverboat traveling the Mississippi River, and centers a gregarious entrepreneurial chameleon with an aptitude for costuming and currying favor. Unlike Blood Meridian’s Judge Holden or Moby-Dick’s Captain Ahab, this 19th-century archetypal man emerged as the US market economy, juiced by rapid advancements in transportation and communication, started to go mobile. Such an expanded system required enormous faith in the integrity of strangers. Enter the confidence man, or con artist, who traded on trust, hope, and economic aspiration, but also on the fear of missing out on financial opportunity.

The Confidence Man: His Masquerade by Herman Melville, London, John Lehmann Limited, 1948; 400 pages.

Grifts were diverse: retail ploys, fraudulent lotteries, marketing schemes, stock cheats, fake telegraph services, even phony volunteer armies. Bogus panaceas and elixirs—the proverbial snake oil—were everywhere. Fraudsters even found ways to dematerialize physical and non-fungible assets like land into speculative specters, forging deeds or inventing faraway farms out of whole cloth. The promise of a future return on a faithful investment relied, in no small part, on a 19th-century psychological milieu defined by Protestant prosperity theology. A predestinarian delusion made one a perfect mark for con men: optimism is an exploitable weakness.

WITH AMERICA’S FRONTIER NOW CONQUERED, railways abandoned, manufacturing capacity nonexistent, and climate in chaos, 21st-century grifter culture has transcended the corporeal plane by evangelizing the blockchain, a decentralized, peer-to-peer virtual ledger of cryptocurrency pyramid schemes. Today’s con men are uncool, extremely online libertarians who use terms like hustlepreneur and grindset, and worship at the altar of billionaire tech charlatans like Elon Musk. They also admire cowboys and mining industrialists, invoking the Wild West without irony. Early tech adopters are pioneers, and Web3, the new frontier. Impressive is their slipshod synthesis of the basest themes in Blood Meridian and The Confidence-Man, produced most likely without having read either. It’s no wonder all three space-oil salesmen—Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson—don Stetsons for photo ops.

Aspirational fanboy capitalists deluge social media platforms with nonstop circle-jerk livestreams and mind-numbing podcasts in which they pitch virtual bottled lightning through convoluted multilevel marketing scams involving cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, and non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, blockchain-minted certificates of private ownership for ever-reproducible digital art. Their enthusiasm is, of course, part of the grift; in order for their speculative assets to gain value, they need your weird cousin or listless friend from high school to buy in too.

Relentless direct appeals and vague references to “community” stimulate among internet audiences a para-social confidence in crypto influencers. The blockchain itself makes a convenient confidence talisman: a transparent, impartial techno-solution to the political problem of wealth inequality. Plenty of these hucksters have panacea side hustles, hawking nootropics and supplements. Like Melville’s manipulative riverboat confidence man, crypto evangelizers exploit their marks’ economic aspirations and activate their fears of missing out. Critics who note clear parallels to pyramid schemes like Amway or Cutco are labeled haters; legitimate skepticism is tantamount to misanthropy.

Earth may be facing ecological collapse, but crypto users can now buy tiles of digital territory on Earth 2, a virtual project based on real-world land speculation. But unlike popular virtual worlds or massively multiplayer online role-playing games like Second Life or World of Warcraft, the platform offers no interactivity, no gameplay, only the opportunity to homestead and hoard pixels in the hope of flipping them to some other sucker at a future date. Considering the documented jaw-dropping carbon footprints of blockchain technologies like Bitcoin and NFTs, Earth 2 feels insultingly nihilistic. Cryptocurrencies require nearly inconceivable computing power to “mine,” a nerdy appropriation of verbiage that might otherwise be funny, were crypto mining itself not so environmentally horrific. The consensus mechanism for verifying a new block on the Bitcoin ledger is called proof-of-work, which involves thousands of decentralized computer nodes attempting to solve complex cryptographic puzzles—the redundant “work” that supposedly makes the blockchain difficult to hack—using hardware such as a graphics processing unit (GPU) or an application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC). Solving the equation, and thus minting a new block, earns Bitcoin. If this sounds convoluted and unnecessarily opaque, that’s because it is. Cryptocurrency propagandists want you to feel intimidated by blockchain technologies, so you won’t ask questions about the baked-in chicanery.

A wide landscape of flatlands in New Mexico.
The Valley of Fires recreation area, located 4 miles west of Carrizozo, New Mexico.

Proof-of-work guzzles incalculable energy to generate what is not, functionally, a currency, but rather an unpredictable speculative financial instrument. Worse, ASIC mining rigs typically last just a few years, generating enormous e-waste, much of which is dumped in West Africa or Asia. And smaller-scale crypto miners blow through GPUs that depend on unsustainable actual mining of rare earth metals.

Crypto Kool-Aid drinkers might misdirect your attention to the Permian Basin oil fields in West Texas, a day’s drive east of The Lightning Field, where crafty Bitcoin miners are powering computer-filled shipping containers by leeching off “stranded” natural gas flares—those nightmarish fires raging atop narrow stacks, visible for miles, as corporations fracking for petroleum crude literally burn off less-profitable methane and other hydrocarbons, releasing them into the atmosphere. But this upcycling innovation is cynical. Climate change demands radical, paradigm-shifting action: the dismantling of the petroleum industry, not a bed of barnacle start-ups bottom-feeding off it. Like the riflemen who eradicated Great Plains bison, the lumber barons who deforested Michigan, and the oil men who drink the Southwest’s milkshakes, techno-libertarians and anarcho-capitalists don’t care about crypto’s outsize resource consumption.

After years of talk, Ethereum, the major cryptocurrency blockchain rival to Bitcoin, has just completed “the Merge,” upgrading from the proof-of-work consensus mechanism to proof-of-stake, which relies on community verification, instead of computing power, to create new blocks. According to the Ethereum Foundation, the transition will reduce the blockchain’s energy consumption by 99.5 percent, an impressive feat. In proof-of-stake, multiple validators chosen at random—participants, or nodes, with coins staked on the blockchain—endorse a transaction as sound, at which point it is confirmed, and those validators earn bounty in the blockchain-native coin. Unsurprisingly though, despite proof-of-stake’s purported progressivism, the mechanism favors early adopters and the wealthy. Those with the most coin, who can process the most data, are likeliest to be selected in the validator lottery, thereby earning more bounty. It’s less wasteful, but even more exclusionary. If Bitcoin is libertarian, Ethereum is neoliberal.

Arguments that crypto will augment a more democratic economy are either bad faith or delusional. As of December 2021, the Wall Street Journal reported that 0.01 percent of users control more than 27 percent of all cryptocurrencies in circulation, a ratio that sounds more like standard American wealth inequality than an economic revolution. Last year, WestBlock Capital, a Canadian digital asset mining company, set up operation in Dinétah, the Navajo Nation. WestBlock’s public relations efforts employ liberatory language about indigenous economic sovereignty. But late last year, Vice reported that the facility had generated fewer than 10 local jobs, and that leasing revenue for the tribe would total just $60,000 over five years, with a three-year tax revenue estimate of $48,000—offensive figures, considering that, each month, WestBlock was mining between 23 and 25 Bitcoins (equivalent, at the time, to about $1.5 million). WestBlock’s facility uses “stranded” power from a substation, which the firm frames as productive use of a neglected resource. During the Cold War, uranium mining in Dinétah was framed similarly. Techno-libertarianism, a secular speculative prosperity theology, is the logical conclusion to centuries of white Protestant narcissism and environmental colonialism.

This past summer’s collapse of the crypto market surprised few who had thought critically for more than a couple of minutes about the blockchain. The writing seemed to be on the wall early in the year, when Paris Hilton, Larry David, LeBron James, Tom Brady, and Matt Damon appeared in television ads and sponsored spots hawking decentralized speculative assets that only 16 percent of Americans have ever used. Did Larry David accept crypto as compensation, or insist on government-backed currency? A rug was about to be pulled, and crypto investment firms needed bag holders. Speculative bubbles always burst and, in the United States, at least, those with the most coin tend to emerge unscathed. Left holding the bag are generally those who can’t afford to lose.

A Southwest landscape during the daytime with silver lightning rods rising out of the ground.
Walter De Maria: The Lightning Field, 1977, long-term installation, western New Mexico.

“THE INVISIBLE IS REAL,” De Maria wrote in relation to The Lightning Field in 1980, a fitting mantra for the cult of speculation. But for all his charisma, ambition, and precision, the artist lacked the avarice with which confidence men extract blood from flesh and stone. De Maria’s 1960 text-score, “Meaningless Work,” championed experimental, unintelligible art, the type that is inscrutable and unproductive to capitalists. Meaningless, though, is not synonymous with mindless. (Bored Ape and CryptoKitty NFTs, by virtue of existing solely for speculative profit, are mindless, never mind their aesthetic obscenities.) De Maria’s exactitude was earnest. The minimal, repetitive, and sometimes puzzling elements across his diverse output endeavored to generate meditation and critical inquiry, not profit. And though quiet, De Maria’s sculptural, performative, and sonic shakedowns had their marks: mirthless reactionaries—from political conservatives to cultural modernists—who demanded that a work of art validate its existence according to outmoded standards, as well as the art world’s craven free-market opportunists. “Meaningless work,” wrote De Maria, “is the new way to tell who is square.”

The Lightning Field is many things warranting critique. It’s pedantic, exclusive, borderline Transcendentalist, and frustratingly decontextualized from history. But it’s neither cynical nor extractive, even if its formal and geographic qualities echo practices that are. The work’s very meaninglessness, as a physical object, makes it an enduring cipher for the incoherence of the American Southwest, where the evening redness paints ocotillo-spotted basins with divine vermilion light, camouflaging untold gallons of blood that have seeped into their sands. The Lightning Field’s fabricated grid is at once an inoffensive framing device for outsiders wanting a Southwest experience, an avatar for land speculation, and, as its spear-like rods turn crimson, an evocation of the genocidal and ecological violence that made its existence possible.

A century from now, after drought and fire have emptied the Southwest of people, De Maria’s poles may stand as an unwitting monument to the abandoned physical frontier. And upon a pixelated tract of whatever metaversal grift has replaced Earth 2, some 22nd-century carpetbagger, speculating on 10th-wave desert nostalgia at a computer near the Great Lakes, will stitch Cliett’s photos of lightning striking the poles into a GIF, and mint The Lightning Field as an NFT.  


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