Walter De Maria at the Gagosian

How minimalist or conceptual do the British public like their art? I would say not very, judging but the lack of crowds at the Walter De Maria retrospective at the Gagosian Gallery, Britannia Street. This is De Maria’s first solo show in the UK and it spans work from across from the early 70s till his death in 2013.

De Maria became know in this country an conceptual artist working on large scale land-art installations, with his stunning piece ‘Lightening Field’ (a square kilometre of steel poles in New Mexico) being the work he is most famous for. That piece is, by it’s very nature, full of noise and electricity, and is on my bucket list, along with James Turrell’s Roden Crater. The works on display here are obviously a much smaller scale, and quietly contemplative rather than energetic.

I think to be a true minimalist you should almost nearly be invisible yourself…expressing yourself in too baroque, romantic a way might be…imposing a lot more content on the world than is necessary.     Walter De Maria

One Hundred Activities for Rich and Poor (1960-61) lines the wall as you enter the gallery, and these lists (as the name suggests) are full of ‘activities’ and suggestions such as ‘guard against turpentine’, ‘colour, size, shape, shit’ and ‘beyond concept – beyond just existence’. Nonsense or instructions for conceptual nirvana? I’m not sure…

Two works are displayed together, the Open Polygon Series (1971-74) and the Pure Polygon Series (1975-76), and both series explore geometric forms. On the floor, large steel balls roll, perpetually trapped, roll around the recessed tracks. On the wall, almost invisibly thin pencil drawings echo the geometry on the floor, from a triangle through to a nonagon. Both these pieces play with the ideas of repetition, progression and eternity, themes that De Maria explored throughout his life.

A posthumously finished piece, made to the artist’s exacting instructions, Truth/Beauty (completed 2016) plays with these themes again, this time using granite plinths and metal rods. The progression from a pentagon to a circle has an infinite number of intermediate shapes, in this case we have seven stop off points on display, from five to seventeen sided, against a wall of blue (from his Statement Series paintings).

In the final gallery space, ‘Hard Core’ (1969) a short film shot and scored by De Maria plays on a loop. The camera slowly pans round a complete 360 degrees, showing us the cracked and dried out riverbed, desolate mountains and desert landscape. Occasionally shots of hands loading rifles flash up and the film ends with a shot of a young Vietnamese girl’s face. What this tells us about Vietnam and the Nixon era, I’m not sure, but there was a definite mediative quality to the piece.

I came away from this exhibition a wee bit disappointed, as I had hoped to be as engaged and excited about the work on show as I am about ‘Lightening Field’. Were my expectations too high? I’m sure there is more to Walter De Maria that what’s on show here… I mean this is the man who was briefly in a band called the Primitives, who went on to become the Velvet Underground! What I do know is that there is a definite calming yet questioning feeling to the works on show here, and they are well worth a contemplative visit.

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