The Supersized Art Circuit: Santa Fe to The Lightning Field, New Mexico
- Santa Fe
- Pie Town
- Very Large Array
Distance: 454 miles
Experience: Vast, rugged desert and the most mind-expanding work of art you've never seen
One of the most acclaimed works of 20th-century American art is hundreds of miles away from the nearest museum, in a remote corner of western New Mexico's desert high country. It's The Lightning Field, created by Walter De Maria in 1977, and it's one of the icons of the Land Art movement: 400 polished stainless-steel poles, spaced evenly across a rectangular grid a mile wide and a kilometer long, that function as lightning rods during electrical storms. "The land is not the setting for the work," De Maria wrote, "but a part of the work."
The Lightning Field is a bucket-list item for art geeks everywhere, but the Dia Art Foundation, the New York–based custodian of the installation, does not make it easy to see. Not only is photography forbidden, but the site is open only from May through October, and visitors are required to stay overnight in a cabin that sleeps six. Even though spots sell out in days, I got lucky and landed a reservation for a night in May.
I called my old college friend Matt, who lives in Santa Fe and had just been ordained a Zen priest. He's a big fan of Land Art, which makes sense. If a shiny Jeff Koons sculpture is like a hit of MDMA that briefly scrambles the senses, then Land Art like The Lightning Field is more like meditation, a subtler alteration of consciousness that takes longer to wear off.
I picked up Matt in Santa Fe. Despite the Zen training, he was the same old Matt — a bit more patient, maybe, but as sarcastic as ever. We sped south through the Albuquerque sprawl, merged onto Highway 40, then drove west through 150 miles of red-clay mesas and dry golden scrub, our stereo blasting, of all things, Beyoncé.
We turned onto Route 117, a one-lane straight shot south through El Malpais National Monument, a volcanic landscape known as New Mexico's badlands. I thought about De Maria, who spent five years driving around the West in an old pickup before finding the right spot for his work. I wondered if he'd rolled through here.
Finally, we reached Quemado. We found Dia's office and met our escort, Hayden Fosdick, a laid-back guy in a red plaid work shirt. Smoking a Marlboro Red, he pointed to a mud-caked Yukon XL. We climbed in. We were somewhere on Route 36, though Hayden was intentionally vague about the route — Dia doesn't want uninvited guests. He was, however, happy to identify every plant we saw: rabbitbrush, desert sage, grama grass, scrub oak.
After about an hour, we reached the cabin and met our fellow pilgrims: two young guys, one American and one British, and a married couple from London. Hayden pointed out beds, blankets, coffee, cooking supplies. "I'll come back for y'all tomorrow around 11," he said. It was awkward, and we politely ignored each other. A laminated booklet on a table announced the dinner menu: "An enchilada casserole has been prepared and left for you in the refrigerator."
When we first pulled up to the property, I could see The Lightning Field from afar, and it didn't look like much. But as we approached the work on foot, a solemn vibe crept up on us. We had been instructed not to touch the poles. I touched one: smooth, cool, thick enough that I could just wrap a hand around it. The poles are between 15 and 26 feet tall, designed for the undulating ground so that the tops form a flat plane. In the middle of the afternoon, with the sun high in the sky, the flat light rendered them almost invisible. But at dusk, the poles' sharp tips glowed like lit torches. As the sun slipped lower behind Techado Mountain, the reflections changed, shades of silver ranging almost from white to black. I knelt and then stood on my tiptoes, testing the angles. Matt walked nearby. Neither of us spoke.
It grew dark, the sky so packed with stars that we could hardly make out the usual constellations. We headed inside and heated up the enchilada casserole. Our cabinmates, complete strangers just a few hours ago, were now in some weird way intimates. The food was terrible, but it didn't matter. We shared one another's wine and took turns doing the dishes.
The next morning, on the way back to Quemado, I asked Hayden what the locals make of the art. "They respect it, but they probably think it's weird," he said. "I mean, it is weird." Staring out the window, I found myself paying closer attention than I had yesterday. Rabbitbrush, desert sage, grama grass, scrub oak.
We climbed into our car and pulled onto Route 60, stopping briefly in Pie Town, known for its "New Mexican apple pie" made with green chilies and piñons. Farther east, just before merging with the interstate that would whisk us back to Santa Fe, we passed a research facility, the Very Large Array — 27 huge radio antennae, all cocked toward the sky, scanning the galaxy for electromagnetic radiation. We parked and got out to look. "I might have passed this without giving it much thought," Matt said. "But after paying so much attention to a bunch of metal poles, I don't see why these can't be art."