Obituary: Walter De Maria / Reclusive artist known for large outdoor installations

Oct. 1, 1935 - July 25, 2013

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Walter De Maria, the artist whose monumental sculptures and installations combined the simplicity of minimalism with a love of scale, died Thursday in Los Angeles. He was 77.

The cause of death was a stroke suffered two months ago, according to Elizabeth Childress, the director of his New York City studio.

She said the artist lived in New York, but was in Southern California visiting family and friends when he suffered the stroke.

Mr. De Maria's art was often noted for its epic size, creating a sense of awe in viewers at locations as varied as the New Mexico desert and the urban wilds of New York City.

Throughout his career, the artist cultivated a somewhat reclusive personality as far as the press was concerned.

He seldom gave interviews and disliked being photographed. He also avoided participating in museum shows when he could, preferring to create his installations outdoors or at specifically chosen locations in cities.

As a result, his work was not widely exhibited in the United States and he never became a household name.

But critics and art experts championed his work, finding his large-scale installations to be conceptual and intellectually complex while at the same time accessible to the general public.

His most famous creation was "The Lightning Field," a land-art piece created in 1977 in New Mexico consisting of 400 polished stainless steel poles arranged in a rectangular array 1 kilometer long and 1 mile wide.

"The Lightning Field" is widely regarded as a key creation in the land-art, or Earthworks, movement. The piece has become a destination site for art lovers as well as tourists who are invited to walk among the poles -- but not during storms -- to experience the optical effects and perspective shifts that the layout can produce at different times of day.

The installation was one of a handful of projects that Mr. De Maria created in his long collaboration with New York's Dia Art Foundation, a nonprofit organization that commissions long-term, site-specific installations and other projects.

Mr. De Maria was born Oct. 1, 1935, in Albany, Calif. He studied at the University of California, Berkeley, where he received a master's degree in art in 1959. He was trained as a painter but quickly gravitated toward sculpture and other media.

The artist eventually settled in New York and kept a studio in the East Village neighborhood. His first U.S. museum show came late in his career.

In 2011, the Menil Collection in Houston presented "Walter De Maria: Trilogies," featuring three series of paintings, sculpture and other works.

Mr. De Maria's art was more widely shown abroad than in the U.S., and he had major exhibitions in Japan and Europe.

Some of his installations are still on view to the public. In addition to "The Lightning Field" in New Mexico, he created "The New York Earth Room," at 141 Wooster St. in New York, and "The Broken Kilometer" at 393 W. Broadway, also in New York.

The latter features 500 brass rods placed on the ground at increasingly wider intervals and is a companion piece to Mr. De Maria's "Vertical Earth Kilometer" in Kassel, Germany, which consisted of a brass rod 1 kilometer long implanted in the ground.

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