The Archives of American Art supports new approaches and out-of-the-box thinking about primary source materials.
Find out how to submit your article for publication consideration today.
“I’m proud of them—and actually—in form—(and content too) they say the same thing as the sculpture—and everything else—But music can even be more ‘powerfull’ (sic) I think—because it can be more physical—and over a longer time span.” Walter De Maria, December 11, 1968 1
After a year of working in a variety of media, including earth, sound, film, and sculpture, Walter De Maria (1935–2013) made this assertion in a nine-page letter to his New York-based patron Robert Scull (Figure 2). An artist whose installations, such as The Earth Room(1968/72/77), 2 a gallery filled with 1600 cubic feet of “Pure Dirt - Pure Earth - Pure land,” exemplified the expanded field of artmaking in the late 1960s and early 1970s, discussions of De Maria’s practice have often been limited in relation to Land Art, Fluxus, Minimalism, and Conceptualism. 3 Yet, in this letter, rather than first discussing his most recent large-scale environmental experiment in Munich (Figure 3), De Maria turns to music, citing that a week earlier he “gave a concert (lecture) to eighty art students in N. England Leeds College.” During the “concert (lecture),” De Maria played three drum solos: a tape of his previously recorded The Cricket Music (1964), The Ocean Music (1968), recorded for the first time while staying in London, and “a tape of Terry Riley’s” with “live drums.” De Maria then tells Scull that he looks forward to the process of mastering the solos onto a commercial record.
In addition to this single letter and a handful of others, few letters have been preserved; likewise, De Maria published even less written material. De Maria’s writings include: letters to Scull and other patrons, including Samuel Wagstaff and Virginia Dwan, several conceptual magazine layouts (of mostly photographs or blank space), an interview with Paul Cummings for the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institute in 1972, and a published essay in Artforumin 1980. 4 What then to make of these statements written in 1968 to his American patron? De Maria equates “the sculpture—and everything else,” including the earth-based installations to music, and not just melodic music, but repetitive, looped drum solos, that allude to and make use of the natural sounds of crashing waves or chirping crickets. Yet he does not say the music is just another strategy in a long list of one thing after another. No, according to De Maria, the drum recorded sound concert (lecture)s are not just “the same,” but “more powerfull...[and] more physical.”Must we accept the death of the author prognosis 5 and agree with De Maria’s assessment: “of these notes really say anything about [his] work?” 6Or, is it more useful to take De Maria’s words as a starting point of interrogation?
Advocating the latter while acknowledging the possibility of fabrication, I will investigate De Maria’s claims written at the end of 1968, 7 a pivotal year for the artist. 8 While recent scholars have expanded the discussion of his practice, 9 De Maria’s “drum compositions” remain underinvestigated. To this end, I privilege De Maria’s initial introduction to the arts through music; De Maria studied piano as a child and only turned to visual art halfway through college. Switching to drums as a young adolescent, De Maria’s musical career took him from the jazz clubs of San Francisco during the 1950s to collaborating in the early 1960s in New York on Minimalist musicians La Monte Young and Terry Riley’s drone recordings and participating in Fluxus Happenings that combined often chaotic performance and music with everyday found materials. Finally, in the mid sixties, De Maria briefly played as the drummer of the Primitives, a precursor to the countercultural rock band, the Velvet Underground. By the end of 1968, De Maria abandoned the drums completely. Therefore, Cricket Music and Ocean Music 10 will mark a beginning point of interpretation to assess his belief that sound can be “more powerfull” than “sculpture—and everything else.” 11
Using Young’s drone as a precedent, De Maria favored incremental, real time syncopated rhythms, both literally and metaphorically, that combined discrete points (the individual drum beat) as a strategy for reframing linear time. Mimicking but pushing past Minimalism’s strategy of seriality, syncopation draws attention to the overlooked, the disruptions, and the fragments. Together, these drum rhythms inscribe and reinscribe a series of straight lines that loop back in on themselves to form a framework layered against the random beats of the ocean waves, chirping crickets, and other ambulatory sounds. Never quite harmonizing together, the percussive music mixed with natural sounds is disruptive and disorienting, especially when realized in its finalized form as the soundtrack for De Maria’s film HARDCORE (1969), an edited compilation of the two “drum compositions.” Rather than creating immersive environments that alter the viewer’s perception, or an eternal time akin to the religious sublime, De Maria curbed the audience’s phenomenological encounter with the work by creating borders, setting up breaks, and literally barring entrance in order to foster apperceptive encounters tied to the durational. 12 Taking up a close analysis of two previously considered “minor” works and their final form in HARDCORE will highlight De Maria’s method of syncopation. Indeed, I intend to displace the central beats—the Land Art—to highlight the marginal beats—the “drum compositions”—thereby revealing disruption, in a constant state of flux, to be visible.
During the 1960s, time proved to be a pervasive issue for artists and for the American public at large. InChronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s, art historian Pamela Lee explores the connection between time and artistic practice. Lee suggests that new forms of technology propelled time to the forefront as the single most important aspect shaping the historical condition of the late 1950s to early 1970s. Marked by what Lee terms a “chronophobic anxiety,” art of that period engaged: “with time, the will...either to master its passage, to still its acceleration, or to give form to its changing conditions.” 13 To underscore her argument, Lee closely examines art historian and critic Michael Fried’s essay, “Art and Objecthood,” published in Artforum in 1967. 14 A foundational text, “Art and Objecthood” came to define rather than negate literalist—or theatrical—“objecthood,” which Fried rejected in favor of an eternally present modernist “art.” According to Lee, Fried’s desire for the always-present time in the work of art is a “phobic, thematization of time,” with Lee citing Fried’s “hostility toward the temporal dimensions of minimalist sculpture” as seen for example through seriality or the grid structure. 15
Likewise, Carrie Lambert-Beatty has underscored the importance of the temporal for artists of the 1960s by looking at Yvonne Rainer’s task-oriented dance, specifically Parts of Some Sextets (1965). Rather than stilling or mastering it, Lambert-Beatty sees artists as succumbing to time’s durational character. Citing art historian Liz Kotz’s earlier study on musician and composer John Cage’s 4’33”(1952), 16 Lambert-Beatty and Kotz both point to Cage’s experiments with magnetic tape. First developed during World War II and widely available afterwards, Cage started using tape as a medium to restructure temporality in the 1940s. Armed with this notion of time as a physical material that could fill up any empty form, Cage reformatted time from a temporal to a spatial designation. Lambert-Beatty suggests that a time of “predetermined units of duration . . . determined by the linear/temporal limits of a reel of film or videotape” proved to be pervasive in artistic practices of the 1960s. 17 Even more, Lambert-Beatty points out, that artistic experiments in temporality reconfigured technology from mere recording devices to tools for generating “as live performance figured forth the ribbon of time that is film or magnetic tape.” 18 Or vinyl record. I contend that De Maria’s sound works recorded onto vinyl investigate durations of time, in a way that follows his peers: De Maria participated in some of the first Minimalist exhibitions, attended events at the Judson Dance Theater, and knew of Cage’s teachings indirectly through Young, who studied with Cage in Darmstadt during the late 1950s. 19 However, neither Fried’s criticism of Minimalist sculpture as always-present or Lee’s analysis of “phobic” time describe De Maria’s nuanced practice. Even Cage’s explanation is not quite enough—while De Maria’s sound takes up time as durational material to be spliced, layered, and manipulated he eschews the notion of time as a container, as Cage advocated. By acknowledging the “chronophobic” climate of the 1960s, accepting the limitations of Cage’s temporality, and looking forward to De Maria’s predisposition for music, it will be possible to see that his sound works more accurately relate to a syncopated time marked by disruption.
From the Greek word synkope, meaning to “strike, beat, cut off, or weary,” musical syncopation displaces the main accent or beat onto a normally unaccented part of the bar. 20 During the early twentieth century, American ragtime musicians took up syncopation and improvisation as foundational methods for composition; these experiments ushered in a proliferation of musical styles ranging from jazz and hip-hop to electronic music. The deliberate displacement in a syncopated rhythm breaks the cadence, forcing the listener to supply the missing beat. Well-versed in syncopated rhythms, De Maria first studied piano and then percussion. Initially training with the drummer for the San Francisco symphony, De Maria started playing in jazz clubs during the early 1950s around the Bay Area. Then considered “a major jazz center,” San Francisco attracted renowned musicians Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Count Basie along with Beat writers and poets, including Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. After moving to New York in 1960, De Maria continued playing drums for various bands until 1968. 21
Just prior to the concert and letter written to Scull at the end of 1968, De Maria completed Munich Earth Room (1968) with curator Heiner Friedrich for the exhibition, The Land Show: Pure Dirt/Pure Earth/Pure Land. De Maria filled the interior space of the Galerie Heiner Friedrich from September 28 until the end of October, with several hundred cubic yards of rich, black topsoil. Also in October, De Maria submitted a painting The Color Men Choose When They Attack the Earth (1968) (Figure 4) to the Dwan Gallery’s Earthworks exhibition, which was made remotely, while De Maria was in Germany. De Maria told his friend John Weber his proposed idea, and Weber then enlisted Heizer to paint the very large canvas a flat, opaque yellow, and affix a small plaque in the center that had the title’s name engraved on it.
A few months later, De Maria exhibited Good Fuck(1969), a rectangle of dirt on an interior floor with those words written into the surface of the soil, in Willoughby Sharp’s Earth Art exhibition at Cornell University, which opened February 11, 1969 (Figure 5). When Sharp asked De Maria to participate in the show, the artist wrote back a letter outlining his project. Proposing to exhibit a mattress and an audiotape of crickets in the room (presumably Cricket Music), Sharp promptly rejected the work, stating, “in no uncertain words that each artist in the show had to touch dirt.” In the wake of Sharp’s decision, an alternative proposal was submitted according to the curator’s requirements. Sharp later described De Maria’s installation of the accepted work:
De Maria flew in and during the opening—and there were hundreds of people going through the museum—he had the cartons of earth emptied into the center of the floor, and then he got his only tool, which was a push broom, with bristles and a long handle, and he pushed the earth into a carpet that was about two inches high. And when that was done to his satisfaction—he did it very meticulously—he took the broom and turned it so that the end of the broom handle became a marker and very slowly, across this tablet of earth, he wrote G-O-O-D, and then F-U-C-K...As soon as Tom Leavitt (then director of the Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art at Cornell University) saw that, and realized that there were kids at the opening as well as the president of Cornell, they cordoned off the room, put up Sheetrock, and the next day the piece was swept up and dispersed. 22
This long retelling of Sharp’s story is important for reassessing De Maria’s earth-based projects and reinserting the foundation of sound to his overall career. According to Sharp, the earth carpet was Plan B; dirt became essential because of curatorial limitation. More akin to his much earlier ironic game pieces, such as Boxes for Meaningless Work (1961), where the viewer is constantly reminded that what he or she is doing is meaningless, Good Fuck is an irreverent jab at the art community. 23
Finally, De Maria completed Two Lines Three Circles in the Desert (1969) for Gerry Schum’s Land Art TV gallery, which aired in Berlin on April 15, 1969 (Figure 6). These were complemented by a series of land investigations that De Maria began in April 1968 as indicated by the telegram written to Virginia Dwan from Arizona (Figure 7), his experiments in California’s Mohave Desert for the Mile Long Drawing (Figure 8) and the Fernsehgalerie film, and the first part of Three Continent Project in Algeria’s Saharan Desert.
This quick synopsis sheds light on why De Maria’s work has been predominately associated with the Land Art movement. Recently, James Nisbet has argued that in opposition to Minimalism’s insistence upon the object, De Maria turned instead to environmental practices as a continuation of Robert Morris’ process-driven artmaking that alluded to the energy associated with ecosystems. 24 Nisbet’s analysis identifies a deep connection between ecological environmentalism and the counterculture psychedelic influences from the period to artists’ transformation of the earth, as seen in De Maria’s The Lightning Field (1977), a grid of four-hundred rods in the New Mexico desert. Art historian Jane McFadden makes a similar case for De Maria’s importance to Land Art, while maintaining that De Maria’s work emerged out of Fluxus to become the prototype for the Minimalist aesthetic. She summarizes De Maria’s practice through site-specificity and the event (as score, site, time-based, or place). 25 In the recent exhibition catalogue for the exhibition, Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 (2012), McFadden posits that De Maria is the de facto Land Artist; she claims that De Maria’s Land Art began as early as 1959 with his text “Art Yard” in Jackson MacLowe and Young’s An Anthology of Chance Operations (1962/1963). 26
Art historian Molleen Theodore takes a step away from Land Art, by contending that De Maria’s intermedia—a term first introduced by Dick Higgins in 1965 to describe interdisciplinary practices of Fluxus artists—career holistically restructures time through dissociation. While not explicitly so, her argument about De Maria’s practice is in many ways a reprisal of Fried’s understanding of Minimalism from his aforementioned essay “Art and Objecthood.” Theodore pinpoints the importance of sound, film, Fluxus, and underground artists to De Maria’s practice; she also perceptively claims that De Maria’s work more cogently begins within music. Yet while Theodore expands the discussion of De Maria’s practice, her analysis returns De Maria’s work to a Minimalist rubric: theatrical, time-based, isolated, and set-apart in its coolness. Rather than contained by time or indebted to Fried’s “presentness,” I contend that De Maria’s practice breaks time apart to reveal its unsteady underpinnings and thereby highlight the marginal spaces in-between times.
Admittedly, Land Art is a major component of De Maria’s practice. The artist himself acknowledges that he began theorizing Land Art projects as early as 1961 with drawings for Mile-Long Parallel Walls in the Desert. 27 While certainly many of his works act as environments, his practice cannot just be seen as environmental; likewise, De Maria’s work evades a Minimalist or Fluxus rubric. By considering his contributions to canonical Land Art shows in the United States, which actually made no use of land as a material, De Maria’s intentions must be reevaluated. While in comparison to De Maria’s more radical experiments with untraditional media happening concomitantly in Europe, such as Munich Earth Roomand Olympic Mountain Project (1970), the two works De Maria submitted to the American exhibitions for Dwan and Sharp seem somewhat regressive. It is important to remember that when given the opportunity to exhibit earth-based works at two of the first Land Art exhibitions, De Maria chose (at least initially) projects that used painting and sound. Each is a type of metaphorical syncopation; a replacement of environmental land-based practices with something else. Time is central. Yet it is a peripheral time, a highlighting of the disruption between times that is most akin to syncopated music. Notice how both installations originally were outlined as letters for another person to complete; De Maria has displaced himself from the time of completing the project and reinserted himself into the margins. Furthermore, in these letters to Scull and Sharp, De Maria carves out and claims a space for his practice discursively much like Robert Morris’ four-part “Notes on Sculpture” (1966/67) or Donald Judd’s “Specific Objects” (1965). Namely, he inserts the importance of sonic investigations. These few contributions from 1968—along with his note inserting the importance of music—expand the analyses of De Maria and argue for a greater importance of sound to the larger dialogue of De Maria scholarship.
In the letter to Scull, De Maria claims that “music can even be more powerfull, I think,” and points to his two sound works Cricket Musicand Ocean Music. Each is a layered track that combined field recordings of natural sounds, recorded by De Maria, with drum solos arranged and performed by De Maria. Although De Maria mentions to Scull that he looks forward to mastering the tapes, there was very little distribution of the two self-released tracks.
At 24:31, Cricket Music takes up one side of a seven-inch record. The track begins with a traditional snare drum roll solo. A staccato clap ends this two-minute introduction, followed by a brief pause. A rhythmic tapping of the ride symbol that repeats as a background for the entire duration then begins. The repetitive loop is soft at first, becoming louder towards the middle of the track; by the end, the ride symbol loop is barely discernable because of the cacophony of layered, natural sounds. At five minutes into the track, the continuous tapping of the symbols are interspersed with steady tom hits that last for several minutes; eventually the tom fades away by the middle part of the track. Although the loop is seemingly repetitive, there are stoppages and jerks along the way—at some moments the beat speeds up while at other times it seems to languish along. Likewise, the sound levels themselves are uneven, sometimes muffled and at other times amplified. Around the fifteen-minute mark, the sound of crickets gradually becomes discernable; it starts out softly with large lengths of time between each chirp. Quickening in their frequency, the natural sounds become incrementally but irregularly louder throughout the rest of the track. The clanging symbol beat keeps steady with the crickets. At first, it seems that the two layers, the recorded natural sound and musical performance, are meant to mimic one another and draw attention to the shared characteristics of nature and performance. However, like the syncopation in the rhythmic beat of the ride symbol, the irreconcilable seamlessness of the two layers draws attention to the discrepancies, or interference. This actuality of disruption is underscored at the twenty-minute mark by a plane flying overhead. Continuing for almost two minutes, it slowly fades away. Eventually, the crickets overtake De Maria’s drum solo, and as the song fades out, nothing remains but the twittering voices of insects.
Made four years later at Leeds College, and lasting for twenty minutes and twenty-nine seconds, Ocean Music is the structural inverse ofCricket Music. It also takes a further step away from melodic sound. While Cricket Music opens with a deliberate, musical introduction announced by a brief pause before the drum roll, Ocean Music immediately jumps into the sound of crashing waves, sounds that De Maria recorded from nature. If there is any drumming for the first eleven minutes, it is indiscernible in relationship to the clamor of rushing water banging continuously against the shoreline. Consistently a loud volume, at some intervals the wave noise is amplified while others recede slightly into the distance. It is not nearly until the twelve-minute mark that the percussion instrument gradually becomes audible: a fast clanging ride cymbal is accompanied by a five-part tom drumbeat. At sixteen minutes, the drums start to get louder and overpower the recorded ocean sounds. With it come the incessant clangs of quick-paced, jarring cymbals. Indeed, the remainder of the track is a back and forth game between the drums and cymbals jockeying for volume over the receding waves. The waves get softer and there is more space between each crash; it seems that the tide has gone out. Still the percussion beat remains, abruptly fading out at the end of the track.
With no introduction and an abrupt ending, it seems that De Maria has filled as much sound as possible onto the second vinyl track. In comparison to Cricket Music, Ocean Music has fewer attempts at composition or musicality, as seen by the negation of a beginning and end. Of course, similarities abound between the two tracks. Both use field recordings of natural sound layered against De Maria’s performance on the drums. Each offers a series of beats that loop back to create seemingly apparent patterns. However, De Maria frustrates the listener’s predisposition for recognizable patterns by bringing attention to the beats that glaringly negate a pure repetition. Likewise, this is underscored by the sonic inconsistencies, as the performed sound and recorded sound tracks never smoothly line up with one another. Together, these disruptions are types of syncopation or moments of recognition that displace the listening experience, and reframe the audience’s engagement with the work. However, Ocean Music begins to diverge from Cricket Music in its obfuscation. For example, the sharp, staccato sounds of chirping crickets are jarringly clear. Likewise, the jerks and disruptions in the drum roll are more obvious; notice the introduction marked off by the long pause or the sounds of the plane passing by at the end. For Ocean Music, the transition from nature to performance is subtler. Similarly, as the structural inverse, while Cricket Music is consumed by nature, Ocean Music displaces nature by musical percussion.
De Maria performed these two works at Leeds College. For the “concert (lecture),” De Maria played three prerecorded tapes for the audience: two by him and one by his friend, the Minimalist composer Terry Riley. Of course, De Maria was not the only visual artist in the 1960s offering up performances of prerecorded music. Allan Kaprow, the progenitor of New York-based Happenings, brought soundtracks into his works as well; certainly De Maria, who made his first happening at the University of California, Berkeley in 1959, was well aware of Kaprow’s work. One of the earliest Happenings, Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (1959), combined live musical performances, canned recordings, jumbled noise, choreographed dance moves, an audience, painting demonstrations, and actors playing games in a room at Rutgers University. Trained technicians ran the prerecorded sound through five different speakers set up in different areas of the room to create an allover environment. 28
But if Kaprow’s Happenings are one source, it seems that a closer line might be drawn from De Maria to Fluxus activities, especially those of the early 1960s, as evidenced by De Maria’s solo show/performance at George Maciunas’ AG Gallery in 1961 and Henry Flynt’s lecture “From Culture to Veramusement” at De Maria’s loft apartment on February 28, 1963. Foregrounding the musical training of its participants, historian Douglas Kahn has argued that Fluxus is the most musical investigation of all avant-garde art movements during the twentieth century. 29 With the historical precedent of the Italian Futurists, who opened up sound to life, and Cage’s belief that silence is full of sound, Fluxus artists extended music as a descriptor to all phenomena. Many, including Young and Nam June Paik, used the unfolding of sustained sounds to create new environments. One such example is Young’s drone, as first heard in his series Composition 1960 (1960). Each short instruction (handwritten, typed, or drawn) acts as an event score to be performed or interpreted by some other person; performances run the gamut from literal sound, enacted tasks, or generative material for other works. For example, Composition 1960 #7 instructs, “to be held for a long time.” Most often, this score, accompanied by a musical staff and note, has been interpreted instrumentally and played as one note held for a long time to produce a droning noise that is meant to alter the viewer’s perception of the environment. Conversely, the instructions “Draw a straight line and follow it” for Composition 1960 #10 for Bob Morris and its similar horizontal line for Composition 1960 #9 have been interpreted into many iterations. Most famously, Paik performed Composition 1960 #10 in 1962 at the Fluxus Festival in Wiesbaden, Germany. For it, Paik dipped his hair into a bowl of ink, and then drug it across a sheet of paper to produce a painting. 30
In the only substantial published interview with De Maria, conducted in 1972, the artist does not mention his connection to Fluxus explicitly. He does however try to unpack the strains of musical interconnections between Minimalist composers Riley, Young, and himself. In his study on Minimalist music, historian Diedrich Diederichsen points out that Riley and Young’s music 31 decisively broke from European modernism, turning instead towards countercultural activities like psychedelia, Eastern Indian music, and jazz as an attempt to get behind the sound to its primary form. 32 Diederichsen argues that by stripping sounds of their “character as signs” the “central method of Minimalist (music)” was “the suspension of context.” 33 He cites its beginning with Young’s written compositions from 1960, which are important not for their musical realization but their concept. Furthermore, by looking at Fluxus artist George Brecht’s early scores from 1959, art historian Julie Robinson has maintained that scores like these assert language-based artmaking much earlier than the so-called Conceptual Art turn of the mid to late-1960s. 34 Claiming to have “played a certain part in” the development of Young’s drone, De Maria said in 1972 that “the drone is the basis” for both Cricket Music and Terry Riley’s tape delay, a form of playback. De Maria describes the drone as “very static, long long tones without great variations from measure to measure, more like a solid state or a solid feeling.” Yet both De Maria’s description of the drone and Young’s performance, as heard in Composition 1960 #7, sound nothing like Cricket Music. Furthermore, Young’s instructions of “Draw a straight line and follow it” or the drawn horizontal line seem antithetical to De Maria’s pulsating, tapping, and syncopated rhythm that continually loops back on itself. How then might De Maria see a direct connection between Young’s drone and his own works?
In these three compositions, Young’s instructions are open-ended. 35 While the droning sound has been connected to Young’s practice, it is not the only interpretation of Young’s notations. When discussing these works, Young said he was looking for “a singular event” claiming “a line was one of the more sparse, singular expressions of oneness...the line was interesting because it was continuous—it existed in time.” 36 This element of real time and the incremental becomes a bridge to De Maria’s sound pieces. The drone can be a jumping off point because it restructures time by focusing on the individual unit as separate materials, following after Cage’s understanding of materialist sound. In that same interview, Young also acknowledges that any line is made up of individual points. Taking up this notion of individual points and linearity, De Maria used sound (each separate drumbeat) as a way to structure time in incremental, real time units. This formed a linear framework, providing a grid-like support for the irregularly patterned natural sounds of crickets chirping or crashing ocean waves. With these works, the artist combined the discrete points to inscribe and reinscribe a straight line repeatedly, looping back in on itself each time. The recorded nature sounds only reinforce this notion of linearity and repetition. In fact, the fly-by, or so-called noise, that is inadvertently recorded on Cricket Music becomes not a mistake but a small case study of the larger framework of the overall structure of syncopation. Like the plane overhead, De Maria’s straight line does not continue forward but instead winds itself back to its beginning. Each time however, the line is reinscribed in a different manner allowing for disjointed rhythms, missteps, and alteration.
Syncopation and disruption is perhaps best understood when considering the final form for the “drum compositions” as the edited soundtrack for De Maria’s film, HARDCORE. Commissioned by the San Francisco-based Dilexi Foundation in 1969, the film was first screened at the Cinema Odeon in Turin, the Edinburg Film Festival in the UK, and the City Cinema in Cologne (all 1970); it was later shown at the Sixth Guggenheim International Exhibition in New York (1971). 37 Shot in the northwest Nevada desert in July of 1969 on 16 mm film and lasting 26 min. 31 secs., De Maria’s HARDCORE records a cowboy shoot-out scene between himself and fellow artist Michael Heizer. While the climatic action takes place in the last thirty seconds of the film, the majority of the film features long 360° pans across the barren Nevada desert. Closely-cropped flashes of the two men—a boot spur, a hat, or a hand on a pistol—abruptly slice the landscape imagery. In addition to directing and acting in the film, De Maria composed the soundtrack by layering together Cricket Musicand Ocean Music alongside breaks of silence (the first few seconds of a yodeling male cowboy singing for the opening credits are the only exception). Throughout, the natural sounds and drumbeats are starkly incongruous to the desert images on the screen. At some points in the soundtrack, the drums, waves, or crickets are audible as separate tracks. Yet as the film advances, the volume of the soundtrack increasingly becomes louder and the individual tracks collapse together. While broken by staccato breaks of silence, eventually the sound becomes a noisy, disorienting cacophony that the audience physically experiences. By nearly the end of the film, the soundtrack is simply a wave of indiscernible, amplified noise similar to Young’s drone. Finally, the volume decreases, the drumbeat gradually returns and fades out, leaving an entrance for the soothing, calming of softly twittering insects. De Maria swiftly breaks this moment of relaxation with a crescendo that plays out in the last thirty seconds: the soundtrack ceases, a loud gunshot goes off, and a sharp cut moves from the desert to a shootout that ensues between the two men, followed by complete silence. Immediately, a headshot of an adolescent Chinese girl with long dark hair and blank eyes flashes across the green screen; the desert, the men, the drums, and the sounds of nature have disappeared before the screen goes black.
For the film, De Maria takes the notion of syncopation and disruption that is already laden within each individual “drum-composition” and then exponentially expands it to its limit to ensure that “music can even be more powerfull.” While before the drumbeats previously acted as a framework or a grid to highlight the disruptive nature sounds, in the film the reoccurring pans of the desert allow for an allover field or canvas that can then be fragmented by the layered soundtrack itself. Repeatedly, De Maria distorts the visitor’s phenomenological encounter with the film as an immersive environment by drawing attention to the breaks: the staccato moments of silence, the swift flashes of the two cropped figures, the varying amplified and soft sounds, and the unexpected girl at the end. While at times the noise itself seems to be the disorienting element, De Maria takes a step further to get behind the space of the sound or the medium of the film to make something that is “more powerfull” and “more physical” than three-dimensional objects or earth environments. By controlling the visitor’s encounter with the work—literally ensuring that a person sits down in a dark theater for nearly half-an-hour—De Maria invites visitors to think deeply about the noise and the images for a long time; there is very little to actually look at until the end of the film. Thereby, De Maria ensures that visitors have a “more physical” encounter with the work over a “longer time span” that is metered by the disruptive experience.
Unlike his peers from the early sixties who wrote their way into art historical importance, De Maria eschewed publishing theories about his work. Because of this dearth, ideas enunciated through letters remain important points for scholarly investigation. While I have considered the viability of his words, there is a real possibility that they are a fabrication. However, after this close inspection of the works themselves as well as De Maria’s connections to Minimalist music, Fluxus, and the Happenings, this analysis of the compatibility between the sound and environmental works merits weight with or without De Maria’s claims. Acknowledging the phobic anxiety associated with time during the 1960s and situating De Maria’s concept of time as expanded from Cage’s understanding of temporality as a container, it is possible to see that De Maria used a type of syncopation through literal sound to bring attention to the in-between time. Young’s event scores for Composition 1960 form a helpful bridge to understanding De Maria’s strategy that took up “lines” of sound repeatedly. In 1998, art historian Hannah Higgins, concerned with the type of Fluxus scholarship then being written, claimed that Fluxus should no longer be seen as a historical movement but a method of artmaking. 38 This highlighting of the methodological over historicity is helpful for De Maria’s practice. Instead of just taking his more visible environmental works as indicative of his status as a Land Artist, it is more useful to consider his underlying method(s). Trained as a drummer, coming of age during the Bay Area jazz scene, playing in underground bands and hanging out with Minimalist and Fluxus musicians, it seems likely that his method—in addition to visual arts—might be connected to music. Then new lines might be drawn, lines that jut forward, jerk about, reverse themselves, or simply return back to the beginning.
I am grateful for the many conversations and revisions from my advisor, Colin Lang. I am also indebted to the Art History Department at Virginia Commonwealth University that funded my graduate studies and a summer research trip to New York. Presentations at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the annual Southeastern College Art Conference (SECAC) alongside revisiting this work in a writing seminar with Catherine Roach, all in 2015, helped me solidify my ideas. Finally, I am appreciative to the Dedalus Foundation and the Archives of American Art, specifically Kelly Quinn’s unwavering help and their anonymous readers’ beneficial feedback, as well as to Stephen Vitiello, who helped me listen more closely.
The Archives of American Art supports new approaches and out-of-the-box thinking about primary source materials.
Find out how to submit your article for publication consideration today.
Internship, fellowship, and volunteer opportunities provide students and lifelong learners with the ability to contribute to the study and preservation of visual arts records in America.
A virtual repository of a substantial cross-section of the Archives' most significant collections.