Twenty years ago, I had a coffee percolator. It was almost impossible to get a decent cup of coffee out of it, so one morning I threw it out the window of the second-floor apartment I was renting in Chicago.
I was reminded of this coffeepot over the Labor Day weekend, when a similarly poorly functioning coffee percolator was part of my experience of seeing the work of art known as the Lightning Field.
Installed on the high plains of western New Mexico in 1977, Walter De Maria's Lightning Field is generally considered a masterpiece of minimalism. It is also one of the most cunningly marketed works of art I've ever seen. Although the Lightning Field is located 35 miles from Quemado--a town of the "it's not the edge of the world but you can see it from here" variety--you can't just drive up and have a gander at the thing and leave.
To visit the Lightning Field, which must be done under the strict and unyielding guidelines of its owners, the Dia Art Center, you have to pay $85, spend an evening in a rustic cabin heated only by a wood stove and, unless you've brought your five best friends with you, share the experience with a number of strangers, some of whom you will be unable to bear the sight of by morning.
So while people with more sense were off fishing, this is how I spent the Labor Day weekend. The experience provided a window upon upper-middle-class aesthetic sensibility, an opportunity to think about elitism, a revelation about nature and an exercise in getting along with human beings I didn't like very much.
@body:Hope and I had already decided to spend the Labor Day weekend camping in the mountains south of Quemado, when we found out we'd be able to see the Lightning Field. We'd been told by a very pleasant woman at the Lightning Field headquarters in Albuquerque to meet in front of an abandoned white building in Quemado at 2:30 Sunday afternoon and wait for a cowboy named Robert to arrive in a large truck and relieve us of $85.
We were sitting in the cafe across the street, eating bad pie and wondering which of our fellow diners would be our fellow art lovers. I'd been told to expect two couples.
"I hope it's not those people," Hope said, gesturing with her eyes toward a table at which four rather large people were sitting. "We'll have to fight over the food."
Hope is the kind of person who takes a sandwich with her when she goes shopping, and even then was complaining about the lack of fruit in the pie. We'd been told a casserole and salad fixings had been left for us, as well as bacon and eggs for breakfast, and she was convinced it wouldn't be enough. Although the large people were, in fact, our companions, as we found out when we rendezvoused at the white building, they thoughtfully brought along some apple turnovers. I was less worried about the food supply than fearful I would have to deal with people who were going to the Lightning Field to Have Their Lives Transformed by Art.
Luckily, the large people turned out to have been around enough art not to go all mushy over an environmental sculpture.
The cowboy named Robert--he had a belt buckle from the cow-milking event at the Datil, New Mexico, rodeo at which he'd won $300--drove us the 35 miles along roads that degenerated from pavement to gravel and finally to raw clay, at which point a wood cabin heaved into view. It looked insignificant, set in the broad plain, with the Sawtooth Mountains off to one horizon. The cabin was placed 100 or so feet away from and exactly halfway down the long side of the Lightning Field, which in the midafternoon sun was almost invisible. The work consists of 400 stainless-steel poles stuck in the ground. Each tapers to a spearlike point. The field measures a mile by a kilometer, 25 poles long on the mile side and 16 poles long on the other. To make up for the unevenness of the ground, the poles vary from 15 feet to 26 feet, so their tops are all at the same height. The poles are meant to attract electricity during the thunderstorms that western New Mexico, like the Valley, is subject to every summer, and indeed, there are some splendid photographs of huge, jagged forks of lightning reaching from the sky and touching the poles.
The fact that lightning actually seldom strikes the poles isn't really the point. After spending exactly 21 and a half hours in the presence of the Lightning Field, I can tell you that the point has a lot more to do with that coffee percolator.
While our companions were admiring the view, Hope and I grabbed the bedroom nearest the single bath, and threw our stuff on the beds.
Then I went out and, for some unaccountable reason, walked all around the edge of the Lightning Field, avoiding venturing inside the perimeter but careful to give a couple of the poles a good shake to see if I could loosen them. I thought about the things I assume Walter De Maria wanted me to think about--those shiny, technological poles jammed in an orderly grid upon the unruliness of nature, like we jam cities with street grids onto the desert. The spearlike points that looked as if an army were about to rise up from underground, so sharp and slick the hawks couldn't even perch on them. It also occurred to me, as I pushed through rabbitbrush and collected goatsheads and cockleburs in my socks, that you can't really stroll through nature with any degree of pleasure until the Park Service puts down a trail.
While I was having these revelations, Hope had made a dash for the shower and our four companions had sat down to a game of cards. It wasn't until sunset that we all convened on the porch to give the Lightning Field a proper look and get to know each other.
The group consisted of two couples from Alameda, near San Francisco. Sid was a businessman with a tendency to pontificate. His wife, Jan, was an outgoing jeweler with grown kids and a house that was apparently always full of Indian exchange students or apprentice jewelers. Later, she told us she was an excommunicated Mormon. Barbara was a Germany-born florist with an affinity for long, flowing, Sixties-ish clothes. Her husband, Hassan, remained a mystery, except for the news that he was suffering from poison oak. The four were on the last leg of a trip that had wound inevitably through Taos and Santa Fe.
While we sat on the porch, Barbara marched into the Lightning Field and gave one of the poles a good shake. As it whipped back and forth, Sid gave a lecture on the amount of concrete used in each footing.
As the sun got lower, the poles that were almost invisible a few hours before sprang into view as they caught the light, and for a few minutes just before the sun disappeared below the horizon, they shone with a gleaming gold.
"I still think it's hostile," Hope murmured, thinking about those sharp points.
She and I took snapshots of ourselves in front of the Lightning Field by using the timer button and running around in front of the camera. Then Sid told us that photography at the Lightning Field was forbidden because the thing had been copyrighted. His camera had been confiscated.
@body:The idea of making art out of large-scale installations in the landscape began in the late Sixties. Artists like Michael Heizer cut trenches in the ground in the wilds of Nevada, while Robert Smithson built a curlicue of rocks in the Great Salt Lake called Spiral Jetty. And Christo built his much-beloved Running Fence. Even today, James Turell is working on a piece that consists of a defunct volcanic crater near Flagstaff.
Although he has also done pieces that can be displayed in art galleries, Walter De Maria's early artwork included a three-mile-long swath cut through the Nevada desert, clearing it of sagebrush. Partly, such works were a revolt against the preciousness of art objects, their existence as commodities that could be bought and sold like stocks. You couldn't sell a hole in the ground, and so such works were thought to be purer.
I began thinking of all these things when I went inside to await dinner and realized there was literally nowhere comfortable to sit and read. I wandered around and slowly began to see the pattern.
The entire cabin was made of rough-cut pine, some boards still bearing the mark of an ax. Closets and cabinets were almost indistinguishable from the walls, since the cabin's builder forswore pull knobs in favor of bent nails or nothing at all.
In the combination living room and dining room, the large table and all the chairs were Mission-style. There was not an upholstered piece in the three-bedroom house. Nor were there curtains on the windows or rugs on the floors. In a concession to modesty, the bathroom windows were covered with skinny Levelor blinds the same color as the walls.
In the bedrooms, the beds had metal frames, mine held together at one corner with wire. Lighting was from the kind of half-globe wall fixtures one hardly sees anymore, although in our bedroom Hope and I also had a table lamp made of hammered tin, Santa Fe-style. When we sat down to dinner that night, the dishes were speckled-blue-enamel campware. The lights flickered every time the refrigerator turned on and pulled juice from the generator.
Dinnertime conversation scarcely touched on the reason we were all here. Barbara talked about a flower-arranging workshop in South Carolina. Jan talked about how her house had burned down. Hope, who works at a newspaper in New Mexico, talked about Bush's chances to carry the state. (A bit of polite inquiry revealed us all as Democrats.) After some requisite bragging about what successes our grown kids were, talk finally turned to the Lightning Field. "Do you think it's elitist?" Hope asked the table. "The way access to it is controlled?"
Sid dove for the opening to give a lecture on how the great mass of humanity doesn't appreciate art, anyway, and would probably rather spend its vacations in Puerto Vallarta. I jumped up to do the dishes, thinking Puerto Vallarta was sounding preferable to Sid. Hope grabbed her jacket and went out for a walk.
Before we turned in for the night, she and I had a juicy gossip about our fellow guests, and agreed that Jan and Barbara were wonderful, Sid was awful and Hassan too quiet to count. I was of the opinion that Sid was uniquely awful; Hope argued he was simply typical of all men.
@body:We woke up the next morning before the sun rose, threw on our jeans and down jackets and rushed out to catch the first rays of light on the stainless-steel poles. At 7,200 feet, it was cold.
"Doesn't it look like a graveyard?" Hope asked as we huffed toward the Lightning Field. When we got closer, we could see that not all the poles were equally shiny. A bat was hanging from the top of one, and a bird had apparently succeeded in clinging to the top of another, and of relieving itself at some length. I was cheered by these small signs of nature's fighting back. I was beginning to dislike Walter De Maria intensely and to resent the arrogance of his installation, and I wondered if that was the point.
Hope hiked exactly halfway around the Lightning Field--it makes you act that way; it discourages freeform wandering--while I went back and examined the blanket on my bed. Just as I thought, a genuine Hudson's Bay blanket, something I'd always wanted but could never justify spending the money for. Then I sat down and thought. Everything--the Mission furniture, the enamel plates, the lack of curtains--seemed aimed at a certain class of people. Such items were a shared vocabulary of good taste, an acknowledgement that we wore alligator shirts, drove foreign cars, had gone to good schools and knew about art.
The accouterments of the place evoked the summer homes of privileged East Coast childhoods. There were always metal bed frames in those houses on the New England shore. In the bathroom, someone had installed one of those old sinks with separate spigots for hot and cold water. Those houses always had those sinks, too. It must not have been easy to lug all that stuff from wherever they found it to that cabin in the middle of nowhere, and I was amazed at the single-mindedness of the pursuit.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
I went into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee. Barbara was working on breakfast, and, bless her heart, she had wrestled with the percolator and produced the same noxious brew I remembered from the pot I tossed out the window. Faced with the task of outfitting the cabin, almost anyone would have bought a Mr. Coffee. But that would have been too suburban middle class for the folks who owned the Lightning Field. A fashionable few might have bought a Melitta. But that would have been too nouveau riche.
Whoever bought the percolator was after something else. It was part of a Spartan denial of comfort in the cabin that reeked of the worst snobbery. That coffeepot was mechanical, difficult to operate and deliberately out of style. Its selection was not offhand, although it may have wanted to look that way. It had a studied carelessness akin to that New England old-money frumpiness of baggy old tweeds--patched, of course--dumpy old Fords and leaky old wooden sailboats, the tasteful but not at all fashionable style of people who don't need to prove anything. It was impossible to separate the work of art from its packaging. I wished we'd just been able to drive up to the Lightning Field and think about it on our own terms. Walter De Maria and the Dia Art Center had turned it into the very commodity the earthwork movement had been rebelling against in the first place. What they were selling was the chance for people to feel superior. I couldn't wait to leave.
A few minutes later, Hope reappeared, claiming breakfast would never be ready and that she was about to perish of hunger. Then she dug some oat-bran cereal out of her suitcase and went off to the kitchen to look for some milk.
I had another cup of coffee. God, it was bad.