Metal of Honor

New Mexico’s legendary Lightning Field is a precise grid of steel rods that attracts bolts from the sky—and visitors from the world over.

TO GET TO THE ARTWORK KNOWN AS The Lightning Field, I set out from Austin with my friend Alison Green and drove fourteen hours to Quemado, New Mexico, a little town in the middle of nowhere. There we piled into a maroon-and-silver Suburban, along with a driver and two other people who were signed up for the ride, and bumped along a dirt road for a little more than an hour. In that time we passed a rusty mailbox, two cattle guards, and half a dozen cows; otherwise, all we saw out of the dust-covered windows was desert. Finally we drove up a shallow rise and came face to face with it: a sparse geometrical forest of steel rods superimposed over the vista. I had expected something heavy and industrial, but the rods were spread far apart and the land surrounding them was vast. The effect was unexpectedly delicate, like a giant spiderweb draped over the scrubby terrain.

Over the next day we walked the length and breadth of the piece, watching it change as day became evening and night became morning, and we debated what it meant. (At the insistence of Walter De Maria, the New York—based artist who created The Lightning Field, visitors are required to spend the night because he wants them to absorb the full impact of the work over time.) The place was enchanting, and I kept making mental lists of the friends I should persuade to make the trip—or maybe I should call it a pilgrimage. Two decades after De Maria planted the rods in the desert under the patronage of the Houston arts scene, The Lightning Field has become legend. Its weird allure has drawn visitors from Texas, Arizona, both coasts, Australia, Japan, and almost every country in Europe.

I first heard about The Lightning Field from Alison, an art historian who had wanted to see it for years. When we set out last October, all I knew was that it was supposed to attract bolts of lightning, which sounded entertaining. But I soon learned more: Alison abhors idleness like nature abhors a vacuum, so she spent the entire drive reading aloud from several oversized art books. As we cruised along Texas Highway 71, I listened to her recite the history of the internationally known movement called Land Art, also called Earth Art, a peculiarly American development of the sixties and seventies. Driving west as she read seemed highly appropriate because nearly all the major Earthworks, as they are called, are found in that direction; the red buttes and mesas of the Southwest beckoned artists like some vast tabula rasa. (“Isolation is the essence of Land Art,” De Maria wrote in 1980.) For the most part, you can’t buy Earthworks, and you can’t hang them in a museum; heavy equipment is typically involved in their creation, and the end product bears some resemblance to Stonehenge in terms of scale and atmosphere. Out in Utah, for example, artist Robert Smithson built an immense rock curlicue in the Great Salt Lake that he called Spiral Jetty. Alison held up a photograph of Smithson’s work, which looked like an enormous conch shell sliced open and filled with water.

One of the books she brought along was American Visions, the best-selling art encyclopedia by critic Robert Hughes. On its glossy dust jacket is a dramatic shot of The Lightning Field: fluorescent veins of lightning slamming down to touch De Maria’s metal rods. That’s what I wanted to see. The trouble is that thunderstorms pass over the field only about sixty times a year; in relative terms that’s a lot of activity (De Maria chose the site partly because of the high number of storms), but it means the odds of witnessing a strike are still slim. It has been a standing joke over the years that few people actually get to see The Lightning Field ’s main attraction. I worried that I would be disappointed if there wasn’t a big electrical storm.

That worry washed away the next day, however, as we drove farther into New Mexico, where the view was reason enough for a trip. The earth turned red and the grass turned silver, and sometimes we dipped into an arroyo full of cottonwoods, occasionally catching sight of the creek they were trying to hide. The smell of sage was overwhelming as we crossed a shoulder of mountains, passed over the Continental Divide, and dropped down into Quemado, which is 150 miles west-southwest of Albuquerque. We arrived an hour before our guide was scheduled to pick us up, so we spent it in a cafe decorated with green and red chiles. Artsy types stand out in the tiny town, and we soon spotted a couple that looked like fellow tourists. Scruffy but hip, they were clearly not American. “German, maybe,” said Alison. Lydia and Tade turned out to be Slovenian, but otherwise we were right: At the appointed hour, we all converged at the small adobe building where we had been told to meet our guide. Lydia was skinny, with a messy mop of blond hair and form-fitting navy clothes; Tade had a shaved head and wore black socks with his running shoes. They were architecture students with the cosmopolitan innocence of young Europeans; they said things to each other that sounded romantic and guttural.

After a while, an athletic-looking blond woman in hot-pink jeans (American!) pulled up in her dusty Suburban, and we all piled in. Karren Weathers and her husband, Robert, lease the ranch that is home to The Lightning Field. The Dia Center for the Arts, a New York foundation that was created by members of the de Menil family and has been a generous benefactor of the Earth Art movement, manages the land and De Maria’s work. Year-round, the Weatherses run cattle on the property, and from May through October, when The Lightning Field is open to the public, they also chauffeur visitors back and forth from Quemado.

We drove over some rugged hills and down into a

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