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 massive valley ringed by distant peaks. Then I saw the slender silver rods off in the distance. Four hundred of them are laid out 220 feet apart in a precise one-mile by one-kilometer grid. As we drove alongside them, they would line up and branch out, line up and branch out. Finally Karren stopped the Suburban in front of an old log cabin—our home for the night. As soon as she left, we poked into every corner of the place. It was completely utilitarian and charming, and it smelled like a pine forest. The walls were bare wood with no decorations of any kind, aside from an old ax stuck into a crack. In the common area was a broad wooden table, a big leather rocking chair, several plain wooden armchairs, and a black cast-iron stove. In the bedrooms were simple iron bed frames with white sheets and red wool blankets.
Outside, the sun was blazing. A narrow porch ran around the cabin, and on the far side, facing The Lightning Field, sat a gray wooden rocking chair. All around us a sea of high grass was bending and waving in the wind, making an endless shushing noise. I slowly realized that mixed in with the silver-green grass were thousands of tiny flowers—patches of yellow, lavender, purple, and white. Off in the distance, Lydia and Tade were silently gesturing. Alison had disappeared, swallowed up by a hidden contour in the valley. With the sun high overhead, De Maria’s grid was barely visible: It interfered with the view in the most minimal of fashions. At the same time, it was utterly unavoidable; you couldn’t look at the ring of mountains except through the rigid geometric pattern of metal rods, each of them two inches in diameter and about twenty feet tall (their height varies slightly so that the tips create a level plain). In his book, Robert Hughes likens the effect to a “fakir’s bed of nails.”
I set off for The Lightning Field myself. Once you are close by, you have to go toward it; like lightning, you too must reach out and touch the shiny stainless steel. The first rod I came to felt surprisingly cool and had a highly refined surface, like commercial kitchenware. An individual rod was sort of boring—it looked like a flagpole or the thing you hang on to while riding the bus—but as a group they were oddly compelling. They formed avenues that you had to walk down; they formed boundaries that you had to stay inside. “When you’re in the middle of it, even though the rods are far apart, you feel inside of something,” Tade said when we met up. “And if you take one step beyond the last rod, you feel outside.”
This bothered Alison immensely. She trudged over to announce that she couldn’t stand the feeling of being commanded by the work to head in certain directions. She liked getting outside the field and looking at the mountains without De Maria in the way. But I loved the feeling of being pulled along. I liked how the rods choreographed meetings, how they altered the landscape irrevocably but didn’t obscure it. When I got to the edge of the grid and confronted the naked view, I turned around and dove back in again.
The sun was reflecting off the tips of the rods, so that they took on the appearance of spears stuck point-up in the ground. A flock of birds wheeled through them, weaving in and out. As the day went on, the rods grew more emphatic, until eventually they stood out like light bulbs against the twilight. Soon you could pick out every individual rod, illuminated in the gloam. Then the light drained from the sky, and the grid abruptly dimmed as if a giant battery had given out. “Now it’s gone,” Alison said.
The four of us gathered on the porch, shivering in the twilight. The perfectly cloudless evening sky was filling up with stars and a crescent moon. I was not disappointed—a flashy electrical storm would have been spectacular, but the slow transmutation of the field in ordinary light was perfectly satisfying. I was also enjoying the company of the other guests; in a funny way they had become part of the experience. (The number of people allowed to visit at a time is restricted to six, both to ensure that the isolation of the desert is not obliterated and to create an intimate party among strangers who might otherwise never meet.) We went inside to cook dinner (groceries are in the home when you arrive). Over cheese enchiladas Lydia and Tade talked about Slovenia, its separation from Yugoslavia, and the nature of war. Alison and I tried to explain the difference between Americans and Europeans. Then we built a fire and drank whiskey until we started to fall asleep.
The next morning we all woke while it was still dark, pulled on our warmest clothes, and left the cabin, diving into the shocking predawn chill. It was after first light, and the steel rods were already discernible, a ghostly series of insubstantial silver lines. Even before we made it to the first row, our feet were soaked by dew. It took forever for the sun to come up. Slowly the eastern horizon reddened, slowly the sky brightened, slowly a lavender light bled upward. At last the sun itself surfaced, turning the steel rods fiery white in the gold morning, making them substantial once again. Lydia and Tade were off in the distance; Alison was nearby. We all started to walk toward one another when an eerie, bizarre sound to the west suddenly made us freeze. A gang of children was whooping or women were screaming—or were ducks honking? It took me a long time to realize that I was listening to a pack of coyotes. Barbarous and haunting, the sound embodied what De Maria had searched for in the desert. It was the antithesis of his machine-perfect rods; it was uncivilized.
Later that day, Robert Weathers picked us up at the cabin. On the way back to Quemado he told us about something else De Maria would consider uncivilized, but in a different sense of the word: the subdivision of large ranchlands, which could lead to more-concentrated development in the area. So far, no development threatens to spill over into the valley where The Lightning Field sits, but it’s possible that someday lights from surrounding buildings could encroach on the sense of total isolation there. “That would probably mean the end of The Lightning Field, ” Robert mused. “Walter has always said that if it ever got to the point where you could see lights, he’d dig it up.” Bouncing along the rutted dirt road, looking out at the virgin desert, I wondered why people would ever move here. Probably for the cheap land, the cheap homes, and the dry, sunny weather. But winters in this part of the country are ferocious, so, thankfully, it’s hard to conceive of the day when The Lightning Field would indeed be surrounded by tract homes. De Maria ventured into the desert specifically in search of wilderness, and he picked an appropriately rugged site for his grand statement about mankind’s relationship to nature.
Travel Information To visit The Lightning Field, you have to make a reservation. You can write to The Lightning Field, Dia Center for the Arts, P.O. Box 2993, Corrales, New Mexico 87048; or you can send an e-mail to [email protected] In May, June, September, and October, the fee is $85, which includes transportation from Quemado plus two meals; during July and August, it’s $110. It’s a good idea to provide several possible dates for your trip, as spots in the cabin are limited. Dia’s reply will include directions.