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The Lightning Field (1977) is a land art work in Catron County, New Mexico, by sculptor Walter De Maria. It consists of 400 stainless steel poles with solid, pointed tips, arranged in a rectangular 1 mile × 1 kilometre grid array. It is maintained by the Dia Art Foundation who consider it one of their 11 locations and sites they manage.

History

It was commissioned by Dia Art Foundation, which also maintains the work. De Maria and his assistants—Robert Fosdick and Helen Winkler were the principal associates—scoured California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and Texas by truck for over five years before settling on the site, 11.5 miles (18.5 km) east of the continental divide, at an elevation of 7,200 feet above sea level. Set in the middle of an empty plateau about 40 miles from the nearest town, it consists of 400 stainless steel poles arranged in the form of a grid. The grid measures 1 mile by 1 kilometer, and the poles are set 220 feet apart from one another. Because the land undulates slightly, the poles - two inches in diameter - vary in height: the shortest is 15 feet and the longest is 26 feet 9 inches. The poles are several times higher than an average person, and the tops end up on a plane level parallel to the ground regardless of the terrain the pole was erected in. Each steel rod is set in its own concrete footing, three feet deep and one foot in diameter, buried one foot beneath the surface. They are designed to survive winds of up to 110 miles (180 km) an hour.

Whilst the title and form of the work might suggest that it is often struck by lightning, this is actually a rare occurrence.

Support for maintaining and operating The Lightning Field is provided in part by an endowment established by Ray A. Graham III and Lannan Foundation, which awarded a challenge grant in 1996. Support towards the permanent preservation of the undeveloped grasslands surrounding the installation has in the past been provided by Dia's Board of Trustees, the State of New Mexico, De Maria's assistant Helen Winkler Fosdick, and Gucci.

By 2012, the structure as a whole needed reinforcement. To scrape together additional funds of an estimated $400,000 to preserve Lightning Field, Larry Gagosian, whose gallery represents De Maria, and Miuccia Prada have come together to lead the restoration effort. Work on the Lightning Field was to begin in early 2013, and the sculpture was to be reopened in June.

Featured in publications

A photograph of The Lightning Field was used as the cover image for Robert Hughes's 1997 book, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America. The work featured prominently in the novel Blinded by the Light by Morgan Hunt, and may also have influenced the imagery of author Cormac McCarthy's epilogue in his book Blood Meridian. It is also the subject of a 2011 New Yorker article by Geoff Dyer called Poles Apart. David Ulin discusses the work as a narrative which "unfolds not as a fixed encounter but rather as something that gets inside us in a more sequential way." It is also the inspiration for composer John Mackey's piece also entitled The Lightning Field. The Lightning Field's fortieth anniversary was the subject of an essay titled "Walter De Maria and The Lightning Field at Forty: Art as Symbiosis," by Jason Rosenfeld in the December 2017/January 2018 issue of The Brooklyn Rail.

Visiting

Open for only six months out of the year, the installation can only be visited by making an advance reservation for an overnight stay in the simple accommodations at the site. Trips to the site consist of a long drive from a scheduled meeting place in Quemado to a log cabin in the area. The installation is intended to be viewed in isolation or with a very small group of people, so the cabin on the site, in serious disrepair when the project began, was restored to accommodate six people at most. There are two bathrooms, a kitchen and a common room. Camping and photography are not permitted.

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