Invisible Drawings: Works on Paper by Walter De Maria
By Carmen Hermo
The Guggenheim recently received these four drawings by Walter De Maria as a gift, adding a subtle complement, and a subtle bite, to the work by De Maria already in the collection. De Maria is primarily known for outsized masterworks of Land art, such as the iconic Mile Long Drawing (1968) in the Mojave Desert and the experiential The Lightning Field (1977) in New Mexico. Studies of geological time and physical space, those large installations experiment with geometry and mathematics and are among the most iconic achievements of the art of the 1970s. The recently acquired drawings offer a quiet counterpoint to those monumental works, exemplifying the wry theory and experimentation of De Maria’s early involvement with Fluxus in the 1960s.
While living in San Francisco in the early 1960s, De Maria, a musician from an early age, became more involved in rock music and jazz composition, as well as Fluxus-style art philosophy and happenings. He also returned to an earlier fascination with drawing, after having completed his formal education in painting. In 1961 and 1962, he drew every evening, often sketching boxes, rectangles, and other shapes. In 1962 and 1963, he embarked on a series of works of informally titled the “invisible drawings,” featuring landscapes and objects so lightly drawn that their quiet lines are nearly imperceptible against the vast expanse of blank paper. De Maria indicated in a 1972 interview for the Archives of American Art that “the invisible drawings came from the realization that if you put the pencil on the page you could put it on very, very lightly and if you’re just concentrating on the page… it wasn’t necessary to have a big fistful of India ink and brushes and it wasn’t necessary to have a thousand colors… [I]t was possible to make a very fine drawing which was almost as much of an idea as it was a drawing.” Refusing painterly excesses, De Maria turned instead to sparseness and isolated thoughts and images to produce drawings he described as “on the threshold of visibility.” They were experimentations in perception and sight, and their subject matter included mountains, deserts, mirages, climate, and the natural world.
To varying degrees, the four drawings reflect both De Maria’s Fluxus penchant for spontaneity and humor and the Minimalist impulse of his interventions in the earth. The shark goes down in flames (1963) depicts a desiccated fish body, trailed by jets of blood, devoid of the context and consequence of the title’s suggested violence. Floating Gun (1962) presents an unadorned, almost Minimalist construction that, if not for the title, would likewise remain ignorant of its own sinister purpose. Perhaps most familiar is The Grey Wall (1963), wherein a jagged and jutting crag or geographic extreme is blithely captured in the upper corner and a hurried scribble on the left edge indicates, perhaps, approaching waves. In Hell (1964) a concentrated yellow color is funneled from one small hole in the supposed center of the earth through to a arena-like, constructed area, where geometric walls above hover, unmoved, by the hellfire below; a ball rests on the ground above, unknowing and mute.
Read more about Walter De Maria and his work in the Collection Online.