There’s a faint hint of incense. The calm that you sense on entering the gallery is only intensified by the creaking of old floorboards. Outside we have left behind us countless boutiques, passers-by and clamorous restaurants. As soon as we step inside, passing a low wall where there are brochures laid out, the magnificent work greets us. Five hundred gleaming gold-coloured rods, receding into the distance, laid out majestically in a five-sectioned plane. Our gaze roams to and fro, lingering on columns, a double-window on the left wall, a white rope in front of us at knee-height. Do not enter, just look. A devotional image with no figure of Mary, no Joseph and no Lord God. Just pure brass, illuminated by some other sun for our benefit alone, it seems.
More than 30 years ago these premises were occupied by a gallery that used to put on avant-garde exhibitions. In those days, drawn by the popular artists’ quarter of SoHo, just a decade old at the time, any self-respecting art enthusiast from Europe felt obliged to spend at least one Saturday a season there, catching up on the latest trends. And it seemed that all the most important galleries were a mere stone’s throw away, in the building at 420 West Broadway. Jaap Rietman had his art-book shop, there were two or three artists’ bars and no shortage of kindred spirits to swap the latest gossip with. The old art world was about three blocks further to the east, and already came to an end at Mercer Street. The short-lived Guggenheim SoHo was not yet in existence, nor was there a really important art scene in any other US city. To the south, at the end of West Broadway, the monumental, shining Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre reached into the sky – an indirect reminder that ultimately art and finance have to connect.
This was the world where The Broken Kilometer 1979 appeared, barely two years after documenta 6 in Kassel in 1977, for which the Dia Art Foundation had funded Walter De Maria’s Vertical Earth Kilometer. The city of Kassel was to receive this piece as a gift – hidden from view in a borehole in the ground. “You try putting that to the city authorities,” Heiner Friedrich said to my former self when, as an eager young art student, I was quizzing him about the whole process. Friedrich had given up his New York gallery to The Broken Kilometer; before that, in 1974, he and Philippa de Menil had founded the Dia Art Foundation. At that time in Germany – with the highest density of museums worldwide – there was little if any understanding for the idea of a borehole into which 1,000 metres of solid brass cut into approximately six-metre sections was to be inserted. And all De Maria had been wanting to do was create something enduring and especially beautiful to anchor in some small way the viewer’s perceptions, in an attempt to counter the trend of that time. In the east a borehole was sunk at his behest. In the west, north of Quemado in New Mexico, The Lightning Field 1977 was constructed: a deserted site, far away, filled with 400 stainless steel poles with pointed tips. The Broken Kilometer and The New York Earth Room 1977 were situated almost exactly half way between those two other places of pilgrimage.
Be it in 1977 or 1979, as in any art market at that time, in SoHo there were art projects and artists on all sides, from late Pop Art to the last vestiges of Minimalism, with attempts to market conceptual art, process art, performance art or the new arrival, video art. Most galleries were keen to convey the ideas around “information”, which in fact was the title of a major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970. Compared with today, few people were buying art. There were, of course, still the now rather outmoded-looking Abstract Expressionist paintings and sculptures, or Hard Edge abstract works. But in New York these were mainly on view uptown. Christo had fought until 1976 to be allowed to realise his 40-kilometre long Running Fence and in 1979 submitted a proposal to his home city for his The Gates, Central Park 2005. I was fortunate enough to visit him in his studio in November 1979 where I heard yet again, for the umpteenth time, the story of his hair-raising escape from Bulgaria through Vienna to Paris. Although Jeanne-Claude left the room in a fury because she couldn’t bear to stand by while her husband – who regularly worked sixteen-hour days, even on Sundays – wasted time on tales of that kind. The major sensation in that late autumn of 1979 was the fact that Joseph Beuys had been invited to fill all seven floors of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum with his Lebenslauf/Werklauf. Visitors could take in felt and fat sculptures on their way to the old VW van with sledges and torches tumbling out of it. Beuys himself, who spoke extraordinarily bad English, was very much in evidence after that. Not long before, Andy Warhol, who regarded Beuys almost as some kind of a papal figure, had started to meet up with him and to make portraits of him.
But Walter De Maria was nowhere to be seen. When I enquired about the possibility of an interview with him in Kassel on the subject of his Vertical Earth Kilometer, he explained to me at length – in a telephone call lasting around 40 minutes – that he was unfortunately not able to meet my request. Inordinately upset by this, I decided to travel to New York. Again I tried in vain to arrange an interview, until I happened to run into him in the offices of the Dia Art Foundation in SoHo – his institution, so to speak, since it funded all his work at the time. His demeanour was extremely friendly, polite, even chatty, but very shy. His handshake was warm. About three days after that first encounter I somehow managed to meet him alone. The meeting took place in one of the already legendary restaurants in Little Italy. Nearby there was a large table occupied by a rather loud party of two Italian men and four or five very beautiful women. Every so often the waiters serving them exchanged sidelong glances. Apart from De Maria and me, there were no other diners in the restaurant. I was so on tenterhooks that I could barely eat. Added to which, I had a whole sheaf of questions with me. But there seemed to be no chance of talking about art. And in the weeks, even years, to come, whenever De Maria and I met, in the friendliest of circumstances, the conversation never turned to his works. They were to remain a mystery, and De Maria didn’t even want to talk about that.
By the end of the 1970s the New York art scene had got into something of a rut, constantly demanding change only to reject it with varying degrees of vehemence when it appeared. Most visitors from Europe and the United States alike looked to the exhibitions put on by Leo Castelli or Ileana Sonnabend for the season’s highlights. Just a few short years after the opening of The Broken Kilometer, the artists represented here included Claes Oldenburg, Lawrence Weiner or Gilbert & George, whose tape of Underneath the Arches – a simple music hall song – played again and again moved hundreds to tears, even including Coosje van Bruggen, Oldenburg’s wife and collaborator, who was seen with a handkerchief in her hand despite herself. Among the major exhibition events before the opening of The Broken Kilometer at 393 West Broadway was the presentation of Andy Warhol’s coloured Shadows, filling the walls of the gallery. Even Warhol was constantly astonished by them because, as long as he lived and ever the sceptic, only very occasionally did he regard himself as an important artist.
With The Broken Kilometer, De Maria had put in place the fourth and last stage of his multi-part sculptural system. While the solid brass work in Kassel plunged a kilometre into the ground and The Lightning Field in New Mexico marked out an area of one kilometre by one mile with poles that all reached the same, absolute height, in 1977 he created The New York Earth Room – apparently permanently – by covering the entire floor of a room in Friedrich’s other SoHo gallery with an even layer of earth. The work can still be seen on the second floor at 141 Wooster Street. Two years later, when The Broken Kilometer – filling the whole floor space of a gallery – was installed as a permanent exhibition, it was clear that the viewer who encountered the piece in astonishment could only respond in one way: silent contemplation.
To this day this supremely gleaming work is still where it ever was in New York. The whole room seems to be filled with a simple splendour. The polished brass that was sunk into the ground in Kassel now lies like a carpet, calling to mind holy Islamic sites. Constantin Brancusi’s heads and birds rarely glow with such intensity. And Piet Mondrian’s “plastic universe” has seldom been seen with such an even tone. Even Barnett Newman’s “zip” paintings, Dan Flavin’s fluorescent tube installations or Henri Matisse’s captivating chapel in Vence are not likely to fill the viewer with such wonder. Almost since the first, those familiar with this piece have been only too well aware that De Maria’s installation has caused the art world to divide just as the Red Sea once did, allowing those with eyes to see to make out a light at the end of the tunnel. Although the Dia Art Foundation has periodically had to renovate the space over the years, to replace the halide bulbs or remind the security staff at the desk to encourage groups of visitors to show the work due respect, The Broken Kilometer has not suffered as a result of the relocation of the New York art world, first to East Village and later, in the 1990s, to Chelsea. There was only one point in time when the work seemed to lose its geographical and cultural significance – when the World Trade Centre was so hideously destroyed on 11 September 2001. But the long-term owner of the work, the then Dia Centre for the Arts, has ensured that on Wednesdays to Sundays, from noon to 6pm, Manhattan has not only The New York Earth Room, but also another enduringly magnetic place of pilgrimage. With its clear form, its glorious colour and its rock-solid material, no doubt this installation will continue to figure as a work to contend with in the twenty-first century.