The Meaning of Meaningless: Walter De Maria at the Menil Collection

What constitutes meaning? It’s not a simple question, and it’s one that has captured the imagination of artists, philosophers, and scholars alike for millennia.

Walter De Maria: Boxes for Meaningless Work takes meaning to task, as it were, and is the first-ever U.S. museum exhibition survey of work by American artist Walter De Maria (1935–2013). On view at the Menil Collection through April 23, 2023, the show, curated by the Menil’s Senior Curator Michelle White and former Chief Conservator Brad Epley, covers De Maria’s career of more than five decades and “presents the artist’s remarkable exploration of space, time, and spirituality through works from the museum’s permanent collection.” A special treat for museum visitors: most of the artworks on view have never before been exhibited.

Born in California, De Maria lived and worked in New York beginning in the 1960s. Perhaps best known for his Land art work such as The Lightning Field (1977) and sculptural installations like The New York Earth Room (1977) and The Broken Kilometer (1979), the artist also participated in happenings and experimented with film and music. (Some readers may be surprised to learn that he was an early band member of The Velvet Underground.)

As a prolific and influential artist, De Maria’s work has been the subject of seven major solo museum exhibitions in Europe, but his first solo museum exhibition in the United States, Walter De Maria: Trilogies, also at the Menil, didn’t happen until 2011. Following the artist’s death, the Menil worked closely with his estate to identify and acquire more than 30 of his early sculptures. Not long thereafter, the Menil acquired just fewer than 600 of his works on paper from the estate.

“We had such a close, lovely relationship with the artist and his team who protects his legacy,” says White. “There was an extraordinary amount of care involved, which allowed us to make these acquisitions and establish the Menil as one of the most important museum repositories of his work.”

The exhibition adds a new dimension to De Maria’s oeuvre and helps the public understand works that are well-known and loved, like the aforementioned The Lightning Field, with even greater depth. For example, in 1961, when De Maria starts making the eponymous boxes, it’s during a bit of an abstract expressionist hangover moment, ala Alan Kaprow’s happenings. De Maria’s two boxes, and the quantifiable “things” that they contain, invite a contemplation about our actions, when and why we do what we do, and how they may or may not be meaningless. Whether or not any of this matters, to whom and to what extent, is up to us entirely. To further expand ideas of space and time and involve the audience in the construction of meaning, White has included De Maria’s 1960 manifesto of sorts (he is known for resisting interpretations of his work), installed adjacent to the piece, which helps viewers understand how these boxes articulate the artist’s philosophies about art and participation.

Other works on view include Ocean Bed, which represents De Maria’s interest in sound, amplifying his belief in the viewer’s agency and art as experience. The piece hasn’t been shown or reconstructed since a 1969 presentation at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam as part of the exhibition op Losse Shroven. For Boxes for Meaningless Work, the Menil worked closely with the estate to make an exhibition copy, creating a moment in the show where you, dear reader, can participate: lie down on a pink mattress, in front of a steel headboard, and listen to the sound of two oceans, one on either side of your head. Ocean Bed is a key moment in the show that offers more dynamic, expansive ways of thinking about the audience. Questions, curiosities, and musings are sure to abound.

White explains, “One of the goals of this exhibition, by showing this work without a definitive line of inquiry or answers, is to open up scholarship and inquiry for the academic art historical community—it just hasn’t been done yet.”And as with any survey exhibition, a main goal of Boxes for Meaningless Work is to provide greater understanding of De Maria’s practice, to make connections to his early pieces.

“The opportunities to create new knowledge around DeMaria are so rich and exciting,” says White. “And we want to make sure that the community knows that we are open and excited to facilitate new understanding and new research out of what we have.”