A Review of Walter de Maria: Idea to Action to Object at Gagosian, Grosvenor Hill, London

 
Courtesy of Gagosian

Courtesy of Gagosian

 
 

An intriguing insight into the workings behind the subliminal sculptures of late artist Walter de Maria, Gagosian’s new exhibition ‘Idea to Action to Object’ presents over forty works on paper and several related sculptures, which are on view for the first time. A show mainly of ideas - focusing on his radically minimalist explorations into the possibilities of sculpture - ‘Idea to Action to Object’ focuses on two distinct bodies of De Maria’s work, offering an intimate perspective into his artistic process and the subsequent methods and modes of production, which would ultimately result in the finished artwork. 

Despite feeling like a rather minimalist, almost uninviting exhibition upon entry to the clean Grosvenor Hill space, closer and further inspection of the objects on display should draw the viewer to conclude that this is, in fact, rather an amusing and tender presentation. The sketches of unrealised projects and philosophical musings on artistic practice present a more intriguing aspect of the personality of an artist perhaps best known for his minimalist sculptures. The drawings have been sourced from the Estate of Walter De Maria. It is a balanced exhibition because of these sketches, which offer a deeper, somewhat intimate insight into the artist and his life and work without it being necessary to have any prior sense of familiarity.

 
 
Courtesy of Gagosian

Courtesy of Gagosian

 
 

The forty-plus works on paper included in the show are utterly varied, seemingly included at random but are in fact cleverly and succinctly curated by Gagosian to present everything from hand-drawn sketches and notes on art to typewritten letters and diary entries. These primary materials, or ‘ideas’, serve as an idiosyncratic backdrop to the ‘objects’ on display (of which there are few), which are far more restrained than the notes and sketches but equally as contemplative, theoretical, and idealistically challenging. Some of the works are functional and participatory, but one is of course not allowed to touch them.

One piece in particular, ‘14-Side Open Polygon’ (1984), is a stainless steel sculptural shape as described in the title which lies on the floor and acts as a sort of train track for a stainless steel ball. The ball remains motionless, and it is frustrating for the viewer to not be able to set it in motion. As the press release notes, it is ‘charged with potential energy’ - an energy that becomes more apparent as you study the notes.

A few of the works such as ‘Ball Drop’ (1961-4), were reportedly intended for viewer interaction, but this privilege has been withheld. Curatorially this is an interesting choice, because it forces the viewer to think instead about their own relationship to the artwork as well as its form and function within the gallery. One’s imagination is set into motion, instead of the static balls, increasing both self-awareness and awareness about the specific work on display. The press release comments that in later works, like ‘The Equal Area Series: Pair Number 24’ (1990), ‘the ball is replaced by the viewer.’ An astute suggestion, there is a subtly performative quality to this realisation.

 
 
Courtesy of Gagosian

Courtesy of Gagosian

 
 

Some of the works are self-aware, realising their interactive nature and teasing the viewer with it. One, a simple wooden shelf with wooden box and marble ball, has an inscription which simply reads: ‘Place ball in box, wait until you are satisfied. Then place ball back on spot.’ When one then isn’t allowed to touch the ball, you are both consciously and unconsciously playing along with De Maria’s attempt at sattire.

 Interesting, too, are the preparatory sketches and ideas for works to be put into action which were not eventually realised, or which are not included in the exhibition. These offer an alternative insight into the artist’s practice and his own capabilities and artistic reach, rather like looking at the preliminary sketches and workings of Christo and Jeanne-Claude at the Serpentine last summer. The scribbled notes, which were presumably of varying importance to the artist, become artworks in themselves, and appear to question the concept of whether the value of an artwork lies in its idea and conception or in its realisation.

 
 
Courtesy of Gagosian

Courtesy of Gagosian

 
 

A few of the notes in the show offer a small understanding of De Maria’s own views on art, or perhaps just on his own art - one, for example, states that “If [this sculpture] is an expression of myself only… then it is a failure / It must express the feelings of most of the people … / It must have universal interest + meaning [sic].” Another contemplates the meaning of sculpture on a rather metaphorical level, regarding whether it can be seen as “place as well as thing.” The visionary American artist also drew and illustrated his own jokes and comic-style sketches, reminding the viewer of his multifaceted practice and nature. In the mid-1960s, for example, he was the drummer in New York-based rock band the Primitives - joining Lou Reed and John Cale in a short-lived precursor to the Velvet Underground.

A succinct look at the artist’s practice, the show attempts to emulate De Maria’s desires to challenge the viewer’s perception of art, both by offering an unparalleled view of his private sketches and thoughts, and by showcasing a small example of works which criticise and make apparent the limitations of the gallery space. By inviting the viewer in, both De Maria and Gagosian are enabling imagination and interaction by presenting the dichotomy between ‘idea’ and ‘action’ with objects. This is perhaps best summarised by De Maria’s own prose in one of the sheets on display, ‘Danger in Art’: ‘It might hit you. / It might drive you mad. / Hypnotise you. / It should not necessarily / entertain, please, amuse, you.’

Written by Georgia Messervy, a Contributor to Arteviste