Walter De Maria’s two closely related works Silver Meters (1976) and Gold Meters (1976–77) each comprise eight polished stainless-steel square-meter plates measuring one inch in height. Each plate contains one troy ounce of silver or gold in the form of solid cylindrical plugs inserted flush to the plate’s surface. The plugs vary in depth proportionately according to their number and weight: the number of plugs that constitute the troy ounce increases from plate to plate by squaring the integers two through nine, so that the first plate in each series contains a total of four plugs (weighing 1/4 troy ounce each) and the last plate contains eighty-one plugs (at 1/81 troy ounce each). De Maria’s Equal Area Series (1976–90) is similarly premised on mathematical relationships. The Equal Area Series features twenty-five pairs of circles and squares. As the title implies, each circle in a pair defines an area of the same size as its corresponding square. For example, the first pair in the series is made up of a square measuring 6 feet wide and a circle measuring 6 feet 8 inches in diameter; the area inscribed by each is almost exactly the same—3,844 and 3,848 square inches respectively. The pairs get progressively larger and are spaced increasingly far apart. This has the effect of visually collapsing their scale, so from the front of the gallery each pair appears to be the same size.
These works, like others made by the artist, employ measurement and number as compositional principles. The fact that each plate in the Silver and Gold Meters contains the same amount of precious metal is not discernible from empirical observation. By prompting speculation about such underlying or binding systems, De Maria’s sculptures engage structures of meaning beyond the immediately apparent. Abstract methodologies based in ordering, sequencing, and measurement provide fundamental and essential ways of regulating human experience, yet, like the values attributed today to rare metals, they are ultimately arbitrary; that is, they are the product of human rather than cosmic ways of engaging and apprehending the world.
Such plays between the relative and the absolute have been critical to De Maria’s aesthetic from its inception in the sixties, when his work evolved in parallel with that of Minimalist and Fluxus peers as diverse as Donald Judd and La Monte Young. Yet, in its exploration of the numerical in relation to the serial, De Maria’s trajectory has been singular. It ranges from the vast scale of The Lightning Field—an earthwork in New Mexico realized under the auspices of Dia Art Foundation in 1977—whose grid of four hundred stainless-steel poles spans a field a kilometer by a mile in dimension, to these more modest works, which similarly incorporate both metric and English (or Imperial) systems of linear measurement. Common to all is the use of highly polished metal components and pristine workmanship, together serving to impart to the piece a sense of absoluteness—of indubitability—as if it existed outside the vicissitudes of happenstance. The opposite seems to be invoked in what is among De Maria’s most renowned works, The New York Earth Room (1977), located in Manhattan, yet it too is invested with the basics of De Maria’s abiding aesthetic. Composed of thousands of cubic feet of dirt covering the floor of a former warehouse to a depth of approximately twenty-seven inches, this extraordinary work is kept in pristine condition through constant custodial care. It invites that distinctive speculation about concepts, qualities, elements, and even values normally considered conceptual foundations on which human experience is parsed.