The Lightning Field

Three hours southwest of Albuquerque is one of the most significant icons
of contemporary art in the world . . .
400 polished steel poles whose peaks form an exactly even plane

The Lightning Field by Walter De Maria was commissioned by the Dia Foundation remote in 1977.

On a flat plain 7200 feet above sea level, the work consists of 400 polished stainless steel poles, tooled to perfect points at the top. From east to west are mile-long rows of 25 poles; north to south sixteen poles stretch for a kilometer. The engineering feat here was to set the poles so that their peaks form an exactly even plane.

There is nothing spontaneous about visiting this place. You must make a reservation well ahead of time and plan to stay overnight in a log cabin adjacent to the site. The cost is $85 per person. The cabin holds up to six people. If your companions don't fill the cabin it is possible that you will share it with strangers.

Your needs will be met with wholesome food, clean beds and baths, but this is no four star hotel. The cabin is there to make it possible for visitors to witness the gradual—but spectacular—changes of light between day, sunset, night and sunrise.

The Lightning Field is an elaborately wrought installation that becomes glorious for a split second when the slanting rays of departing or rising sun illuminate the poles in a sequence across the field so fleeting one wonders if it were a mirage. For those who are open to the experience, all of this preparation and commitment leads to a retreat for the spirit.

Susan Hallsten McGarry visited the field in the summer of 1993. She reported to us that, "The Lightning Field bares your soul. It a bare place, a bare cabin in a bare field. It accentuates the open space of the country. The mountains far away on the horizon make an almost perfect ring. I would stress whom you go with because the poles are just the trigger. The real explosion is in what occurs within the group of visitors."

Artist Jack Richards of Savannah, Georgia said, "The Lightning Field was profound. I loved the space and the solitude. It was nice being left alone at times to have a chance to experience that aspect of the earthwork." The field serves its visitors as the background for private rituals. Jackie Shaefer, also from Georgia, and three women artists visited the field together. She wrote, "I wonder what Walter De Maria's response would be if he had witnessed my group on that last morning. As a final climax to our stay, we formed a square by each one of us standing in front of a pole while chanting crone energy."

To reach the field, take I-40 West approximately 70 miles to Route 117 South. This exit is at the Stuckey's gas station 7 miles before Grants. Follow Route 117 78 miles into Quemado to the Dia office, the two-story white building is the only such structure in the town. The caretaker, either Robert Weathers or his wife Karren, will pick you up at 3:00 p.m. and drive you to The Lightning Field, a trip that takes another hour over rough roads.

Weathers was on the crew that built the artwork. He lives near the site. Before leaving, he will give you instructions on using the short-wave radio, which is your only link from the field to civilization. Weathers or Karren will leave a prepared dinner at the cabin for you to heat in the oven. Once you are settled in, it is time to explore.

Bring protective clothing, and sturdy boots or shoes. The terrain is rough and it becomes a quagmire when muddy. Signs of storms and lightning strikes are visible in the charred stubble around the bottom of the poles. To stand in the center of the field and look outward to the distant mesas is mind-altering. Here is high tech in the middle of nowhere. This sign of human ingenuity is imposed on the wild life and stunted vegetation of the high mesa. What does it all mean? The flash of gold hitting the poles at sunset seems to illuminate, for a moment, what might have been in the artist's mind.

If you are fortunate, you and your companions will talk into the night pondering elemental questions about life, art, the state of humanity, and what you are doing out there in the boondocks closed into a cabin waiting for sunrise.

To take advantage of one of New Mexico's most alluring artworks, from May l through October 31, call The Lightning Field Albuquerque area office at 505-898-3335. Reservations are taken after March 1.

Note: no photography is permitted at The Field, but a set of 8 slides may be purchased for $30 plus $2 shipping, through the Albuquerque area office at PO Box 2993, Corrales, NM 87048.

For contact information and to see a photograph, visit this link: The Lightning Field remote site

By Mary Carroll Nelson who is an Albuquerque author, artist and founder of
The Society of Layerists and Multimedia

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Albuquerque Metro Area - Volume 9

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LAST MODIFIED September 24, 2007

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