Is Walter De Maria's The Lightning Field Still a Protected Work?

The Lightning Field, which Walter De Maria completed in 1977 in New Mexico, is an arrangement of 400 polished stainless steel posts in a calculated rectangular grid over an area 1 kilometer long and 1 mile wide. It's protected by copyright, believe it or not. Photography of the sculpture and the cabin is not permitted. A photographer named John Cliett lived on-site for a year, and from the vast array of photographs he took, Walter De Maria chose nine photographs that are the only images that are allowed to be used for publication. It's very strict because Walter De Maria wanted people to experience the artwork directly. It's not intended to be represented in photographs or in any other medium. You're supposed to experience it for yourself. It's supposed to be unmediated experience.

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Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field (1977). Long-term installation in Western New Mexico.
Photo: John Cliett, © Dia Art Foundation.

It takes about 1½ hours to walk the perimeter. The field is 1 mile by 1 kilometer and the poles are 220 feet apart. The poles range in size from 12 feet to 27.5 feet and vary with the terrain so that all of the tops are level. The poles were structurally reinforced in 2013; the tips of a few of them had melted into a ball. The tips are actually pure stainless steel and are welded to the poles, which are stainless on the outside with a carbon steel center surrounded by stainless steel. Each pole is 2 inches in diameter.

Birds actually perch on top of the points. There are thousands of holes of various sizes throughout the fields where various animals burrow. We saw lots of rabbits and red ant hills, and baby deer, and heard coyotes. We saw no snakes.

Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field (1977). Long-term installation in Western New Mexico.  Photo: John Cliett, © Dia Art Foundation.

Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field (1977). Long-term installation in Western New Mexico.Photo: John Cliett, © Dia Art Foundation.

Lightning storms typically occur in this area from mid-July through August, but it is an extremely rare occasion when lightning actually hits The Lightning Field.

Blake Gopnik, who's on the "Strictly Critical" videos, wrote an article about The Lightning Field when he was a staff writer for the Washington PostHe said that the work looks good in any light: "There's no doubt the piece looks great by storm light, when it's likely to give as many goose bumps as Las Meninas or the Sistine ceiling. But the best thing about "Lightning Field" is that it seems to work at least as well, or better, by any other kind of light, at almost any moment that you come across it."

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Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field (1977). Long-term installation in Western New Mexico.
Photo: John Cliett, © Dia Art Foundation.