Meaningless Work

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Walter De Maria, "Lightning Field"

In 1964 and 1965, Walter De Maria was the drummer for a band called the Primitives. Lou Reed, Tony Conrad and John Cale played in the band too, and the group would eventually morph into the Velvet Underground, after shedding and gaining key members and wholeheartedly embracing an addictive breed of nihilism. An artist known for his imposingly sleek, carefully calculated minimalism, De Maria did not sound sleek or calculated when he played with the Primitives, especially not on the campy track Sneaky Pete, which begins, “I got played traveling ‘round the world/I got played for a pretty girl.” De Maria did, however, sound insistent and fun.

A few years before De Maria tried his hand as a pre-punk drummer, he wrote about meaninglessness. A precursor to his 1961 project, Boxes of Meaningless Work, his essay explained that

Meaningless work is potentially the most abstract, concrete, individual, foolish, indeterminate, exactly determined, varied, important art-action-experience one can undertake today. This concept is not a joke.

Much of De Maria’s work would, unsurprisingly, go on to be abstract, concrete, individual, and foolish (though foolish only if you believe that art should be efficacious and un-indulgent). And with the exception of Sneaky Pete, most of it would also be exact:  Lightning Field, Museum Piece and The Broken Kilometer are all telling examples.

Walter De Maria, "The Broken Kilometer" at the Dia Foundation

Last Thursday, June 17th, the Los Angeles County Museum “tested” its soon to open Resnick Pavilion with a gargantuan installation by De Maria. Director Michael Govan explained that the sculpture would measure the building’s  “capacity to deal with large-scale work in the context of its architecture.” Called 2000 Sculpture, it consisted of 2000 low-to-the ground white rods. It was clean, quiet, minimal, massive and intimidating. It was also needlessly exact and viewable to the public only for a single day. It made De Maria seem quite indulgent–he was being dramatically expansive for no truly good reason.

Walter De Maria, "13, 14, 15 Meter Rows," 1985

Walter De Maria, "13, 14, 15 Meter Rows," 1985

Back in 1960, De Maria concluded, “Whether the meaningless work, as an art form, is meaningless, in the ordinary sense of that term, is of course up to the individual.” For Govan, meaningless work has a purpose; 2000 Sculpture tested LACMA’s newest venue. But maybe that means Govan feels a need for too much practical meaning in his life; what if he’d outright said, “the De Maria installation will not accomplish a conventional purpose”? If he had, I doubt many of us would have been able to hear him say it without trying to understand what he really meant. And would any of us have been able to view the installation without assigning it a purpose of some sort, conventional or not? For those who want to feel as though minimalism really does strip art down to its fundamentals, 2000 Sculpture would probably seem like meaning for meaning’s sake, in the same way some dogged lovers of modernism insist on believing in art for art’s sake. For those who believe minimal installations like De Maria’s transcend the strictures of conventional spaces and make a room like the Resnick feel more open than it otherwise would, then the sculpture’s meaning lies in its effect.

“Meaningless work,” wrote De Maria, “is the new way to tell who is square.” And I suspect we’re all a little bit square.