Walter de Maria and Pierre Huyghe – A Conversation Part I

Walter de Maria at Gagosian Grosvenor Hill

After a fairly long break Richard Guest and I visited two shows – Pierre Huyghe: UUmwelt at the Serpentine Gallery and Walter De Maria: Idea to Action to Object, at Gagosian, Grosvenor Hill. This is the resulting email conversation, in two parts.



Visiting these two shows was not any kind of programmatic choice – they aren’t related for me in any way. I think we both found the Huyghe show hard to digest; but, rather against expectations, the de Maria was quite playful in a laconic sort of way.

Walter de Maria is one of those artists who seem to embody the pioneering conceptualism of the 1960s and 70s. Rare pictures of him seem to give off both the romantic elan of early Surrealists and Dadaists but also the gravitas of the Los Alamos bomb makers and other highly serious types. I hadn’t seen a lot of his work in one place before and I was keen to see the Gagosian show to give me a strong taste of what his work was really about. Once again my expectations were upended – it seems to happen whenever I go to see a show! Are there a lot of revisionist curators around or did I just get totally the wrong end of the stick about all this stuff when I was younger?


Ha, ha, quite – the Walter de Maria show was a real surprise.

As a teenager I took artists a lot more seriously at the same time as not bothering to research them too deeply. When we were at art college, Walter de Maria was talked about by respected tutors with some reverence. So I assumed he was a “very serious artist” and the works I was familiar with (from books and magazines) did not dispel this view. The two pieces I remember being particularly interested in: Lightning Field (1977) and The New York Earth Room (1977) were both large in scale and seemed rigorously disciplined in their thinking.

Here’s a video about Lightning Field:

Screen Shot 2019-04-27 at 00.18.39

and here’s one about The New York Earth Room:

Screen Shot 2019-04-27 at 00.39.47

Although there is no relation between the Pierre Huyghe and the Walter de Maria, I think it could be interesting to compare and contrast our experiences of the two shows. Here’s Bjarne Eriksen’s experience of the Huyghe:

Screen Shot 2019-04-27 at 00.44.06

One thing the video does not convey is the weird (rotting meat?) smell that clung to the exhibition, which coloured the whole experience for me and made me want to leave perhaps sooner than I should. The show comprised: large screens showing what appeared to be glitchy video of forms mutating, patches of wall where previous layers of paint had been revealed by sanding, lots of live houseflies, and the odour. It felt a bit like walking around in someone else’s nightmare.


The smell and the flies were definitely important! When you are first getting interested in art, exposure to photos, books and videos (and of course blogs!) seems to tell you everything, but it’s often incomplete and there are whole dimensions missing. Especially when the work isn’t completely visual. On the other hand, it’s easy to get wrapped up in understanding the intention of the artist and the processes behind the work without stepping back to look at the work itself. And sometimes all the process and attitude is lost in the finished work. But as followers of the Cult of Personality, we get very wrapped up in attitudes, politics and other ephemeral stuff. I like to try to separate what I see or smell in front of me in a gallery from all the received information around, which is almost impossible. Usually the only way is by receiving the information afterwards!


Walter de Maria: drawing for Olympic Mountain Project (1970–71).

Although De Maria was a bit of a local hero when we were students, I don’t think he was ever mainstream and a lot of these works are being exhibited for the first time at the Gagosian, so perhaps we can be forgiven for not fully appreciating his playful side. Part of which would seem to be about aping the high seriousness of some of his more po-faced contemporaries. The large works you mention are also very different in character from what is on show here. There are a lot of sketches with quirky captions and comments that really reveal his thoughts in a very spontaneous way. I connected them mentally with Claes Oldenburg – the epitome of a witty, playful artist. What did you make of the drawings? Can we call them drawings?

Yes, I’d call them drawings – de Maria making propositions, giving form to ideas. They are playful, but informative enough that he communicates the sense of how a concept could be enacted. (DSC00170.jpg)

I like his drawing style – it gives the impression of concentration and spontaneity – de Maria is “present” in the moment. None of the drawings in the exhibition look overworked or over-thought.  They are spare and light and communicate just enough of an idea to bring it to life in the mind. And I think this lightness of touch translates to the objects he made.

In contrast to de Maria’s approach I feel like Huyghe’s work is grinding away at some opaque concept, one that is close, oppressive and pessimistic. Am I misreading Uumwelt because I’m comparing it to de Maria’s utopianism?


For me the overall impression of the Huyghe was of timelapse security camera footage of decomposing aliens, but that was beside the point. The process was the point…the suggestion that images can be generated by machine learning and could be formed by computers interfacing directly with the human brain is a fascinating one. But the images themselves felt like layers of graphics and noise. By contrast de Maria seems to have compartmentalised his creativity very differently – and more humanly. It’s very down to Earth…the title “Idea to Action to Object” really seems to describe an artist’s working process perfectly. The object is the direct product of the action which is the consequence of the idea. The internal idea is brought into the world in the turmoil of action and the only evidence of it is the object. When the action is concluded the wormhole between the idea and the object is closed; and the object stands alone on ‘the other side’ – a clean break.

Huyghe seems to be trying to skip the ‘action’ step – to paint, or perform or write – and to have the idea translate itself directly into images. But of course the process becomes the action, the machine is just the outsourced hand of the artist. I felt Huyghe is almost afraid of owning the idea: almost as if he wanted the machine to arrive at his idea so he didn’t have to. Not because it would be too much work, but because it feels more ’empirical’ and less tied to some personal value system. Before seeing the de Maria show I would have said this desire to distance yourself from your own ideas was the legacy of Conceptual Art, but now I’m not so sure.

Part II 

3 comments on “Walter de Maria and Pierre Huyghe – A Conversation Part I

  1. Thanks very much for hosting this David! Looks great!

  2. Reblogged this on The Future Is Papier Mâché and commented:
    David Cook and I have been to a couple of recent exhibitions. Click below to read part one…

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