Since he first came East in 1960, a Californian named Walter de Maria has established himself as a kind of high priest of Manhattan's artistic under ground. His ideas are outrageous, as he apparently intends them to be. De Maria aims not to please but to force the viewer into studying his work and puzzling out its meanings. If the effort is infuriating more often than not, that makes no difference in De Maria's view.
His basic approach is a tantalizing simplicitya column of polished steel, a square sheet of blank paper with a single word such as "Sky" lettered on it, a wooden booth with a small plaque in it labeled "Suicide." Each is intended to convey or stimulate some arcane, fey or fiendish compulsion or conceit.
This approach has made him, among other things, a founding father of that singularly obdurate style of sculpture known as Minimal art. In 1961, when De Maria was still a neophyte artist, he built two plain wood boxes. They differed from later Minimal artists' boxes primarily by being open and filled with wood blocks. De Maria intended the spectator to wonder obscurely whether or not he ought to shift the blocks from one box to the other.
Diabolical Ping. This fondness for movable sculpture qualified De Maria as a progenitor of the busy school of "Optional art," whose practitioners in vite viewers to play a sort of game by rearranging various objects in a composition to suit their own tastes. Avant-garde collectors began to buy De Ma ria's work. He was soon able to have them made up in steel rather than wood, and the games became more diabolical. His 1965 Instrument for La Monte Young looks like an innocent, slender metal box with a ball in it. But De Maria designed it with microphones at either end, whichin theory at leastcould be hooked up to an amplifying system. Thus the "ping" of the ball would be amplified 50 times, and the viewer-listener who wanted to roll the ball back and forth could go deaf.
During the past year, another one of the minischools that De Maria helped to establish underground has emerged in the public eye: earthworks. In the winter of 1961-62, De Maria sketched plans for a pair of mile-long walls, 12 ft. high and 12 ft. apart, to be built "somewhere in the Western United States." Though no collector could afford the $500,000 needed to build it, De Maria and a fellow worker flew out to the Mojave Desert and chalked two half -mile-long lines on its surface. They photographed each other standing, or lying between the oppressively inward-pressing parallel lines. As De Maria points out, "There is a terrific double energy yielded by the tightness of geometric form combined with the feeling of infinite space." His current "Three Continents" project will superimpose marks carved on the surfaces of deserts in Africa, India and North America onto a triple-exposure aerial photograph. Seems like a lot of trouble, not counting the cost of the airplane, but De Maria spent two weeks in January bulldozing stripes in the Sahara and has pictures to show for it.