Walter De Maria’s two closely related multipartite works Silver Meters (1976) and Gold Meters (1976–77) each comprise eight polished stainless-steel square-meter plates measuring one inch in height. Each plate contains a total of one troy ounce* of silver or gold in the form of solid cylindrical plugs inserted flush to the plate’s surface. The plugs vary in depth proportionately according to their number and weight: the number of plugs that constitute the troy ounce progressively increases from plate to plate by squaring the integers two through nine, so that the first plate in each series contains a total of four plugs (weighing ¼ troy ounce each) and the last plate contains 81 plugs (at 1/81 troy ounce each).
These works, like others De Maria has made over the past forty years, employ measurement and number as compositional principles. The fact that each plate contains the same amount of precious metal is not discernible from observation. Consequently, here, as elsewhere in his oeuvre, certain key relationships are not revealed through visual scrutiny. By prompting speculation about such underlying or binding systems, De Maria’s sculptures engage structures of meaning beyond the immediately apparent. Abstract methodologies based in ordering, sequencing, and mensuration provide fundamental and essential ways of regulating human experience, yet, like the values attributed today to rare metals, they are ultimately arbitrary; that is, they are the product of human rather than cosmic ways of engaging and apprehending the world.
Such plays between the relative and the absolute have been critical to De Maria’s aesthetic from its inception in the sixties, when his work evolved in parallel with that of Minimalist and Fluxus peers as diverse as LaMonte Young and Donald Judd. Yet, in its exploration of the numerical in relation to the serial, De Maria’s trajectory has been singular. It ranges from the vast scale of The Lightning Field —a Land Art work in New Mexico realized under the auspices of Dia Art Foundation in 1977—whose grid of four hundred stainless steel poles spans a field a kilometer by a mile in dimension, to this more modest pair of works, which similarly incorporates both metric and English (or Imperial) systems of linear measurement. Common to both, too, is the use of highly polished metal components and pristine workmanship, together serving to impart to the piece a sense of absoluteness—of indubitability—as if it existed outside the vicissitudes of chance and the inchoate. The opposite seems to be invoked in what is among De Maria’s most renowned works, The New York Earth Room (1977), located in Manhattan, yet it too is invested with the basics of De Maria’s abiding aesthetic. Composed of thousands of cubic feet of loam covering the floor of a former warehouse to a depth of approximately 27 inches, this extraordinary work is kept in pristine condition through constant custodial care. It too invites that distinctive speculation about concepts, qualities, elements, and perhaps even values normally considered conceptual foundations on which human experience is parsed.
* Slightly heavier than an avoirdupois (or standard) ounce, troy ounces have been employed for measuring certain precious metals, notably gold and silver, since Medieval times. Even today gold and silver are often weighed and sold according to this alternative system.