Art

Catching Up With the Keepers of Soho’s Artistic Flame

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The New York Earth Room sounds like a piece of New York City lore, the kind of thing you would be sure couldn’t be real, like alligator colonies in the sewers or Kristaps Porzingis. Since 1977, it’s occupied the second floor of an eight-story co-op on Wooster Street, 3,600 square feet of blue-chip Soho with a single tenant: a looming, loamy, 280,000-pound level field of soil. Anyone can come and visit the soil for free, which keeps regular hours, Wednesday through Sunday afternoons, September through June, and appears, after you round a corner, like a secret.

It’s one of two existing installations in Soho by the artist Walter De Maria, a Californian who moved to New York in 1960 and skirted around the edges of the downtown scene until The Lightning Field, his installation in the New Mexican desert, propelled him into conversation with minimalist and land artists like Robert Smithson. The other, The Broken Kilometer, 500 gleaming, solid brass rods laid tidily in parallel rows, sits two blocks away, in a street-level space on West Broadway. Their longtime stewards, respectively, are Bill and Patti Dilworth, married artists who slotted neatly into De Maria’s enigmatic vision and have been at each site something close to every day for the past quarter-century.

The sites are administered by the Dia Art Foundation, which this year is marking the fortieth anniversary of the The New York Earth Room, and whose own history is intertwined with De Maria’s time in New York. In October of 1977, the Wooster Street space was a gallery belonging to Heiner Friedrich, who intended to show De Maria’s sculpture as a three-month exhibition. It never left, and Dia, which Friedrich had created with Philippa de Menil and Helen Winkler, took up the Earth Room as a permanent fixture. “Dia was dreamed up by three people, but Walter’s sensibility was reciprocal,” Bill said. “Right in the moment that Dia is taking off is the moment of Walter’s most prolific activity, and I think an argument could be made that Walter is like the fourth musketeer.”

The New York Earth Room is the third such earth room De Maria constructed, following two earlier iterations in Germany, long since dismantled. The New York version tips toward the absurd. That’s in part because of the Dadaist dissonance of finding 140 tons of nature around the corner from an Apple store, in part because real estate in New York is absurd (a space of the same size around the corner can be yours for $20,000 a month) and the idea that any length of it would be given over to a hulking clod of earth can seem jarring, a pitch-black soil joke running up against the loft’s fresh white walls.

The Broken Kilometer is younger, having debuted in 1979, but both look unchanged from the day they opened. That’s in large part thanks to the Dilworths. Their daily work encompasses conservation, custodial duties, security, and, in a large way since De Maria’s death in 2013, curation, but they refer to themselves simply as caretakers.

Patti and Bill arrived in New York together from Detroit in 1979 with the intent of being in the New York art world. Both made abstract paintings and drawings, and settled on the fringes of the downtown scene, finding work with the minimalist composer and early De Maria collaborator La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela at their original Dream House, an immersive, meditative light and sound installation in the Mercantile Exchange Building in Tribeca, now luxury condos. The Dilworths live in the same Lower East Side apartment today as they did when they first arrived.

Bill, in his sixties and rangy, sits at a raw wood desk, mostly bare save for a surveillance monitor that cycles through several feeds, including one of the earth, as if something is poised to happen, which it never does. From his desk, Bill buzzes up visitors to the second floor, reached by elevator or narrow stairwell, and directs them off a corridor, to view the earth from behind a glass partition. The glass gives you an idea of the earth’s depth, which is about two feet, but also circumscribes your view; the Earth Room is technically a loft, and the earth ebbs into corners and disappears around a cutout wall, and since photos are not allowed, you’re left to crane your neck and imagine much of it.

That is, if you’re patient. Many people don’t linger, perhaps made uncomfortable by its stillness, or offended by its obtuseness, which can be interpreted as a taunt, as though it knows something you don’t. The New York Earth Room isn’t something you stumble upon; you have to know about it, and plan to come here. Depending on what you’re expecting, frustration is possible. During a recent visit, a particularly vocal critic declared, “It’s a good thing they don’t charge for this.”

The Broken Kilometer is a bit different in that it’s at street level, but Patti told me she recognizes some of the same frustrations. “Sometimes people come in and are quite annoyed there’s nothing to purchase,” she said. “It sort of takes this defiant stance over the years. It stands in reaction to that, a kind of free zone from stuff.”

De Maria was also a musician who had played drums in a pre–Velvet Underground band with Lou Reed and John Cale, and the Kilometer takes on a rhythmic order akin to musicality. The rods are lit with halide stadium lamps meant to replicate daylight, and as you pace in front of them they appear to vibrate and dance, like a radiant bed of scrupulous moray eels. For a while, all you could do was pace in front of them, until a few years ago when, feeling for students tasked with sketching assignments, Patti had a bench installed, which De Maria hated. “Walter really saw this as a dynamic work of art,” she said. “He didn’t see it as static. He saw you having a relationship with it.”

There’s always been an environmental commentary in each work, especially the Earth Room, a piece of architecture slowly returning to the soil, saying something about our estrangement from the land. But it’s also the antithesis of nature, nature made neat and still and loft-shaped, dampening the chaos on the other side of its wall of windows, which is also probably why so many New Yorkers treasure it. At a dinner recently, the artist David Hammons told Dia’s director, Jessica Morgan, he felt that The New York Earth Room was the center of New York. “And I’m thinking, for me, it’s been the edge of it,” Bill told me, “and I’m comfortable at the edge.”

De Maria himself was reserved about what Kilometer and Earth Room were supposed to mean, even with Patti and Bill. “He didn’t come in often, and when he did, in the early days when we didn’t know him well, he’d come in and out and not say a thing,” Patti recalled. “He wasn’t reclusive, but he was quiet about his art. He felt that it would speak for himself.”

The Broken Kilometer is technically a companion piece to the Vertical Earth Kilometer in Kassel, Germany, a single rod of the same brass plunged a thousand meters into the earth, but psychically the New York sites are companion pieces to each other. They exist in a different New York, an unmoving opposition to unrelenting development. “It gets attention because it survives, it goes back to those frontier days of art,” Bill said. “Sometimes I think people move to New York these days because of what it used to be, and this is an example of what it used to be.” They exist as something of a New York miracle. In a city that doesn’t look like it did six months ago, much less forty years ago, their persistence is an appeal for time. The miracle is that that appeal has been granted.

The New York Earth Room
By Walter De Maria
141 Wooster Street

The Broken Kilometer
By Walter De Maria
393 West Broadway

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