out of the box

Menil Collection uncrates never-before-seen works by groundbreaking artist

Menil Collection uncrates never-before-seen works by innovative artist

Walter De Maria The Arch, 1964
De Maria's iconic The Arch, 1961. Photo by Paul Hester
Walter De Maria Man on the Moon Painting, 1961.
Man on the Moon Painting, 1961. Photo by Robert McKeever, courtesy Gagosian
Walter De Maria: Boxes for Meaningless Work Put One Box on Top of Another Box, Wait One Minute, Then Place the Top Box on the Floor, 1961 Menil Collection
Put One Box on Top of Another Box, Wait One Minute, Then Place the Top Box on the Floor, 1961. Photo by Robert McKeever, courtesy Gagosian
Walter De Maria The Arch, 1964
Walter De Maria Man on the Moon Painting, 1961.
Walter De Maria: Boxes for Meaningless Work Put One Box on Top of Another Box, Wait One Minute, Then Place the Top Box on the Floor, 1961 Menil Collection

It was 2011 when the Menil Collection hosted the first-ever solo U.S. showing of works by artist Walter De Maria, a member of the Velvet Underground who worked across sculpture, film, and music. CultureMap called the exhibit, “Trilogies,” “talismanic,” and urged Houstonians not to miss it.

Anyone who did — as well as those who've followed the work of this groundbreaking artist — now have an exciting opportunity to catch De Maria's work, as the Menil presents “Walter De Maria: Boxes for Meaningless Work,” opening October 29 and running through April 23, 2023.

The exhibit features works from the museum’s permanent collection, most of which have been recently acquired and never before publicly displayed.

“The Menil Collection has a long history with Walter De Maria,” said Rebecca Rainbow in a release announcing the show. “John and Dominique de Menil began acquiring his work in the early 1970s, De Maria’s first solo museum exhibition in the U.S. was held at the Menil in 2011, and more recently, the museum has acquired significant groups of his work. The Menil is committed to deep and sustained relationships with artists, and the upcoming exhibition celebrates this mission.”

For art lovers, “Boxes for Meaningless Work” will be an exploration of  De Maria's more than 50 years of creating pieces that explore our relationship with space, time, and the world. 

In addition to De Maria's sculptures, the exhibit features large group of conceptual drawings, photography and sculpture related to the development of the artist’s innovative land art projects of the 1970s, and examples of his sound and film work.

Viewers will find, in many of the presented works, directions to undertake “meaningless” tasks, often involving the movement of balls and activation of boxes. “Transfer things from one box to the next, back and forth, back and forth, etc.,” reads one. “Walk around the box,” instructs another. One work, Ocean Bed, 1969, which has been reconstructed for display here, invites viewers to recline on a pink mattress while listening to ambient sounds of the sea in this meditative and participatory work.

“Despite the deceptive simplicity, many of Walter De Maria’s works prompt multiple inquiries about what constitutes art, a fundamental question that the artist asks throughout this show through his investigation of the art object, and the idea of experience and action,” said Brad Epley, co-curator of the exhibit and the museum's chief conservator in the same release. “Because of the work’s age and condition, there is limited potential for audience interaction and as a result, we wanted to highlight in this show how material treatment and conservation proceeded hand-in-hand with our research about the history, meanings, and options for the installation of each work. This deeply satisfying and adventurous collaboration shaped the exhibition.”

The first gallery of “Boxes for Meaningless Work” showcases a group of plywood constructions and paintings that inspired the title of this exhibition, which was taken from De Maria’s writings from 1960. It concludes with stainless steel sculptures, such as Channel Series: Triangle, Circle, Square, 1972, a group of the artist’s “invisible drawings,” and two monumental paintings from The Statement Series. Red Painting / NO WAR NO and Blue Painting / YES PEACE YES, both 2011, were made during the last decade of De Maria’s life and specifically for the Menil’s 2011 show.

De Maria is originally from Albany, California, and studied art at the University of California Berkeley, before moving to New York City in the 1960s. His work has been featured all over the world.

Among his best-known works is The Lightning Field, 1977, a geometrically precise arrangement of 400 steel poles, averaging nearly 20 feet in height, located in a remote New Mexico desert.