Are you finding yourself in need of some meaningless work? Something deliberately unproductive? Wallace Stevens wrote of the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is,” and the latter category is your sweet spot. A friend of mine, an undergrad when he paid a visit to The New York Review of Books, used the word “conceptual” and was told by Barbara Epstein, the Review’s co-editor, “Never use that word outside Morningside Heights.” That was a long time ago. Now you can use it anywhere, especially in Houston, where “Walter De Maria: Boxes for Meaningless Work” has just opened at the Menil Collection.

Born in Albany, California, in 1935, De Maria first trained as a musician and then, at Berkeley, as a painter. He was the drummer for a band formed in 1964—the Primitives—which in 1965 changed its name to The Velvet Underground. While the band proved too ahead of its time for immediate recognition, De Maria found 1964 was the perfect moment for the c-word, and he made it big by making big things.

De Maria’s The Arch (1964).

A work from that year, The Arch, wills a few pieces of plywood into a rectilinear Stonehenge, as if a trip to Home Depot could provide materials for one’s own omniscient monument. The title of Ocean Bed (1969) suggests Magritte, but it’s not a floating mattress. It’s a mattress with headphones, audiotape, and audio player. It’s about turning on the music and floating in your mind. Look—there’s a cast-iron triangle, circle, and square against a white background. It’s called Triangle, Circle, Square (1972).

In 1960, at age 24, De Maria wrote a bunch of very short essays, among them “Boxes for Meaningless Work,” from which this exhibition takes its title. “I will have built two small boxes,” he writes. “I put small things in the boxes. A sign explains the boxes to anyone who should approach them. It says, ‘Meaningless work boxes.’” De Maria then describes throwing things back and forth between the boxes and asks, “What do you feel? Yourself? The Box? The Things? Remember this doesn’t mean anything.”

And yet, De Maria made enough work for an entire retrospective that brims with meaning. His most famous creation, The Lightning Field, a land-art work in New Mexico—400 stainless-steel poles arranged in a vast rectangle one mile long by half a mile wide—was said to be the inspiration for imagery in the epilogue of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: “In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rocks which God has put there.” That’s not thinking small.

De Maria painted The Statement Series: Red Painting / NO WAR NO in 2011, toward the end of his career.

De Maria’s manifesto of unproductivity notwithstanding, the man, who died in 2013, had big ambitions. Indeed, he once said, “Any work of art should have at least ten meanings.” The Lightning Field was installed in the middle of a desert, sprouting up where nothing grows. In season, devotees go to the New Mexico desert to watch those poles attract lightning, which is their purpose, but to see it happen you have to be lucky.

“Boxes for Meaningless Work” will be the first occasion to see much of De Maria’s art in one place, and you can see lightning strike here in many ways. In the 19th century, it was a radical idea for Flaubert to claim that Madame Bovary was a book about nothing. By the 1960s, “nothing” was a manifesto, a thing. De Maria draws us in with the commonplace and the larger than life—with his audacity. This exhibition reminds us that a whole lot of nothing can lead to plenty of something. —David Yaffe

“Walter De Maria: Boxes for Meaningless Work” is on at the Menil Collection, in Houston, through April 23, 2023

David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He writes about music and is the author, most recently, of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell. You can read his Substack here