In one particularly compelling picture from the Munich iteration, a thin, hiply coiffed De Maria—long sideburns, dark turtleneck and jeans, white sneakers—stands on a wrapped bale of dirt in a stark white room of Galerie Heiner Friedrich as light streams across the floor. Two men stand in the background, one in dark clothing and one in a crisp white button-down with a tie. The contrast is apt: The work often elicits thoughts about light, darkness, and time (unless, like me, you’re too caught up in real-estate envy to notice). It changes shade as the sun moves across the sky. In New York, the room’s white paint and the dirt itself look warmer or cooler depending on the hour.
Though the Munich presentation was temporary, De Maria’s gallerist Friedrich liked to think of the work as everlasting. After he commissioned a version in New York, at his SoHo gallery/apartment space in 1977, the piece stayed put. Friedrich moved out, but De Maria’s dirt remained. Dia Art Foundation (which counts Friedrich as a founding member) opened the work to the public in 1980.
Dilworth finds Earth Room
’s appearance, and its visitors, so variant that he continues to find new pleasures in his job, year after year. Recently, I made a second visit to the Earth Room
to speak to him. When I arrived, he was behind his desk, reading a biography by his brother, Thomas Dilworth, of midcentury British poet and painter
“People look at the Earth Room and they think nothing’s growing,” Dilworth told me. “But what’s increasingly evident is that time is growing there. The fact that it doesn’t change means that time is constantly accumulating.” He waters and rakes the piece about once per week, alternating directions to keep the earth level. It’s become, it sounds, akin to a mindfulness exercise. Dilworth told me he used to yell at viewers who photographed the work (De Maria specified that this wasn’t allowed, though he couldn’t have predicted Instagram’s current ubiquity before he died in 2013). He ultimately stopped because that harshed the mellow of the whole art-viewing experience in a way De Maria never would have wanted.