Meet the Couple Who Are Gatekeepers to New York’s Hidden Minimalist Monuments

Artsy Editorial
Mar 31, 2016 11:28PM

As you ascend the stairwell toward the second floor of the eight-story building on New York’s Wooster Street where Walter De Maria’s The New York Earth Room exists as it has since 1977, the smell of earth is palpable. As a newcomer, however, you are liable to miss many of the nuances that are second nature to Bill Dilworth, who has served as the artwork’s caretaker for 27 years. For instance, near the end of the day, the natural light entering the space projects the cold tones of the damp earth onto the white walls of the gallery—the experience of which is something like being awakened by the day’s first light.  

Bill and Patti Dilworth in SoHo, New York. Photo by Sam Ashman.

At De Maria’s other New York installation, The Broken Kilometer (1979), which has been cared for by Bill’s wife, Patti Dilworth, for some 23 years at Dia Art Foundation’s West Broadway location, the tone is warmer. Powerful full-spectrum halogen lights illuminate the 500 segments of brass, creating a profound radiance. The lights are out of view but after enough time with the piece you begin to feel their heat. This is Minimalism at its heart: The sculpture and the space work together such that the piece is experienced as a whole rather than seen through its constituent parts.

Visit these SoHo monuments and you are more than likely to meet Patti and Bill in person, who met in their native Detroit, are both artists, and have been married since 1978. Following a stint in New Haven, Connecticut, where Patti was enrolled in a graduate fine art program at Yale and Bill worked at the Yale Center for British Art, they moved to New York City in 1979 and found a former sweatshop for rent that held promise as a studio and living space. It was located near Seward Park on the Lower East Side and, after finding someone interested in the left-behind steam presses and boilers, and willing to haul them away, it became their home—a place where their two daughters would be born and where the couple still lives today.

Early jobs looking after minimalist musician La Monte Young and light artist Marian Zazeela’s Dream House (1969-ongoing), a Dia project at the former New York Mercantile Exchange building in TriBeCa, eventually led them to the jobs they’ve now held at Dia for more than 20 years. Bill also maintains the oldest hand-wound tower clock in the city, at the Church of Saint Teresa, near their home. And so, when asked what he does, he will sometimes answer that he is the “keeper of earth and time.” I sat down with Patti at the Broken Kilometer and with Bill at the Earth Room to learn just how they carved out such a unique (and romantic) life for themselves.

Sam Ashman: What was New York City like when you first arrived?  

Bill Dilworth: New York was so wild in those days. I think a lot of people are moving to New York because of what it used to be, not because of what it is now. There’s this kind of romance about what it was, and I don’t know how people reconcile that glowing nostalgia for the old days with the expense of these days.

Patti Dilworth: People wanted to be in New York to make art; it was affordable. It sounds like, “Oh my god, we’re so nostalgic for those days,” but it was a rough city. It did have a freedom, I will say. And it had more acceptance for the outsider.

I liked New York from when I was little. I came here for a high school senior trip, and I fell in love with it right away. I was going to have a little salon and meet people outside my apartment because my apartment would be so tiny, but it wouldn’t matter, and I’d have a bazillion friends. And it sort of seemed like that when we were here, at first. We’d have these big dinners and everybody would cook and we’d talk about art, and we would meet other people and have studio visits. And we had jobs. They didn’t pay a lot but they paid enough. Those were good years.

SA: How did you get this job?

BD: I was with my friend who was the building operations guy at Dia and he had to look at these pipes for something. Over my shoulder, I saw the guy at the desk here and afterwards I asked my friend Jim, “Does that job ever open up?” And he said no. Two months later, it did. He said: “Well, I think you’d be crazy to take that job.” And I thought I’d be crazy if I didn’t take it because I had two kids and I was doing freelance work. Though it was a steady thing, I could see the freelance work wasn’t going to last forever. This was half the pay, but it had insurance and the promise of steady work. It also promised me time and this circumstance where I don’t have to do anyone else’s work. And I realized that’s a freedom of mind that very few people have.

SA: Did you have a particular interest in Walter De Maria, land art, or Minimalism before taking this job?

PD: When I was in art school and in graduate school, that was cutting-edge. And yes, I always have enjoyed this kind of art. I like the openness—the simplicity of it, the cleanness. It suits me. This job has only grown my appreciation for it. I mean, I spend every afternoon with this work of art and I have for 23 years. I kind of feel like I live in an artwork.  

SA: How have your feelings about the piece changed after spending so much time with it?

PD: For me, I just find that it’s a really slow art. I’ve lived a fair chunk of my life in front of it and I see something new in it every day. I also take care of it, so I have a sort of protective feeling about it.

BD: It’s a cumulative thing. The longer you’re here, the more experience of it you have. The longer I’m here, the more I like it. What you realize, too, as you start getting older, is that long time has a precious quality of its own. And there’s no other way to attain that sense of long time unless you’ve spent it. For us it’s sort of a unique experience; it’s also entirely normal.

SA: What is a typical day like for you here?

BD: It’s simple enough: People buzz to come up, and some of them talk to me. And some of those people just have no idea what the Earth Room is about and they look to me for answers. Now, I’m in no position to explain it to them because the artist himself wouldn’t speak about the work. So I’m sort of off the hook. But I am willing to talk around it.

It used to seem like a small woodland path led to the Earth Room, and only those people who knew about it would come. But then Lonely Planet built a road, and then all the other guidebooks paved it. So the tourists just flood in. But you still see that it can be very quiet. It is known to be one of the quietest places in the city, because the texture of the earth absorbs sound. I do get a lot of the same questions. But it’s like people who sing songs or tell jokes, or people who teach a subject. You might be repeating yourself, but it’s always to a different audience. So it’s new every time.

PD: To do a job like this, you have to like quiet time. You’d think it’s the same all the time, but it’s not. I’m a person who likes a lot of alone time, a lot of dream time. So I am the perfect person to do this job. I’m really good at seeming to do nothing, but I always keep busy in my head.     

SA: What does caring for the piece entail?

PD: Well, there’s the day-to-day taking care of it—I walk in, it’s dark, I go in the back, turn on the lights. As they come up to full power, they get real green-y, and then real gold-y, and then reds and blues come in slowly, so it’s sort of this aurora thing. It’s really cool, and I’m the only one who sees it.

These [rods], very slowly, are responding to time and acting like a slow clock. They’re telling you time is passing just by taking on this oxidation ever so slowly. We are polishing it every two years and that’s a really good length of time. After that, oh my gosh, the shininess is something else; it’s dazzling. If you’re in New York, you have to come by September of 2017 and check it out. I have people that do that. They’ll have come in June of that year and they know to come back in September and see it because it’s so full of light that it doesn’t even look like metal anymore. It’s almost like radiant heat. It’s so beautiful, just humming with brightness.

BD: In the early days, they referred to the Earth Room as permanent. Now it’s “ongoing,” or something. I think that as long as Dia survives and as long as the building stands, it’ll be here. The floor is holding up; the whole thing is holding up. People wonder about it, with the moisture and the weight, and I’ve been here a long time and can tell you: This is the most stable floor in the building. Because all the other floors have people in them, and people create leaks. The Earth Room doesn’t leak.   

SA: What happens when you take a day off?

PD:  I hardly ever take days off. I mean, this is a really great job. I don’t mind coming in here, it’s a pleasure. Bill and I never switch desks. Everybody is always interested in that. It’s kind of yin/yang. He’s got the more feminine one, sort of dark and nurturing. And I’ve got the jangly bright yang of the Broken Kilometer.  

SA: What happens over the summer when these spaces are closed?

BD: I think it’s good for us and for the artwork to have that time off, because every September, when we reopen, it seems new again. I think a place that is continuously open bears some sort of weight from that relentlessness. And I think the fact that we have seasons allows freshness to be part of the life of these places.

SA: So is it safe to say you are content with the way things worked out for you?

PD: I can sit here and work things through in a day. I have a very pleasurable life, I’d say. We don’t get a lot of money though! But you don’t necessarily need that. Time is good. We’ve been very lucky. Just finding the right life partner and a job that is pleasant to do, we’ve met really good people through it, and it’s the kind of art that I enjoy. Though it seems rather simple, it’s very deep. And that’s been a real well to drink from.

BD: I found the art world to be something that doesn’t appeal to me. This is about as close as I’m comfortable getting to it. But making art has been vital to me always. So how do you make art and not be in the art world? This job allows me to stay tuned to my own artmaking—just by the freedom of thought and all that.

SA: Any thoughts about retirement?

BD: I’m in no hurry. This job is so much a part of me that to not do it would be jarring. But I would hope that by the time I do, I would feel more of a gain than a loss—by being able to live differently and being open to what comes next.

—Sam Ashman

You will find Patti and Bill watching over their respective galleries during the nonsummer months, Wednesday through Saturday from 12 to 6pm, save for a brief half hour from 3:00 to 3:30 when they close for a break. Most days, they meet at the nearby Vesuvio playground to pass that time together.


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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019