New York is a city filled with spaces that defy expectation. In a town where real estate is more valuable than any other commodity the art world has often subverted spatial realities to create fully re-contextualized environments. Instead of framed canvas hung on a wall, the total absence of the traditional can often make for a jarring juxtaposition of expectations.

While SoHo seems eternally the stomping ground of Warhol’s pop-art experiments or Basquiat’s urban narratives there is much more underneath. Since 1977, Walter De Maria’s intensely sparse installation The New York Earth Room, silently sits and waits.

The installation is a 3,600-square-foot room filled to a depth of 22 inches with 250 cubic yards of dirt. The effect of witnessing the space, an empty gallery filled with dark brown earth echoes the minimalism of New York during that movement’s prevalence. Standing at the foot of the un-enterable exhibit, confronted by an odor of damp musk, the brazen-ness of the artist statement is immediate and complete.

With nods to Dada, De Maria moved through various phases of conceptual art and even a stint as a drummer in an early incarnation of the Velvet Underground. Best known for his pioneering installations, De Maria’s brand of transcendental work, like peers Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt, deals mainly with natural spaces or Land Art. Instead of using nature as framework, De Maria takes the idea literally and transforms piles of empty dirt as the statement itself with its excessive use in a modern, urban gallery setting.

What is the value of the content of the space as opposed to the contents of a traditional gallery show? De Maria explores these questions with restraint and singularity. With the exception of the occasional mushroom sprouting from the earth (maintained monthly by a caretaker) the empty, flat room confronts with its starkness. The experience of seeing the almost Zen-like emptiness, the blankness of the walls and the light as it hits through the unadorned windows all factor into the day-to-day variation of the space.

Maintained by the Dia Art Foundation, this neighborhood fixture stands as a reminder of the once vibrant Avant Garde art community that made SoHo internationally recognized as a cultural center. With few options besides retail left in the neighborhood, the Earth Room is a compelling commentary on the emptiness of commercialism.

The New York Earth Room
141 Wooster Street
New York City 10012