A little known room of dirt lies in one of the most trafficked areas of Manhattan. In Soho, above the designer stores, fancy cafes, and tourists crowded on cobblestone streets, is The New York Earth Room. The large room and adjacent gallery once used to be The Dia Art Foundation’s only exhibition space and office. But in 1977, Hiener Friedrich, the notorious art dealer and collector who is one of the founders of Dia, commissioned Walter De Maria to make a new piece.
The New York Earth Room takes up 3,600 square feet of space. It consists of 250 cubic yards of earth that measures 22 inches deep. The first thing one notices is the smell of dirt. The organic aroma wafts throughout the dampened space where viewers can peer into the large room. Windows on either side of the gallery let in natural light that lights up patches of soil on the ground. This is De Maria’s third earth room sculpture. The first two were made respectively in 1968 and 1974 in Germany but no longer exist. After the initial show in 1977, Dia moved to a new space in Chelsea. The foundation decided to leave the gallery as it was and turn the show into a permanent site.
Walter De Maria is a world renown artist. He makes conceptual and minimalist sculptures in addition to being one of the pioneers of the Land Art movement. He was a drummer for the New York based rock group, The Primitives, but dropped out of the band before they went on to becoming The Velvet Underground. Choosing instead to focus on art, De Maria is perhaps best known for his Earthworks. His most famous and ambitious is The Lightning Field (1977), located in New Mexico.
In addition to The New York Earth Room, De Maria also has another permanent site just a few blocks away. The Broken Kilometer (1979) is made up of 500 polished round solid brass rods laid on the ground in parallel rows. Broken up into five rows of 100 rods each, the total length of the piece “unbroken” is one kilometer.