Walter de Maria’s gigantic sculpture in the desert of New Mexico with its 400 stainless steel poles became an icon of post-war American art. The Lightning Field (1974-77) is not only the most expensive post-war artwork but according to the artist’s intention the „best sculpture of the 20th century“. This iconic status resulted from the power of its images: the moment when lightning strikes the poles, attracted by their tips. The whole setting, the reproductions and the highly restricted circumstances of the work’s reception all put the focus on these tips of the lightning, a fact which has never before been questioned by art historians and critics.This essay is the first to analyze the form of the lightning and of the lightning rods employing formanalytical methods in order to prove that the tip of the lightning and of the lightning rods are both constructs based on the iconographical tradition of how lightning has been depicted since antiquity. This power of the iconographic maelstrom of the form is so strong that it defines the form of the lighting rods up until the present day – although it has been scientifically established in the 1990s that blunt ends of lightning rods would attract lightning much more effectively. The confidence in this form proves the power of artistic and cultural roots based on images which overwrite technical pragmatism.This interdisciplinary focus on analyses of both form and material of a single work of art and the sedimentation of its layers of topics addressed provides new perspectives on how to approach an art form that credits oceans, lightning or other natural catastrophes as its material and precedes the so called “information era” on a global scale by giving a form to these seemingly un-representable natural phenomena.These insights make a new horizon of layers of meaning pertaining to the Lightning Field visible, allowing us to explore the conditionality and compulsivity of the form and to constitute a reasoning for the meticulous execution of the stainless steel rods’ tips. A formal analysis is the key embedding Lightning Field in an image history of lightning and lightning conductors - this is to show how this form can be re-activated in a specific place in the southwest of the USA, at a specific time in the 1970s. A further analysis could anchor the Lightning Field in the context of present-day developments in military technology (e.g. radio telescopes among other things) and examine the impact of media when dealing with such iconographically loaded images.The essay concludes with the statement that this research can give a whole new field of interpretation of this unique movement pertaining to 1970s America through the close-reading of a monographic approach to a single piece of art. Thus the essay does not only contribute to a new interpretation of this icon of American art, but also provides an example how art historical research can contribute to the understanding of a broader historical context situated between the histories of art, technology and nature.
Keywords: Land Art; Walter De Maria; Nature; Art History; Scientific images; technology and art; USA