De Maria was born in Albany, California on October 1, 1935. He studied history and art at the University of California, Berkeley from 1953 to 1959 and moved to New York in 1960. His early sculptures from the 1960s were influenced by Dada and other modern art movements. This influence led De Maria into using simple geometric shapes and industrially manufactured materials such as stainless steel and aluminum – materials which are also characteristic of Minimal art. In the mid 1960s, he became involved in various artistic activities. His piece, "Cage", for John Cage, was included in the seminal 1966 "Primary Structures"
exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York.
He appeared at happenings, composed two musical works (Cricket Music, 1964; Ocean Music, 1968), and produced two films (Three Circles and Two Lines in the Desert; Hardcore, both 1969). He was also the drummer in the New York rock group The Primitives and an artist/musician collaborative group called The Druds, a precursor to The Velvet Underground for a short time.
From 1968 he produced Minimalist sculptures and Installations such as the Munich Erdraum of 1968. He realized Land art projects in the deserts of the southwest US, with the aim of creating situations where the landscape and nature, light and weather would become an intense, physical and psychic experience. After De Maria, the notion of the work of art is intended to make the viewer think about the earth and its relationship to the universe. The artistic practice of De Maria is connected with Minimal art, Conceptual art, and Land art.
The Lightning Field (1977) is De Maria’s best-known work. It consists of 400 stainless steel posts arranged in a calculated grid over an area of 1 mile × 1 km. The time of day and weather change the optical effects. It also lights up during thunder storms.