Created in 1968, Melville dates from Walter De Maria's early experimentations with machine-turned objects, and was produced at the same time as his first investigations into the possibility of creating monumental Earth art works. This pristinely finished sculpture unites the smooth, impersonal austerity of industrially-produced stainless steel with an unexpected, uncanny narrative taken from Melville. While this manuscript-sized work refers to Herman Melville, it is also a tribute to great writing and great words. More specifically Melville's 1857 novel The Confidence Man, whose opening phrases have been appropriated and finely incised into surface of the sculpture. De Maria has acknowledged that he selected these particular lines for their florid language, utilizing them to encourage the viewer to "read" the object. Such a reading might conjure mental images and concepts that do not describe what the eye actually sees, but produce a deeper, more emotional or psychological response. In this way, Melville looks beyond the emphasis on the autonomous, self-contained object that would come to characterize minimalist art in order to successfully address the more profound nature of perception.
Walter De Maria first began producing works in polished steel with the financial support of art collector Robert C. Scull in 1965. This opportunity afforded De Maria a wealth of new artistic concepts that were dictated by the inherent qualities of the medium. Amongst those works first commissioned by Scull was Silver Portrait of Dorian Gray (1965), a similarly literary sculpture whose reflective surface tarnishes over time to form a metaphorical allusion to the original story. Unlike this earlier work, Melville does not rely on visual symbolism, but directly lifts text from its original source. In doing so, De Maria allows for a multitude of subjective responses to an otherwise spare, geometric form, thereby introducing far-reaching conceptual implications with the simplest economy of means.