The city of Michael Heizer: a monument of 50 years in the making

One would not expect a sculpture a mile and a half long and half a mile wide, sitting alone in a deserted valley, to sneak up on one. But approaching Michael Heizer’s “City” along a winding dirt road, one is almost on top of it when first making out its outlines. The huge monuments at either end are situated below ground level, as are the bases of the great curved mounds that stretch between them, flanking deep oval depressions in the earth. In a work full of contradictions, this is one of the strangest. Heizer has made an object of impressive size, overwhelming in its sense of weight and mass, which is at the same time fundamentally negative, defined by absences.

Something else is also missing: the sound. Nevada’s Garden Valley, where Heizer has spent 50 years building the “City”—a closely guarded secret for decades, only just beginning to receive visitors—is about 40 miles long and 15 miles wide, surrounded by high mountains. There’s absolutely nothing else there except Heizer’s little ranch and miles of low brush and dust. It’s empty even by American desert standards. In the middle of “City”, I heard the closest thing to nothing I’ve ever heard.

Visually, too, “City” is surprisingly calm. The photographs, especially of the two monuments, often make the installation seem otherworldly, monstrous. Viewed from the inside, it feels delicate and precise. The mounds and depressions are covered with gravel, carefully graded into various grades, and what appears to be reddish desert soil, but turns out to be poured concrete. The materials, combined with natural light and shadows, create a range of colors (brown, reddish brown, powder) that contrast and blend into each other. The different elements are delimited by gray concrete curbs that read like lines in a minimalist pencil drawing.

Large concrete triangles in a desert landscape
’45°, 90°, 180°’, framing Michael Hezier’s ‘City’ in the northwest © Ben Blackwell

Heizer, 78, has had a career immersed in New York’s commercial art scene, while avoiding it. Decades of isolated work in the desert have dovetailed with belated success on the art market, with the help since 2013 of the Gagosian mega-gallery. His work has spanned several disciplines, but he moved away from painting early in his career to focus on heavier materials.

One of his first major pieces, “Double Negative,” from 1969, consisted of two 30-foot-wide, 50-foot-deep trenches on either side of a chasm in another Nevada desert. He marked a new approach to sculpture, in size, materials, and location. It was also an early work that defined what is known as land art, along with Nancy Holt’s “Sun Tunnels” in Utah’s Great Basin Desert, Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” in Great Salt Lake, Alice Aycock’s “Maze” in Pennsylvania. and Walter De Maria’s “Lightning Field” in New Mexico.

But what has set Heizer apart from its peers is its commitment to materials and size. Running through descriptions of his own work are words like mass, power, physicality, foundation, commitment. He often talks as if the materials were all the art. In an interview he gave in a monograph published 40 years ago, he said: “A piece of rock can be a sculpture, you don’t have to make the sculpture, you don’t have to design it. I want the thing to have power, so I find something that has power. I don’t much care what it looks like.”

“Levitated Mass” (2012), a 340-ton rock suspended over a sunken walkway, is a good example. It seems designed to provide a very vivid experience of just how terribly big and heavy a huge, heavy rock really is.

A man in a blue shirt and Stetson stands in a desert landscape with a blue sky behind him
Heizer gazes at the ‘City’ © New York Times/Redux/Eyevine

Heizer’s interest in size is characteristically American and macho, but he also seeks the transcendent and the spiritual. “I have an American drive: big size, big country, big expanse. A 747 plane, the Golden Gate Bridge, the hydrogen bomb, the highway system,” he said in a recent conversation with Gagosian director Kara Vander Weg. “I grew up building vehicles, driving horses, operating heavy equipment, and I like the shit you dig big holes with.”

However, if “City” is an American sculpture, it speaks less of Mount Rushmore (which Heizer greatly admires) than it does of the stone structures of ancient Mesoamerica. The artist acknowledges the influence. His father was an anthropologist and grew up visiting the monuments of Mexico and Egypt. And it’s hard not to think of Teotihuacan or the Temple of Hatshepsut when looking at the monuments that head the book “City”: “Complex 1” to the southeast and “45° 90° 180°” to the northwest.

An aerial view of huge sculpted shapes in the desert
A view of the ‘City’: ‘immense by all human standards, it is terrifyingly small compared to the Garden Valley and its ring of mountains’ © Michael Heizer

The relationship of the work with the religious or transcendental purposes of ancient monuments is a sensitive issue. But it is impossible, walking through “City”, to avoid reflections of mystery, ritual, devotion and magic. If this is a city, what has become of the citizens? Are they incorporeal? Still to come? Although Heizer has said that “if art is not spiritual, it is decoration,” his commentary on these spiritual subjects is scant and cryptic. But what is unique to “City” is how Heizer has fused these themes with a wholly modern, abstract, almost mathematical interest in geometry, in developing the aesthetic possibilities of the most basic forms. “45 ° 90 ° 180 °” he manages to strongly recall, at the same time, a Toltec altar and the work of the American conceptual artist Sol LeWitt.

What Heizer articulates is his interest in the aesthetic properties that size offers. “The immense, architecturally-sized sculpture creates both the object and the atmosphere,” he told an interviewer in 1984. “Amazement is a state of mind equivalent to religious experience.” But the aspect of American machismo is there too, the drive to do something that sticks. “Incas, Olmecs, Aztecs: their best works of art were looted, razed, broken and their gold melted down. When they come here to fuck up my ‘City’ sculpture, they’ll realize it takes more energy to destroy it than it’s worth,” Heizer told The New Yorker.

Concrete frames next to a raised bank of earth
‘City’ explores the aesthetic possibilities of basic geometric shapes © New York Times/Redux/Eyevine

Epic works of art have a way of overcoming the intentions, or at least the stated intentions, of their creators. Heizer has said that he built “City” to be viewed from within, with the viewer cut off from the surrounding desert. He has always rejected the notion that “City” is landscape art. He chose Nevada, he says, only because the land was cheap and the materials he needed were already there.

However, if that’s true, Heizer doesn’t have what he wanted. Garden Valley permeates the experience of “City” and establishes what, to me, is the most powerful aesthetic tension in the work. The “city” is immense by all human standards. But compared to the Garden Valley and its ring of mountains, it’s small; in fact, terribly small. You could place hundreds, if not thousands, of cities in the valley. The mental shifting back and forth of the same object between large and small creates a pervasive feeling of the sinister. Reaching the epic, “City” reminds us that great works fade along with deserts, planets, galaxies.

Concrete, unlike stone, is a durable but not permanent material. The carved edges and carefully graded slopes of Heizer’s work will degrade in the unforgiving setting of the valley. I noticed a small crack running up the side of one of the large right triangles at “45° 90° 180°”. In thick pencil, someone had made a note on it: “crack 7/24/03.” It won’t be the last. A few blades of grass also poke through the earth-like cement on the sides of the mounds. “City” is a great work of art, and conservationists will do their best. But time is on the side of the desert. In 1,000 years, what will remain of one man’s vision and determination will be a few broken shapes and strange outlines in an empty, unvisited valley.

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