Earth Works

When I say artist I mean the man who is building things – creating molding the earth – whether it be the plains of the west – or the iron ore of Penn. It’s all a big game of construction – some with a brush – some with a shovel – some choose a pen. 

Jackson Pollock

Born in Berkeley, Calif., Heizer comes from an accomplished family of academics, geologists and miners with some history in Nevada, a history that he’s proud of and that explains how he ended up making art here. During the 1960’s, sculpture moved outdoors, and Heizer was one of the movers. In the early 60’s, Claes Oldenburg, Carl Andre and Walter De Maria were digging holes or talking about digging holes, making performances out of the process. De Maria was imagining mile long parallel walls in the desert, and Robert Smithson was mapping the New Jersey landscape, visiting quarries, making “Non sites” out of rocks he collected and conceptualizing Earth Art, which became a catchall term for disparate experiments. It was an era of chest-thumping, clashing personalities, proclaiming to remake art from scratch, and Heizer fitted right in.

Michael Heizer

His contribution was to go West. The Abstract Expressionists had linked American art with scale. Jackson Pollock’s paintings were said to refer to the Western landscape. Heizer took the idea to its logical next step. He literally made art out of the Western landscape, replacing scale with size: his works didn’t just allude to big things; they were enormous. The bigger the hole or ditch he dug, the more monumental the sculpture. Negative sculpture, as Heizer called art made out of the space left behind from digging, crept into the mainstream consciousness, even if many people have never heard of him. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the memorial design for ground zero are both riffs, in part, on Heizer’s negative vocabulary.

I had the good fortune to see some of Heizer,s works in person at the amazing  Dia Beacon, Riggio Galleries in Beacon, New York, on the Hudson River in 2019 with my Good Friend Bob Lowoski when I was doing some Seminars and workshops on creative use of Surround Sound at the SUNY New Paltz  facility .I have included a number of the photos I took while at the Gallery.With Heizers work as with all Artists its the physical act of seeing and experiencing the works in person directly that is the key to truly feeling and sensing art at its optimum.

Michael Heizer installed Dragged Mass Displacement on the north side of the Detroit Institute
of Arts (DIA) in Detroit, Michigan, over the course of three days in March 1971. The artist’s idea for the work involved dragging an enormous thirty-ton granite block, donated by Rock of Ages Corporation, across the institute’s north lawn until its weight began to dig into the ground and “an impressive pile of dirt was dug up.” The work was installed as part of the solo exhibition “Photographic and Actual Work” organised by Samuel Wagstaff, the institute’s curator of contemporary art. The indoor portion of the show consisted of a colossal slide projection called Munich Rotary Interior, commissioned by Wagstaff and described by one observer as a “deliberately artificial presentation in an equally artificial context.” Dragged Mass Displacement was to be the 

“actual” part of the exhibition’s title. On the occasion of his first retrospective, eight years later, Heizer would tally up the work’s achievement: “The sculpture here is comprised of three parts: The tool used to create the work, the path or excavation caused by its application, and the pile of mate- rial, or result of the application. A 30 x 100 foot area was affected to a depth of 2 1/2 feet in frozen clay. Approximately 300 tons of material was collected.”

The work’s “result,” however, evades this matter-of-fact description, and not least the curious scene of its construction. One photograph shows a crowd of more than one hundred observers, including local high school and college students, parents and their young children, bundled up against the Michigan winter, and one spectator who has clambered up the boom of a nearby crane to get a look from above. This picture offers evidence of a congregation initially thrilled by the spectacle of the work’s creation; 

as Dragged Mass Displacement took its nal, messy antiform, however, confusion ensued. After three days of labor, the sculpture was neither picturesque nor majestic; it didn’t stand up, as a conventional monument might—it didn’t even seem resolved. To many, it seemed accidental, random: crude bulldozer tracks over a churned, destroyed lawn; mangled roots and steel cables emerging from a pile of dirt; and a huge, half-buried rock. 

The work occasioned furor in the local press. One headline read, “Oops! ‘Lawn Art’ Is No Breeze.” After the tractors left, the Detroit Free Press proclaimed, “Whatever It Is, It’s Finished.” This philistine theater was funny, but it had real effects within the institute itself, which had harboured mixed feelings about Heizer’s Earth project from the start. When Heizer offered to donate it to DIA, the institution refused his gift and ordered him to remove the work, previously contracted to be on the lawn for six months, after just one month, as soon as the indoor exhibition ended. He was asked to do so at his own expense. (Heizer was traveling at the time and did not respond.) On April 8, Robert Scull, one of Heizer’s most dedicated patrons, sent a telegram canceling his scheduled lecture in protest of DIA’s decision to remove the work.

On April 25, the same day that “Photographic and Actual Work” came down, Detroit’s Arts Commission removed the block to a temporary storage facility and ordered Wagstaff to pay ten thousand dollars out of his own pocket to resod the north lawn. The curator bitterly complied, but resigned in disgust some months later, taking most of his staff with him. Later that year, after several unsuccessful attempts to compel Wagstaff and Heizer to retrieve their monolith, the Arts Commission nally ordered that the granite block be destroyed with dynamite. One Arts Commission member, Ron McElvenny, had been particularly aggrieved by what he called the “tragedy on [the] lawn,” and is said to have taken distinct pleasure in pushing the plunger to destroy the last remnant of Dragged Mass Displacement himself. McElvenny went so far as to give his anti artwork a clumsy, vengeful title: he called it “The Resculpturing of the Heizer Earthwork.” In destruction, the epithet implied, Heizer’s perplexing gesture might finally be reined in to proper form. 

Guggenheim curator Diane Waldman offered a last word in an essay called “Holes without History,” published
in Artnews in May of that year. Noting the work’s “terrible aggression, [its] abandonment of order for chaos,” Waldman described its “rude disruption of its immediate surroundings” and its evocation of brutality: 

A large area of newly placed sod was ripped out for the work, causing a local riot (the work almost didn’t get built at all because of the furor over its location). Having own out espe- cially to see the work, I was unnerved to hear a woman’s screams in the background; a mugging was taking place in the museum parking lot in broad daylight; an elderly woman later sat in the museum delivery area, bleeding from the assault. 

I heard about a letter to Heizer from a woman who saw in the piece a brutality that she compared to the brutality of the suffering in Vietnam (and her son in particular). This was the reality of Detroit—far from the peace of the desert. 

This is a peculiar piece of critical writing, and its associative sequence—the evocation of riot, crime, and warfare, so wildly out of key with Heizer’s own pragmatic register—will nd some explanation in the last section of this essay, where I turn to the form of the work and its complex imbrication in the life of Detroit. 

But first I wish to interrogate the last sentence of the excerpt above. Waldman’s statement, of course, shows her thinking through Heizer’s development. Since December 1967 he had worked primarily in Nevada and the Mojave Desert, creating a sequence of cuts, holes, and scatter pieces, including his signature work Double Negative (1969–70); Dragged Mass Displacement had been a first attempt 

Taken from Earth Beneath Detroit by Julian Myers 

I would recommend the Documentary Levitated Mass (2013) LEVITATED MASS is the story of a rock star; the artist behind the sensation; a $10 million, 22-city tour; and the international media storm that ensued–but not in the way you might expect. Prominently displayed outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, renowned and reclusive land artist Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass gained worldwide recognition during its installation in 2012. Over the course of 10 nights, a 340-ton solid granite boulder crawled through Southern California neighbourhoods on a 294-foot-long, 206-wheeled trailer, drawing hundreds of camera crews and cell phone shooters alike to document its journey. Tens of thousands of people came out to watch the megalith travel through their communities to its final resting place over a 456-foot-long negative space formed by a concrete slot. Levitated Mass is one of the only pieces of art in recent history to inspire such a reaction in pop culture, bringing together the art community, public officials, and the general population to debate the merits and pitfalls of a giant stone suspended above their heads. The film takes on Heizer’s passion for this piece and masterfully interweaves this influential artist’s biography with the back story of the art (originally conceptualized in 1968), the dreams of a major museum, and the uniting of a city, examining the perennial question: What is art?


“As long as you’re going to make a sculpture, why not make one that competes with a 747, or the Empire State Building, or the Golden Gate Bridge?”, asked Michael Heizer—the enigmatic American artist who is doing just this.

‘City’ is Heizer’s magnum opus; the culmination of a lifetime of work and, even in its unfinished state, the largest piece of contemporary art in existence. It is also one of the most secret. Situated in an area called Basin and Range in the Nevada Desert, its geographic isolation coupled with Heizer’s solitary existence means that few have ever visited the site, and that very little is known about it.

The project began in 1970, when Heizer hired a pilot from Las Vegas to help him find a property in the depths of the desert. It was on a flight that he came across Garden Valley in Basin and Range; backdropped by mountains, the site is isolated, but not inaccessible; its red earth arid, but not barren. Imperatively to Heizer, it was also cheap to procure. Work on ‘City’ started there 1972, and has been ongoing ever since.

‘City’ consists of five phases; each of which is composed of constructions collectively titled “complexes”, a term borrowed from archaeology that refers to ancient buildings. Together, the five phases will create a fortress of buildings and abstract sculptures that measure one and a quarter miles in length, and over a quarter of a mile long. It is a megalithic artwork that draws upon the monumentality of sites from civilizations past—Angkor Wat, Chichén Itzá, Easter Island, Giza. With ancient Mesoamerican ruins as his model, Heizer’s pioneering work merges Land Art and architecture on an incomprehensibly large scale.

When approaching ‘City’ from its desert surrounds, the concrete structures and earthen monuments that it comprises lay hidden from view, revealing themselves incrementally—and never in full. The size and arrangement of the work means that viewing it takes time and effort, you have to move around and outside of ‘City’ and its various complexes in order to understand it. “I think size is the most unused quotient in the sculptor’s repertoire because it requires lots of commitment and time”, Heizer remarked in a 1999 interview with The New York Times. “To me it’s the best tool. With size you get space and atmosphere: atmosphere becomes volume. You stand in the shape, in the zone.”

Much like the great sites of the Yucatan from which Heizer derived early inspiration, ‘City’ is is a fortress: its central plaza has been constructed below ground level, keeping it protected from the outside. “The sculpture is partly open because, rather than put you in a box, I want you to be able to breathe. But I also want to isolate you in it”, Heizer remarked to Michael Kimmelman in an interview in 1999. It is comprised of mastaba-like rises of earth that surround an internal area made up of pits and passageways. Here, steles protrude hundreds of feet above the earth and angular arms that jut from trapezoidal mounds of red rock.

Unlike much Land Art, ‘City’ is not designed to bend to the will of the weather; Heizer has built it with the intention of it lasting long after he leaves this earth. “In the end I’m lucky it took this long”, he commented in a 2015 interview with The New York Times. “Over the years we saw how the thing stood the test of time, what didn’t work, what had to be rebuilt, what happened when the valley flooded, in different climates. It’s like a handmade object now, erased, redone, adjusted, not just fabricated. It’s part of nature, here for the millennia.”

As ‘City’ enters its 50th year of construction, Heizer—now 75—has marked 2020 as the date of project completion. Until that time, we cannot ever know what it is truly like. Instead, we can only mythologize the unseen ‘City’, elaborating on the stories from the few who have witnessed it, and the handful of photographs that follow below.

IGNANT-Art-Michael-Heizer-City-4
IGNANT-Art-Michael-Heizer-City-3
IGNANT-Art-Michael-Heizer-City-12
IGNANT-Art-Michael-Heizer-City-2
IGNANT-Art-Michael-Heizer-City-5
IGNANT-Art-Michael-Heizer-City-1

‘City’ consists of five phases; each of which is composed of constructions collectively titled “complexes”, a term borrowed from archaeology that refers to ancient buildings. Together, the five phases will create a fortress of buildings and abstract sculptures that measure one and a quarter miles in length, and over a quarter of a mile long. It is a megalithic artwork that draws upon the monumentality of sites from civilizations past—Angkor Wat, Chichén Itzá, Easter Island, Giza. With ancient Mesoamerican ruins as his model, Heizer’s pioneering work merges Land Art and architecture on an incomprehensibly large scale.

When approaching ‘City’ from its desert surrounds, the concrete structures and earthen monuments that it comprises lay hidden from view, revealing themselves incrementally—and never in full. The size and arrangement of the work means that viewing it takes time and effort, you have to move around and outside of ‘City’ and its various complexes in order to understand it. “I think size is the most unused quotient in the sculptor’s repertoire because it requires lots of commitment and time”, Heizer remarked in a 1999 interview with The New York Times. “To me it’s the best tool. With size you get space and atmosphere: atmosphere becomes volume. You stand in the shape, in the zone.”

Much like the great sites of the Yucatan from which Heizer derived early inspiration, ‘City’ is is a fortress: its central plaza has been constructed below ground level, keeping it protected from the outside. “The sculpture is partly open because, rather than put you in a box, I want you to be able to breathe. But I also want to isolate you in it”, Heizer remarked to Michael Kimmelman in an interview in 1999. It is comprised of mastaba-like rises of earth that surround an internal area made up of pits and passageways. Here, steles protrude hundreds of feet above the earth and angular arms that jut from trapezoidal mounds of red rock.

Unlike much Land Art, ‘City’ is not designed to bend to the will of the weather; Heizer has built it with the intention of it lasting long after he leaves this earth. “In the end I’m lucky it took this long”, he commented in a 2015 interview with The New York Times. “Over the years we saw how the thing stood the test of time, what didn’t work, what had to be rebuilt, what happened when the valley flooded, in different climates. It’s like a handmade object now, erased, redone, adjusted, not just fabricated. It’s part of nature, here for the millennia.”

As ‘City’ enters its 50th year of construction, Heizer—now 75—has marked 2020 as the date of project completion. Until that time, we cannot ever know what it is truly like. Instead, we can only mythologize the unseen ‘City’, elaborating on the stories from the few who have witnessed it, and the handful of photographs that follow below.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s