Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Michael Heizer

The other day I discussed "Levitated Mass," a large stone on display at a California museum.

Michael Heizer is the artist who conceived and organized "Levitated Mass," which in fact is his second work that carries the name.

The earlier "Levitated Mass" was installed in 1982 at the base of a Manhattan office building. Carved grooves denote the location - 5 and 6 grooves for 56th Street, 13, 1, and 4 for the letters M, A, D, Madison Avenue.  Water rushes under the 10-ton granite rock, giving the impression that it hovers in space over the fountain.

I have spent a fair amount of time in Manhattan, but I have never heard anybody mention this work. If I have walked past it, I have not noticed it.

(To be fair, people walking in Manhattan are more intent on reaching their destinations than enjoying the scenery.  On the other hand, the sculpture and its fountain may be too subtle for ordinary humans to appreciate.)

Michael Heizer

Heizer is the son of a professor of archeology and anthropology; as a boy, he spent time in remote areas where his father did field research.  This background seems to have interested Heizer in rocks and isolated areas, drawing him into "land art," a designation he sometimes rejects but that seems to describe much of his work.

Heizer's first big effort was "Double Negative," a 1970 etching of two large trenches that are 50 feet deep, 30 feet wide and a quarter-mile long in the open space of Nevada.

This seems to have been a prelude to his defining project, "City," which also is large enough to be seen whole only in satellite photographs.


"City," is a series of large-scale edifices that eventually will stretch for a mile or more on privately owned land in Nevada.  The land is surrounded by a 750,000-acre national monument conservation area that was created by presidential decree last year.

One arts writer described "City" as “a collection of enormous ceremonial mounds and abstract forms made of earth, rock and concrete that evoke both ancient ruins and industrial technology."

Last year, Heizer said this: “It epitomizes a fusion of ancient and modern forms. It’s huge in size, but antimonumental in its relentless horizontality and its sinuous, continuous curves. It’s also unphotographable and impossible to capture in its totality. It has to be experienced in time and space — over time, and distance.”

Heizer is nothing if not a hard worker.  Building "City" has consumed almost 45 years of his life and the efforts of many other workers as well.

In a 1977 interview with ARTNews, Heizer explained what "City" meant to him.

     “The work I’m doing out in the deserts has to be done, and somebody has got to do it.
     Where in hell are all these artists? I mean, we live in an age of obligation. We live in an
     age of the 747 aircraft, the moon rocket—objects that are constructed by man that range
     from the most minuscule complex electronic dial to airplanes that have wings weighing
     45 tons on them. So, you must make a certain type of art. Of course, there are limits.
     If you take your work too far, you end up with entertainment.”

He raises interesting questions.  Should art be scaled to the size of major commercial endeavors?  Has too much art -- like, say, Pop Art -- turned into entertainment?  Are our acknowledged entertainments ("Fifty Shades of Grey," video games, superhero movies, presidential debates) taking up so much attention that we are losing sight of the bigger questions?

He also spoke of the need for new art.

     “Basically, what I’m saying is that the European option is closed. The European tradition
     has to be honored, but that area is finished—it’s over with. The kind of art I’m involved
     with hasn’t really been done before. What I mean is, it’s the kind of art that was originally
     Indian art, then it was Pilgrim art—art by all those various visitors. That’s the tradition
     I’m interested in—the tradition of regionalism. That’s essentially what I try to do.”

Here is where I have to question Heizer's argument. The European project may be ending, as other civilizations have ended.  Those former civilizations left behind their structures and monuments, including the Terracotta Army, Roman ruins, the Great Pyramid of Giza and Stonehenge -- but in their time, those edifices were elements of actual cultures and actual communities.

By contrast, Heizer's works are expressions of his own personal convictions.  These ideas are perhaps shared by some art collectors and dealers, but they are not manifestations of broad cultural themes.  The isolation of "City" in the middle of a huge conservation area assures that it will stand as it has been built but also that it will not be taken up as part of a larger cultural discussion.

We have puzzled for centuries over the meanings of Egyptian pyramids and the Stonehenge monoliths.

 If mankind destroys itself and other beings come to earth several eons from now, they will discover "City," but they will have a hard time figuring out what, if anything, it meant to people of our day.

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