Michael Heizer, born in Berkeley in 1944, had by the late 1960s a high sense of mission for his sculpture. "Art had to be radical," he asserted recently. "It had to become American."8 Much is implied in his terse statement. A Californian, he felt that sculpture needed to express the character and scale of the great Western landscapes. In an era of space exploration, and of social unrest caused by an unpopular war and racial antagonisms, he felt that art needed to look new, nonconformist, and not at all complacent. Further, it had to shake its dependence on European models, those refined objects in the tradition of Rodin and Brancusi that seemed then to be exhaling their last gasp in the form of Minimalist sculpture. Heizer's antidote was to throw off nearly all the conventions of recent threedimensional art in favor of environmental projects.
Heizer shared in a then widespread notion that the art world was afflicted with a too grand preciosity, that artworks were valued only as commodities, and that they were limited by their preoccupation with strictly formal concerns. In 1969 Heizer decried what he perceived to be a surfeit of objects of this kind, and their seemingly inescapable associations with the marketplace: "The position of art as malleable barter-exchange item falters as the cumulative economic structure gluts. The museums and collections are stuffed, the floors are sagging, but the real space exists."9 In the Western deserts, Heizer said that he found "that kind of unraped, peaceful, religious space artists have always tried to put in their work."10 And he provided a blunt explanation of the differences between those works of the urban marketplace that he censured and a work in the landscape. "The intrusive, opaque object refers to itself. It has little exterior reference. It is rigid and blocks space. It is a target. An incorporative work is aerated, part of the material of its place and refers beyond itself."11
These ideas formed a part of the currency of artistic discourse by the late '60s. A shared enthusiasm for environmental work provided the basis of a friendship between Heizer and Walter De Maria; Heizer was also friendly with the many artists who gathered at the bar at Max's Kansas City in New York, including Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, and Carl Andre. By the time Heizer was introduced to Smithson in 1968, he had already executed some ten temporary works in the Western deserts _ trenches, motorcycle drawings, and dispersals of soil from moving vehicles and pigments into the wind. His landscape works had begun in 1967, when he sank an open cube into the ground in the Sierra Nevada, the first element in a projected four-part sculpture to be called NESW after the four cardinal directions. Heizer and De Maria drove across the country together inspecting potential work sites, and Heizer was on hand to help when De Maria produced his first Western work in April of 1968: two parallel lines a mile long laid down in chalk on the Mojave Desert in California. That summer, Smithson and Holt joined Heizer in Nevada, where he was working on a series of works called the Nine Nevada Depressions. A photograph taken by Holt shows Smithson helping to dig a trench for Isolated Mass/ Circumflex, giving him an early experience of working in the Western landscape.12 Heizer's family boasted several geologists who had been active throughout the West, and there is no doubt that he was a fount of information about where to work and how to secure land by lease. But beyond that, these artists were united by a common assault on sculptural conventions. "It was a beautiful moment," Heizer recalled. "There was a lot of potential."
Heizer executed the first of his works entirely on his own initiative, without any sponsorship. By1968, however, he had enlisted the financial aid of collector Robert Scull, who commissioned both the Nine Nevada Depressions and three works called Displaced-Replaced Mass (all 1969). For the latter, huge slabs of granite from the High Sierra were brought down to the Nevada desert and set in concrete-lined depressions in the ground. At the same time, dealer Virginia Dwan was taking an interest in Heizer's work. He had shown her a portfolio of photographs of his Western works in 1968, and she had included him, along with Smithson and Robert Morris, in her Earthworks exhibition that fall. Next she offered him a solo exhibition. He agreed, on the understanding that the exhibition would not be limited to the gallery. With her backing, he returned to Nevada, secured a site on the Mormon Mesa, hired contractors and earthmoving equipment, and began work on a piece he was to title Double Negative: two cuts in the mesa surface facing each other across a deep indentation in the escarpment. Heizer had excavated the thirtyfoot-wide cuts to a depth of forty-two feet when he ran short of cash. He called Dwan for additional help; she came to Nevada to see the piece and gave him the authorization to finish the work. It was deepened to 50 feet, and expanded to a total length of 1,500.
Double Negative took the art world by surprise. Its debut in a Dwan Gallery exhibition in early 1970 was hardly placid. One critic subsequently wrote that "it proceeds by marring the very land, which is what we have just learned to stop doing."13 Referring to Heizer's work several years later, another asserted that "earth art, with very few exceptions, not only doesn't imrove upon its natural envronment, it destroys it.14 If these criticisms are justified, they are also incomplete. The aggressiveness of Heizer's intervention in the landscape of the Mormon Mesa must be seen in the context of the entirely new syntax he was proposing for sculpture. Rather than being a form that occupies space, with a surface delineating the limits of an internal volume, Double Negative is composed of space itself: it is a void. Although massive in scale, it is barely palpable. The two sunken enclosures call to each other across the great chasm of the escarpment, providing an experience of vastness conveyed through the arrangement of space that is compellingly distinct from the intrusive, space-occupying character of traditional monuments. One is inside this piece. And while that is typical of architecture and landscape design, it is certainly distinct from most previous sculpture.
Some years later, Heizer sought to clarify his intentions, which many found disturbingly radical: both antiart and antiestablishment. He was realistic enough to acknowledge that the economics of the art world represented an unassailable bulwark. By then it was also clear that earthworks relied on fairly conventional forms of patronage. He recognized that the importance of his work lay not in what it rejected, but in what it offered instead. "I was never out to destroy the gallery system or the aesthetic object," he explained. "I wasn't trying to make impermanent worksI was just doing the best I could with the tools I could afford. I'm not a radical. In fact, I'm going backward. I like to attach myself to the past."15 That past is frankly archaeological. Heizer's father was a noted archaeologist and provided his son with an early introduction to the monuments of the past, particularly those of pre-Columbian America. The three Displaced-Replaced Mass sculptures allude to the moving of the great monoliths that form the Colossi of Memnon in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, which Heizer's father had studied, as well as to the giant "wandering rocks" that were hauled hundreds of miles around the desert in pre-lnca Bolivia.
Heizer's next major Western work after Doub/e Negative was likewise a deft blending of archaeological references with his spare, geometric idiom. Located in south-central Nevada, Complex One (1972-76) is a long mound of earth with sloping sides and trapezaidal ends; it is some 140 feet long and nearly 24 feet high. The western facethe frontincludes a group of concrete "framing elements," which read as a continuous band when viewed directly from the front of the piece, but break up as one moves to the sides. Some of them are attached to the mound itself, while others are set a good distance from it; some lie flat while others are cantilevered. The central unit at the top, for example, is thirty feet long and hangs thirty feet out from the front, producing constantly changing shadows across the face of the mound. Heizer has identified the snake bands lining the ball court at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan as a source for these framing elements, while the mound itself relates to Egyptian mastabas, ancient tombs that predate the pyramids.16
Complex One is just the first of a group of massive works planned for the site. Heizer has excavated the area directly in front of Complex One, creating an enormous depression around which the other works will be placed. One of them, a long sloping mound with an austerely geometric facade, is presently under construction. Complex One will thus eventually be one side of a square, forming an enclosed precinct rather like the one in front of the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan near Mexico City, or the great plazas at Monte Alban in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, or Tikal in Guatemala. Doubtless the ceremonial associations of these pre-Columbian works will be felt, lending Heizer's complex an air not only of history, but of incompletely understood ritual as well.
When finally completed, Heizer's precinct will exclude all views of the surrounding landscape. The works will completely enclose the viewer, who will stand well below ground level. Part of the motivation for this, Heizer explains, is to clear up any remaining confusion about the intent of his work. "It's about art, not about landscape," he insists. Some association with the landscape is unavoidable: the works are, after all, situated in a flat basin whose distant mountain ranges echo the long, ground-hugging, rough character of Heizer's mounds. But the point is well taken, reminding us that the purpose of these works is to create art, not simply to make a statement about the landscape. Indeed, when he first began work on these additional elements, Heizer had some cause for wanting to exclude the adjacent landscape: it was then being studied as a possible site for an MX missile base.
One imagines that Heizer's quadrangle will have more of the character of conventional monuments than his Double Negative. The elements will be massive and occupy space emphatically. Yet though the parts may be large in size, they can never be truly large in relation to the scale of the surrounding basins and ranges. And the excavation between them will be a part of, if not the principal element of, the work. The parts will define an environment for which we, the viewers, are the center, rather than occupying the center themselves as conventional monuments do. Heizer will thus have remained true to his original intentions for his art in the landscape: to offer in place of the rarefied and self-referential barter-object an art that is richly allusive in content and environmental in character.
In 1969, the year after he drew his chalk lines in the company of Heizer, De Maria was back in the West to execute his Las Vegas Piece, four shallow cuts made by the six-foot blade of a bulldozer in the central Nevada desert. These cuts form a square with halfmile sides, with two of the sides extending another half a mile at opposite corners. Al1 are oriented north to south or east to west. This is a piece that yields its charms slowly. While one eventually comes to learn its configuration, it is never entirely visible. Instead, it presents itself as a series of options, invitations to move along a horizontal plane in the four cardinal directions. De Maria's lines are compelling: one feels that one's progress along them is somehow involuntary. Yet with this comes a feeling of relief that there is a delineated path on which to progress, in a landscape where one might otherwise wander aimlessly. As one walks the piece, its monotony is at first soothing and finally invigorating as one realizes the completeness with which one has experienced both the work and its surrounding landscape. This creation of dimensional, directional space with an understated, almost immaterial means reappeared in De Maria's later Lightning Field (discussed in chapter 3).
For his part, Smithson took advantage of his Western visit with Heizer in 1968 to collect for his "Nonsites": sculptures composed of materials gathered outdoors, set in geometric containers, and frequently exhibited with maps or photographs of the sites from which they were taken. Smithson devoted much of that year to these sculptures, amassing sand from the New Jersey Pine Barrens in the winter, for example, limestone from Franklin, New Jersey, in the spring, and pumice and cinders from Mono Lake, California, in the summer. The resulting works were indoor evocations of outdoor locations, establishing what Smithson termed a dialectic between site_the outdoor source of the earth materialsand nonsitethe sculpture in its dissociated setting, functioning as a signifier of the absent site. Smithson produced a variation on these the following year, a group of rock salt and mirror pieces for the Earth Art exhibition at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.17 Like the subsequent Rocks and Mirror Square (1969), these used reflection to simulate the scale of the out-of-doors
The same year1969Smithson began producing his works in the landscape itself. He composed a sequence of temporary mirror pieces on the beach and in the jungle of the Yucatan, and poured asphalt down the side of a quarry outside of Rome, simulating a lava flow. One of Smithson's many drawings, Texas Overflow, subsequently proposed another, potentially more intriguing poured work. Into the center of a circular mount, ringed with brilliant yellow sulphur rocks, hot asphalt would have been poured and allowed to run down between the sulphur, contrasting the viscous with the solid, the black with the yellow. But it was in 1970 that Smithson made his major mark on the landscape. Like Heizer, he enlisted the sponsorship of Virginia Dwan, went West, and produced his Spiral Jetty: 1,500 linear feet of black basalt and limestone rocks and earth that curls into the Great Salt Lake, Utah, at a site Smithson leased on its northeastern shore.
Courtesy of Abbyville Press copyright 1989 Cross River Press