MICHAEL HEIZER: The man who moves mountains

by Kim Steele

Michael Heizer on his desert ranch with Potato Chip Credit: Isaac Breeken, New York Times

Michael Heizer on his desert ranch with Potato Chip, photograph by Isaac Breeken, The New York Times


THE MOST PROMINENT EARTH SCULPTOR IN THE WORLD, Michael Heizer has experienced a resurgence in his work, as evidenced by his recent exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in New York this summer, which The Boulevardiers had the pleasure of viewing.

As a neophyte in art reviewing, just awarded my NEA grant as an ‘emerging critic,’ I reviewed his piece on the Seattle waterfront, titled Adjacent in Myrtle Edwards Park, in 1976. I also witnessed some random rocks propped up next to the new Federal Building in Seattle as well, and wondered about the nature of art? It seems random and purposeless.



Adjacent, by Michael Heizer


“If you want to see the Pieta, you go to Italy.
To see the Great Wall, you go to China.
My work isn’t conceptual art, it’s sculpture.
You just have to go see it.”
-Michael Heizer


by Michael Heizer

Seattle Federal Building installation, photograph by Kim Steele


As a young adult, I stretched to understand the meaning of art and it’s impact. His most monumental project ‘City’ still stands as one of his most formidable projects, comparable to the Giza Pyramids, is a life long project started in 1972, it is located in Nevada, his home state, and comprises of five phases, each consisting of a number of structures. Now proclaimed by him finished. “He designed ‘City’ to disappear into the landscape, to blend in to Garden Valley. The connection between art and nature is palpable.” (NYT)


“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.”

– Michael Heizer


Heizer viewing "City," Garden city, Nevada credit: Michael Govan, New York Times

Michael Heizer viewing City in Garden City, Nevada;
photograph by Michael Govan, The New York Times


Heizer instructed at UC, Berkeley for thirty years while residing in Nevada near his project City. Despite that Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, a freind is the best-known example of ‘earth art,’ in the Great Salt Lake, Utah; he has become the most renowned sculpture working on this scale. His work is comparable to the more noted, Richard Serra, but much more sublime.


“I think earth is the material with the most potential because it is the original source material.”

– Michael Heizer


Spiral Jetty, by Robert Smithson

Spiral Jetty, by Robert Smithson


Heizer creates a dichotomous relationship between the earth and his invasive sculptures which are often massive stones and metal, some worked and some simply excavated from the land. The Boulevardiers visited the recently installed earthwork at the LA County Museum of Modern Art (LACMA), Levitated Mass, and felt the gravity and imposition of weight and space that signifies his work. It comprises a 340-ton boulder squatting above a concrete trench. The transport of the rock became a documentary. Nonetheless, it does beg the question of why is it there and what purpose does it serve. It seems a bit of Disneyland.

His other most monumental work is Double Negative. It consists of two cuts of fifty feet deep, cut into opposite cliff edges of Mormon Mesa in Nevada, which displaced 240,000 tons of sandstone and rhyolite.


Double Negative, by Michael Heizer

Double Negative, by Michael Heizer


An earth artist coming indoors is challenging. But Heizer triumphs in his “negative wall sculptures,” chunks of ore rock. They were in the Gagosian Gallery show this year. They are placed inside 14 inch niches on a grand scale, and at a diagonal. He claims that they are prompted by a desire to “create an absence and then refill the same void.” Heizer had not had a gallery represent him for years when Larry Gagosian approached him.



Potato Chip (negative wall sculpture), by Michael Heizer, Gagosian Gallery, New York, photograph by Kim Steele


There have been some threats to his artistic well being. A train line was proposed to through Garden Valley to transport nuclear waste. This has stalled, partially by the efforts of his Senator Harry Reid, Democratic Leader in the U.S. Senate. Reid proposed legislation to protect the area, which was opposed by Republicans. He has appealed directly to President Obama to declare the entire region…three-quarters of a million acres as the Basin and Range National Monument.

In 1995, Heizer was diagnosed with a neurological disorder known as polyneuropathy, which reduced his ability to use his hands. Despite this, Heizer currently resides with his second wife, Mary Shanahan, near the City site, and continues his work on the project to this day.

Michael Heizer is an artist who challenges us to move from the comfortable spot of appreciating art. As a neophyte in art viewing and criticism, I peered at those rocks in my home town on Second Avenue and scratched my head. I have always been a proponent of making an effort to appreciate and understand art that sometimes does not come easily. I have heard the tired and annoying adage “I know what I like.” As well as boasting that ones instinct is sufficient to critique art. I disagree; of course within bounds, but when an artist is universally revered, like Michael Heizer, an effort must be exerted. Contrarily, an artist like Jeff Koons, who is universally celebrated, with silly sculptures around the world, whom I believe to be a hoax and an example of The Emperor’s New Clothes, but nonetheless, worthy of examination. A lesson to be learned in both cases.


Michael Heizer, Altar 1, Gagosian Gallery, New York

Altar 1, by Michael Heizer, Gagosian Gallery, New York, photograph by Kim Steele





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