Michael Heizer’s City: a monument 50 years in the making

One would not expect a sculpture a mile and a half long and half a mile wide, sitting by itself in a desert valley, to sneak up on you. But approaching Michael Heizer’s “City” along a winding dirt road, you are all but on top of it when you first make out its contours. The huge monuments at either end of it are seen below ground level, as are the bases of the great, curving mounds that sweep between them, flanking deep, ovular depressions in the earth. In a work full of contradictions, this is one of the strangest. Heizer has made an object of awe-inspiring size, overwhelming in its sense of weight and mass, that is at the same time fundamentally negative, defined by absences.

Something else is absent, too: sound. Nevada’s Garden Valley, where Heizer has spent 50 years building “City” — a closely guarded secret for decades, it has only just started taking visitors — is roughly 40 miles long and 15 wide, circled by high mountains. There is absolutely nothing else there, save Heizer’s little ranch and miles of low brush and dust. It is empty even by the standards of American deserts. In the middle of “City”, I heard as close to nothing as I’ve ever heard.

Visually, too, “City” is surprisingly quiet. Photographs, especially of the two monuments, often make the installation appear otherworldly, monstrous. Looked at from the inside, it feels delicate and precise. The mounds and depressions are covered in gravel, carefully sorted into various grades, and what appears to be reddish desert earth but turns out to be poured concrete. The materials, combined with natural light and shadow, create a range of colors — brown, reddish brown, dust — that both contrast and shade into one another. The different elements are bounded by gray concrete kerbs that read like lines in a minimalist pencil drawing.

’45°, 90°, 180°’, which bookends Michael Hezier’s ‘City’ on the north-west © Ben Blackwell

Heizer, 78, has had a career immersed in the New York commercial art scene — while simultaneously shunning it. Decades of working in isolation in the desert have dovetailed with late-flowering art-market success, aided since 2013 by mega-gallery Gagosian. His work has spanned various disciplines, but he turned away from painting early in his career to focus on heavier materials.

A major early piece, 1969’s “Double Negative”, consisted of two 30ft-wide, 50ft-deep trenches on either side of a chasm in another Nevada desert. It marked a new approach to sculpture, in size, materials and location. It was also a defining early work of what has come to be known as land art, alongside Nancy Holt’s “Sun Tunnels” in Utah’s Great Basin Desert, Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” in the 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 peers is his commitment to materials and to sheer size. Running through his descriptions of his own work are words like mass, power, physicality, ground, commitment. He often talks as if the materials are the whole of 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 care that much about what it looks like.”

“Levitated Mass” (2012), a 340-ton boulder suspended over a sunken walkway, is a good example. It seems designed to provide a very vivid experience of how terribly huge 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 looks out over ‘City’ © New York Times/Redux/Eyevine

Heizer’s interest in size is characteristically American and macho, but also reaches for the transcendent and the spiritual. “You have an American impulse — big size, big country, big expanse. A 747 airplane, the Golden Gate Bridge, the hydrogen bomb, the highway system,” he said in a recent conversation with Gagosian director Kara Vander Weg. “I was raised building vehicles, working horses, operating heavy equipment, and I like bad shit you dig big holes with.”

If “City” is an American sculpture, though, it speaks less to Mount Rushmore (which Heizer much admires) than to the stone structures of ancient Mesoamerica. The artist acknowledges the influence. His father was an anthropologist, and he grew up visiting the monuments of Mexico and Egypt. And it is hard not to think of Teotihuacan or the Temple of Hatshepsut when looking at the monuments that book-end “City”: “Complex 1” to the south-east and “45° 90° 180°” to the north-west .

An aerial view of huge shapes sculpted in the desert
A view over ‘City’ — ‘immense by every human standard, it is frighteningly small compared with Garden Valley and its ring of mountains’ © Michael Heizer

The work’s relationship to the religious or transcendental purposes of the ancient monuments is a tricky question. 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? Yet to arrive? While Heizer has said that “if art isn’t spiritual, it is decoration”, his comments on these spiritual themes are few and cryptic. But what is unique to “City” is how Heizer has merged these themes with a totally modern, abstract, almost mathematical interest in geometry, in working out aesthetic possibilities of the most basic shapes. “45° 90° 180°” manages to strongly recall, at the same time, a Toltec altar and the work of the American conceptual artist Sol LeWitt.

What Heizer does articulate is his interest in the aesthetic properties that size offers. “Immense, architecturally sized sculpture creates both the object and the atmosphere,” he told an interviewer in 1984. “Awe is a state of mind equivalent to religious experience.” But the American machismo aspect is present here too, the drive to make something that sticks around. “Incans, Olmecs, Aztecs — their finest works of art were all pillaged, razed, broken apart, and their gold was melted down. When they come out here to fuck my ‘City’ sculpture up, they’ll realize it takes more energy to wreck 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 outrunning the intentions, or at least the stated intentions, of their creators. Heizer has said that he built “City” to be seen from the inside, 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.

If that’s true, though, Heizer hasn’t got what he wanted. Garden Valley permeates the experience of “City”, and sets up what — to me — is the work’s most powerful aesthetic tension. “City” is immense by every human standard. But compared with Garden Valley and its ring of mountains, it is small; in fact, frighteningly small. You could fit hundreds if not thousands of cities into the valley. The mental shifting back and forth of the same object between huge and tiny creates a pervasive sense of the uncanny. Reaching for the epic, “City” reminds us that the greatest works vanish next to deserts, planets, galaxies.

Concrete, unlike stone, is a long-lived but not permanent material. The tooled edges and carefully graded slopes of Heizer’s work will degrade in the pitiless environment of the valley. I noticed a tiny fissure running up the side of one of the great right triangles in “45° 90° 180°”. In heavy pencil, someone had made a note on it: “crack 7/24/03”. It won’t be the last. A few blades of grass are pushing up through the earthlike concrete on the sides of the mounds, too. “City” is a great work of art, and preservationists will do their best. But time is on the desert’s side. In 1,000 years, what will remain of one man’s vision and determination will be a few broken shapes and strange contours and in an empty and unvisited valley.

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