By Dana Goodyear
Heizer, a pioneer of the earthworks movement, began “City” in 1972. A mile and a half long and inspired by ancient ritual cities, it is made from rocks, sand, and concrete mined and mixed on site.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMIE HAWKESWORTH FOR THE NEW YORKER
1. SLEEPING BEAUTY
“I’m trying to tell you the story of my strange life,” the artist Michael Heizer said to me. “I’m not sure how much I want everyone to know, but it’s all going to come out.” It was March in New York, a cold, long-shadowed afternoon, and Heizer, who has spent much of the past half century on a remote ranch in Nevada, working on “City,” a mile-and-a-half-long sculpture that almost no one has seen, had finished an omelette and a tarte tatin at Balthazar. With his dealer, Kara Vander Weg, of the Gagosian gallery, he shuffled down Spring Street toward Greene, where he’d been renting a loft since the fall. He is seventy-one, and walking pains him.
At a crosswalk, Heizer—ravaged, needy, fierce, suspicious, witty, loyal, sly, and pure—leaned against a lamppost to rest, thin on thin. He wore a felt rancher hat whose band was adorned with the tips of elk antlers, and a jackknife in a holster at his waist. In the eighties, Andy Warhol photographed him wearing plaid flannel, his hands raised like claws and a vague, suggestive smile on his lips: Am I scaring you, honey? Now, with his hat casting an elliptical shadow on the pavement, he looked ready for another portrait. He glanced down at the patent-leather flats on Vander Weg’s feet. He asked, “Those Dior?”
Heizer, who is given to playful lamentation, complains about what New York is turning him into: “A decaffeinated, used-up, once-was quick-draw cowboy, a sissy boy who eats at Balthazar for lunch.” At such moments, he is a cartoon roughneck, swatting at his own amusement like a housefly. “Chemical castration—doesn’t happen all at once,” he said. “It’s slow. You just wake up one day and you’re dickless.”
Throughout his career, in paintings and in sculptures, Heizer has explored the aesthetic possibilities of emptiness and displacement; his voids have informed public art from the Vietnam Memorial to the pits at Ground Zero. “Levitated Mass,” a three-hundred-and-forty-ton chunk of granite that since 2012 has been permanently installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is one of the few sculptures in the world designed to be walked under, an experience that strikes most visitors as harrowing. Heizer once told Vander Weg he’d like his tombstone to read, “Totally Negative.”
“City” is a monumental architectonic work, with dimensions comparable to those of the National Mall, in Washington, D.C., and a layout informed by pre-Columbian ritual cities like Teotihuacan. Heizer started it in 1972, when he was in his late twenties and had already established himself as an instigator of the earthworks movement, a group of artists, including Robert Smithson and Walter De Maria, who made totemic outdoor sculptures, often in the majestic wastelands of the American West. “City” is made almost entirely from rocks, sand, and concrete that Heizer has mined and mixed on site. The use of valueless materials is strategic, a hedge against what he sees as inevitable future social unrest. “My good friend Richard Serra is building out of military-grade steel,” he says. “That stuff will all get melted down. Why do I think that? 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.”
It is either perfect or perfectly bizarre that Heizer’s sculpture, a monument meant to outlast humanity, is flanked by an Air Force base and a bomb-test site; in recent years, the land surrounding “City” was under consideration for a railroad to convey nuclear waste to a proposed repository at Yucca Mountain. As it happened, Senator Harry Reid, a dedicated opponent of Yucca Mountain and an advocate for public lands, fell in love with Heizer’s crazily ambitious project and its quintessentially Nevadan setting. “I decided to go and look at it,” Reid told me. “Blew out two tires. I just became infatuated with the vision that he had.” Last summer, at Reid’s urging, President Obama declared seven hundred and four thousand acres of pristine wilderness surrounding “City” a national monument, meaning that it will be protected from development, including a nuclear rail line, for as long as the United States exists.
“This next song is about narrow-minded record executives and their reluctance to take a chance on anything a bit different.”
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“City” reflects the singular, scathing, sustained, self-critical vision of a man who has marshalled every possible resource and driven himself to the brink of death in the hope of accomplishing it. “It takes a very specific audience to like this stupid primordial shit I do,” Heizer told me. “I like runic, Celtic, Druidic, cave painting, ancient, preliterate, from a time back when you were speaking to the lightning god, the ice god, and the cold-rainwater god. That’s what we do when we ranch in Nevada. We take a lot of goddam straight-on weather.”
Heizer with his sculpture “North, East, South, West” and his dog Tomato Rose.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMIE HAWKESWORTH FOR THE NEW YORKER