I drove 341 miles to see Michael Heizer's 1970 artwork Double Negative, but I have not walked the 150 yards from LACMA's ticket booth to see his freshly installed Levitated Mass. I've been to the museum since the 340-ton boulder was consecrated, but I haven't yet ambled behind the Resnick Pavilion to actually glance at it. Perhaps if Heizer has the hubris to plunk it there, I can have the hubris not to look. The real answer, of course, for my long trek versus my willful ignorance is a bit more subtle and perhaps more timely.
A 1,500-foot-long, 50-foot-deep, 30-foot-wide trough cut with dynamite out of one of many mesas in the Nevada desert, Double Negative defines a movement that later became known as "land art," a curious outcropping of minimalism currently receiving a survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Geffen Contemporary. MOCA also happens to own Double Negative, having acquired it during a survey of Heizer's work in 1984; owns it as much as anyone can own 240,000 tons worth of displaced matter. (One of the hallmarks of land art is an obsession with figures, costs and weights — this much money, that many pounds, so many years to make it happen: a game for artists-as-engineers.)
I didn't plan the trip — my friend Sarah did — and with a last-minute cancellation from her original travel companions, I lucked in as her passenger, trawling the yawning expanses of the Southwest in her diminutive car. Besides Heizer's work, we stopped in at Walter de Maria's The Lightning Field (1977) and Las Vegas, two other American monuments of human will and engineering cut out of the parched desert dust.
Forty years after Double Negative, despite land art's brave attempts to escape the museum, it has been crowbarred back in, and all those original earthworks have become roadside attractions of a kind. The more educated tourists plan their road trips around them, between the crystal depots and national parks. Some art enthusiasts simply fly in, snap a few pictures and fly out.
The whole package of land art seen as such had always rubbed me the wrong way: megalomaniacal artists carving their egos into the "blank" canvas of the desert, their actions mirroring industrial atrocities wrecking the environment, the vacationing, black-clad smart set parachuting into rural communities to have their sublimity mediated.
Despite my skepticism, I still gladly went on the road, taking the 101 to the 5 to a long stretch of the 15, the miles of highway ticking away as we pulled past the urban sprawl and into the naked desert. Out of the sands erupted the incredibly strange oasis of Las Vegas. Sarah and I wandered among the sweaty crowds through the creepy opulence of its sheer size and simulations: the acres of psychedelic carpet, the toilet-bowl blue of the Venetian canals at the Bellagio, the price of a sandwich at L.A.'s own Cantor's at the Treasure Island tripling in price and halving in quality. A mallish nightmare of noise and light and tawdry longings.
The next day, we were mercifully back on the highway, into the profound quietude of the desert. The dashed lines flickered down a long ribbon of black asphalt, until the asphalt turned to gravel, turning again to a hard, rocky stretch of almost road, the navigating of which Sarah's tiny car had never been designed for. With no signs to guide us, we fumbled with a cellphone, fingering the screen, looking for directions and counting the digits as the tenths of a mile rumbled by.
We almost gave up. Stepping out of the car and into the lunar landscape, we stepped on sharp, sticky shrubs with our hiking boots. We pocketed interesting stones to share. We felt smothered and defeated by the heat. We wandered. A cheery bunch of sun-burned Scandinavian art tourists drove by in a glimmering black SUV and we compared notes. Their buoyant good cheer prompted us to keep looking. We continued. And finally, we found it.
A huge wound blown out of the mesa, with no ropes, no signs. I recognized it, though, from a half-remembered '70s snapshot glowing with nostalgia in some forgotten art history textbook. We stumbled down the rocks into the chasm. The walls were pocked and marked by years of rock slides, but still present were some of the good, clean cuts of the original dynamite. The nostalgic glow was absent, forcing Sarah to re-create it via Instagram. Although Heizer has said again and again that pictures fail to properly represent it — i.e., you really have to be there — we were there, and of course were taking pictures of ourselves being there.
Looking at this rocky cut, I felt like just another mirage dancing in the flatlands that stretched beneath the bright and bitter blue of the desert sky. Heizer in describing Double Negative originally used the phrase "negative sculpture," attempting to prove that a dynamited absence could be a kind of sculpture, too, another expression of art.
Minimalism (and land art by extension) emerged from a moment in American art when artists had a few problems they were trying to solve. Many wished to finally, fully break from the European traditions — a break that began with the abstract expressionism of Guston, Pollock and others — and establish a truly American art. The pop artists looked out and saw the ubiquity of popular culture and used that. Heizer and his contemporaries saw plywood, concrete and steel; dynamite and dirt bikes felt truer as tools than brushes and kilns.
Many of these artists felt confined in the narrow streets and cramped studios of New York City, so they went west. Robert Smithson built a twisting finger of stones out of a lonesome patch along the Great Salt Lake to make Spiral Jetty (1971). De Maria plunked down 400 polished, pointed steel poles to attract lightning in western New Mexico. Donald Judd established his own Minimalist utopia in Marfa, Texas, with an array of concrete cubes and a commitment to supporting artists to come there. But Heizer, the native Westerner, grandson of a geologist and son of an archaeologist, was the one who showed them the way.
Land art was born of that spare moment between industry and ecology, after Silent Spring and before the EPA, when people were looking back toward the land but still open to it as something that mankind could warp at will. Strip-mining, i.e., the removal of whole mountains to get at the minerals underneath, is perhaps another, much darker kind of Double Negative.
Though the artists disagree on this topic, Heizer wanted and wants to make artwork that will last millennia. He doesn't care about landscape, claiming he would have built his biggest, most expensive and, after four decades, still unfinished masterwork, City, in New Jersey if he could have afforded it. (Instead it's at an undisclosed location in middle-of-nowhere Nevada.)
The various essays about him over the years, in particular Michael Kimmelman's accounts in The New York Times, paint Heizer as a borderline crank. Desert people have always been known for being so, those westward pioneers who hit the coast at just the right angle and fervor, only to bounce off the water and fall back into the desert, cutting hardscrabble lives out of the unlivable heat amidst the tumbling tumbleweeds and prickly pears, building and abandoning ghost towns and ramshackle movie sets made to look like ghost towns.
Unsatisfied with the ephemerality of others' desert dreams, Heizer with City, and all his sculptures really, is building a one-man Chichen Itza, monuments that will outlast the humans.
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This is one way, perhaps, to beat back death. Standing in the trough of Double Negative, the desert wind blowing softly in the epic silence, I grew to appreciate Michael Heizer, the visionary artist, the desert crank, a hero worthy of Werner Herzog, who always loved the outsized dreams of obsessed individuals or, as Emerson once put it, "the infinitude of the private man." I still think these artists (Heizer, De Maria, Smithson) tend toward the egomaniacal, more or less, but I've begrudgingly grown to respect their sheer, indomitable will, their epic visions to explore the possibilities of human expressions and, with hope, inspire others.
A few days later, we met our driver in Quemado, N.M., for the 45-minute chauffeured ride through unmemorable byways to drop us at the well-equipped cabin built for art patrons at De Maria's The Lightning Field. The 38,000 pounds of steel (outlined in the cabin's laminated booklet) that the artist used in the hundreds of pointed, leveled poles in the remote desert of New Mexico had all the markings of the grandiose, but the stillness and contemplation, the openness of the grid that both contains and the wilderness, were beautiful. And despite whatever outsized ego may have produced these works or the parachuting pretensions art tourists might bring to it (myself included), I'm not one to argue with anyone's inspiration.
It was partly by accident that, after years of reading stories, I finally put all skepticism aside and drove those hundreds of miles to gaze upon and scramble through these landmarks of land art. Now that I've been, the adventure is over, reduced in some ways to an experience with a check mark next to it — all its potential realized, completed and closed.
Still, I don't feel any particular rush to see Levitated Mass. If Heizer has his way, his sculpture will still exist after the museum crumbles into dust. Unseen, the monumental sculpture is still full of potential, a legend I have yet to experience. I'll eventually get there. And I'm sure, faced with its sheer surreal mass, I too will take a picture next to it.