The Book on Michael Heizer
If you don't know who Michael Heizer is, why he's hot property among the international art elite, and why Nevada deserts are his exhibition space, then you need to read William L. Fox's Michael Heizer: The Once and Future Monuments. The cantankerous artistic genius has met his match in Fox, who understands Heizer's artwork better than anyone, partly because Fox, like Heizer, is Nevadan. This is deep-state stuff, in the literal sense of the term: Nevada playas, Nevada vistas, Nevada's native cultures, Nevada's dirt, rock, and stone. You can't just helicopter in and get it — you have to live, breathe, and walk it. Fox explains the double-play: how Nevada landscape shapes Heizer, and how Heizer shapes Nevada.
The founding director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, Fox wields considerable intellectual capital. History, land use, art criticism, architecture, archeology, anthropology: Fox's knowledge is poetic, graceful, and comes in easy-to-read prose. While discussion of Heizer's art usually exalts monumentality — wow! the biggest artworks ever made! — Fox teases out Heizer's intimate connections to Nevada, to rock and dirt, and to his dad, Robert Heizer, a renowned archeologist whose expertise included how ancient peoples sculpted and moved stone tonnage.
The book is loosely organized around Heizer's accomplishments. Born in 1944, Heizer came of age when artists were rethinking their materials, swapping paintbrushes for backhoes and canvas for acreage. In an artistic first, Heizer used a motorcycle to "draw" on Jean Dry Lake, works too big to be fully experienced on the ground and documented by aerial photographs. He also pioneered "negative sculpture" — forms made by digging below the earth's surface, often in Nevada. Heizer's 1969 "Double Negative," a Land Art diva located near Overton, ruts a "negative" across a valley and is as long as the Empire State Building is tall. Levitated Mass — which shattered audience records at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — features a 340-ton boulder suspended over a svelte trench. But the artist's chef d'oeuvre is City.
Begun in 1972, Heizer's as yet unfinished City — located in Garden Valley — is perhaps the largest sculpture ever built, roughly the same footprint as Washington, D.C.'s National Mall. Combining geometric and organic forms in monumental "complexes," City is an immersive artistic environment and a logical extension of Heizer's mission to invoke awe in the viewer through superhuman scale. While Fox deftly defends City against eco-critics, elucidates parallels with military and commercial land use, and analyzes its sublime impact on viewers, he leaves the thorny issue of elitism untouched. Made in Nevada by Nevadans (Heizer's family roots reach back to the 1880s) and imbued with Nevada's physical and historical context, City is as off-limits as its neighbor, Area 51. Plans to open to the public are secretive works-in-progress. Few Nevadans may ever have the opportunity to experience City in person, while cliques of art-world elite continue to enjoy access — a situation worthy of closer scrutiny, particularly in an era prickly about privilege.
During a decades-long relationship, Fox and Heizer had a falling out over inclusion of biographical material in Fox's writing. Heizer — also famous for totalitarian brand control — wants art to speak for itself, effectively censuring, say, the influence of his archeological study and his father on art thoroughly marked by both archeological study and his father. But until computers take over, artists' actual lives — their personalities, emotions, perceptions, and experience — inform their art arguably as much as theory, intent, and materials. Biographical insights are particularly important when attracting new generations to the work, and in this regard, Fox has done Heizer a major service. Michael Heizer: Once and Future Monuments is the most informed, comprehensive book on the man and his art to date, an awe-inspiring monument in its own right.
Michael Heizer: The Once and Future Monuments, by William L. Fox, The Monacelli Press (New York) 2019