Today marks the release of Michael Heizer: The Once and Future Monuments, the latest book from William L. Fox, Director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art. The book—which reads one part art criticism, one part unauthorized biography—puts Heizer’s standalone work in the context of an artist’s life that has, up until now, remained largely off limits.
Research for the book began four years ago, but the seed for it was planted in 1976, when Fox saw a color photograph of Heizer’s “Complex One” in the Jan-Feb issue of Art in America.
Since then, Fox has made numerous trips to visit “Complex One” and the rest of “City”—Heizer’s rarely-seen, mile-and-a-half-long sculpture in Lincoln County. He has traveled around the world studying Heizer’s other work, fallen in and out of favor with the artist, and written extensively about his unwilling subject’s massive impact on American art.
Before leaving the country to work on his next project, Fox sat down with me to talk about Heizer’s work, influences, and writing a book that the author has compared to the experience of “pulling rusty nails out of an old board.”
You’ve known Michael for many years—as a writer, a friend, and a board member for his Triple Aught foundation. How would you describe your relationship now?
It has been a relationship that has changed over time. I think Michael knew early on that I was an admirer of his work, but also a supporter. When I worked at the Nevada Arts Council I was trying to find ways to help him, and he knew I was dead keen to do anything I could for him.
The relationship changed after I wrote The Void, the Grid, & the Sign. The first third of the book is set in Garden Valley with Michael as he’s working on “City.” He didn’t really like what I wrote because I insisted on writing about things other than simply the work itself. I really wanted to talk about who Michael was, his background, his father the anthropologist [Robert Heizer], the bearing that had on his career. … I tried to set talking with Michael in a specific situation—driving around in his truck or being at the ranch—and all of that he did not like at all. I let him go through the manuscript of that book, and I let him take out anything he did not want, and he still was not happy. I wrote about him just very briefly in my next book, PlayaWorks: The Myth of the Empty, and I sent him the manuscript out of courtesy. He called me up and he said, “I want you to take me out of the book.” I didn’t take him out of the book.
Why do you think it is that Heizer wants the focus to be solely on his art instead of his influences?
It’s not that Heizer denies influence on his work. He wants it to be clear that what he did with those influences was unique and he was the first one to do it. But he’s not denying, say, the influence of his father taking him out into the field and his father’s methods of being rigorous and scientific when approaching archaeology or rock art or anything. … He’s trying to say, “Take me out of the equation. I don’t want you to photograph it from the air, to see a film about it. I want you to come here and see it for itself.”
You know, he’s got a rock outside his studio that he’s had for decades. It’s a gravestone marker that’s been written out for him and incised into the rock are the words, “Art before life.” That’s how strongly he feels about it. If you’re really serious about what you’re doing, you’ll sacrifice your life to do it. Which basically he’s done. He broke his health over “City.” He’s made as big a sacrifice as I imagine an artist can make for the sake of his art. And he wants you to approach [it with] that level of seriousness that he has.
So yeah, you can go to “City” when it’s open someday, and you can look at it without knowing anything about it, and you’ll be amazed. And it will be wonderful and you could have a terrific experience there. But what kind of experience would you have if you could open up his father’s report from that ancient Olmec site in La Venta, Mexico and pull out the map drawn by [Robert Heizer’s] team and you could see those forms? You could see European and Mesoamerican forms in dialogue with one another at that site, in that book, which Michael told me was his bible. Is that important to know? It’s not bad to know that. I think those things are fair to be in a book.
In your book, you put Heizer in relationship with his Land Art contemporaries. Can you talk a bit about his influence within the Land Art movement?
Michael is one of the key movers of what we call “Earthworks” or “Land Art.” I hesitate calling it a movement, but there were a lot of people around the world—roughly at the same time that Michael was working—who were beginning to react to the fact that humankind’s physical footprint was pretty much all over the planet, and they wanted to have a footprint as well. It was economical because the materials were inexpensive at a time when the culture was not as wealthy as it is now.
But Michael invented a vocabulary that artists have been using ever since. He did that when he was in his early 20s in the late 1960s, early 70s, and he worked with the most important gallery owners in the world and the largest museums and the best critics and he made Land Art important in their eyes and we’ve been benefiting from that ever since. … It’s hard to overstate his importance in Land Art. You really have to accept him as being a major artist of the 20th century.
Heizer’s work could be situated in a lot of places and be successful, but you’ve written before that it really benefits from open, sparse land. Why is this?
Michael famously said that for him, place is material. He said “I could have done these works in New Jersey if the land had been affordable.” I disagree. Sure, he could have done a gesture in the land in New Jersey, but it wouldn’t have had anywhere near the same kind of impact because you wouldn’t have had the juxtaposition of something massive and constructed by hand in a “natural” landscape. Also the viewshed would be completely different.
There’s a reason Heizer was very upset by the proposal for the trains to carry nuclear waste through the valley he’s in—Garden Valley—in central Nevada on the way to Yucca Mountain. He wasn’t upset because he was afraid of being radiated. He was worried that it would spoil the experience of the sculpture [“City”]. Well, if you’re in New Jersey, there’s no place large enough where the experience wouldn’t be spoiled by a next door neighbor. In Nevada, he was able to buy a large enough piece of property and then buy some other pieces of property large enough to protect his viewshed. In Nevada he was able to help—and in some ways he was the reason—the Great Basin National Monument was founded. He’s a donut. He’s the hole in the center of that monument that protects in perpetuity how his sculpture, how “City,” will be perceived.
What inspired the title of your book?
Well, I was thinking about specifically [Heizer’s] admiration of Gutzon Borglum, the artist who created Mount Rushmore, the national monument. … Monuments are about scale. They are meant to be large enough to evoke admiration if not outright awe. They’re also supposed to be large enough that they last a long time—Mount Rushmore is a good example.
The other thing that Heizer does is he occasionally has a spiritual dimension to his work, which he approaches through awe, through basically terrorizing his viewers. A faint trace of that can be seen in his Levitated Mass in Los Angeles at LACMA. It’s an enormous rock; it’s the largest rock that’s been moved since the time of the Egyptians. And because it’s in Los Angeles, in earthquake territory, it is held in place by two enormous steel brackets—one on each side of that trench—so you walk under the rock, but also there’s this architectural element in place removing the threat.
That is that sense of, “OK, this is really big and beautiful, and it’s really scary.” That’s how he approaches the spiritual. So, size and scale are very complicated to him. They’re implicated in the idea of monument and in creating something that’s going to last a long time. That’s where the idea of that title comes from.
Going back to the spiritual aspect, Heizer is not known to be a particularly religious person, but he is interested in quasi-religious experiences. How does this come up in his work?
That’s the awe business. To experience “Double Negative”—especially in the early days when it was pretty pristine—it’s like walking into a cathedral. And I think that’s exactly what Heizer wants us to experience. Certainly walking around “City” … to be in that space, that grand a space, that large a sculpture, you’re inside this place that’s architectural and, yeah, you feel reverential.
You also talk about how Michael refers to the “spirit of the rock” and how he likes his rocks to have a less hewn characteristic to them—but “City” has so many heavily graded, smooth surfaces. Do you think it still contains some of that spirit?
That’s a great question. Look, I think we’re dealing with two categories of object, although they’re related—the big rocks and the concrete forms. Michael wants the rock to be as wild as possible and he talks about preserving the rock’s own nature—that’s the spirit of the rock. You know, he was with his father in Peru in the 1960s, and the first picture of Heizer that appears in his book, Sculpture in Reverse, is one where he’s sitting on the corner of this Incan stone—Piedra Cansada—the tired stone. The Incas had quarried it from a cliff far above the opposite side of a small river. They had slid it down to the river, gotten it across the river somehow—no one knows exactly how—and they brought it to the base of a very large hill where they were going to haul it up to the top and use it as a part of this temple. The rock had been trimmed a bit, and it had marks made in it for various purposes. And then it was just left alone. That rock had great spirit intact in it. I believe, if [Heizer’s] father was talking to his son about the nature of rocks being moved by Incas in Peru, that is part of the story of those rocks, their inner spirit. So I think it comes from that early an age, when he’s a teenager and he’s working with dad in the field. I think he understands that very clearly. I think one of the best parts of Heizer’s work is his ability to let the stone be its wild thing.
“City” is not made of rock. It’s really made of concrete and heaped up dirt. In as much as concrete has rock aggregate in it, sure, but it’s all shaped stuff. So its intent is very different. It’s a dialogue between classical European geometry—triangles and rectangles and so forth—and more organic Mesoamerican forms. Heizer, like Borglum, wants to develop a uniquely New World vocabulary for art, and he says we don’t need to rely on European norms to do that. We can actually adopt things that were developed here. So, at either end of “City”, it’s got these big geometrical European forms, and then in the middle are all of these rounded stelae and other shapes and mounds that refer to indigenous practices and also work simply as abstract sculpture at the same time.
You visited the Incan rock, right?
I did. I went to Peru to track down that rock and actually stand on top of it and sit on it and think about Heizer being there and what it must have meant to him. I also wanted to sort of think about how hard it was for Michael and his father, Robert Heizer, to visit that rock. I mean, it was a real trek to get from Lima down to that site. Now it’s slightly off the path for people going to Machu Picchu. So it’s in a part of Peru that’s an amazing site.
What were some other favorite places you got to visit for your research?
Well, you can go out on any of the playas he worked on that are identified, Jean Dry Lake for example, outside of Las Vegas. That is where Nevada Museum of Art situated Ugo Rondinone’s “Seven Magic Mountains”—with a nod and a wink to Heizer’s making “Rift”—one of the Nine Nevada Depressions—on Jean Dry Lake. And you can drive out to Jean Dry Lake and you can line up the backgrounds of the photos of [Nine Nevada Depressions] and put yourself pretty close to where it was—triangulate with a compass and see that, “Yeah, it was right about here.” You can do that on Black Rock Desert, you can do that on Smoke Creek Desert, you can do it up near Vya in the northern part of the state. The only site that I have found that actually has a physical trace remaining of his work was on the site for “Displaced/Replaced Mass” that’s out by Silver Springs. You can see where the boulders were sourced, and there are other big rocks there, and you can compare those with the fragments from the rocks he moved out that are still on the little playa out by Silver Springs. So you can see, “Oh that’s the same type of rock, and they’re rare. Diorite.” And you can still find traces of the concrete trenches and so forth and the dirt that he moved to make those trenches. So that is still there. It’s on private property for the most part. You can’t just go walking around down there but, yeah, that’s probably my favorite site because there’s actually a trace left.
You’ve described yourself before as a “certified non-specialist” and I was wondering how that may have helped—or not helped—you write this book?
When I was in college my English professor said, “We’re going to make a deal with you. We know you want to write. We know you don’t really want to be in college, you just want to write. If you stay here, here’s the deal we’ll make with you. You get one course a semester to write—and in those days I was a young poet, so they said we’ll give you a poet to work with—and you get to do that every single semester.” And, wow, what a gift that was. And they said, “There’s a price. And the price is that you have to take courses in everything from anthropology to zoology and everything in between because if you’re going to be a writer, you need to know a little about a lot of things. And I said, “Sounds like a wonderful idea.” So that’s what I did.
Most of the writers I admire are non-specialists. They’re not geologists. John McPhee has written some of the best works about geology ever written, and he’s not a geologist. … Strictly, I’m not an art critic. I don’t have a degree in art history. … So you know there’s different ways of approaching things. One goes deep, one goes wide, and I happen to be on the latter part of that equation.
I’ve almost finished a book about aerial photography over the desert Southwest, and I’m not sure if it’s going to be called “Visual Flight Rules” or if it’s going to be called “The Aerial Imperative.” But that’s about done. And now I’m off to Switzerland in a couple of days to spend a month there. It’s my research trip to write a book about the art history of the Alps.
Are you escaping to Switzerland to avoid backlash for having written this book?
There has already been communication between Michael Heizer and his representatives and my publisher about this book, making it very clear that Mr. Heizer is unimpressed that I have written this book. I don’t want to go too far into it, but I’m glad I won’t be here … when it actually appears on the shelves.
Sometimes writing a book is like eating a cake, it’s just so much fun and you can’t wait to get to the next layer. … This book has been like pulling rusty nails out of an old board. It’s been much more difficult.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Michael Heizer: Once and Future Monuments is available here or at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno.