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Michael Heizer completes his colossal life’s work


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For the New Yorker, Dana Goodyear writes a profile on Michael Heizer and his quest to finish “City,” a decades-in-the-making work of land art. Heizer, now in his 70’s, has been living in Soho and has seemingly developed a cartoonish “cowboy in the city” persona. Read Goodyear in partial below, in full via the New Yorker.

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.

“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.”

Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, says, “ ‘City’ is one of the most important works of art to have been made in the past century. Its scale and ambition and resolution are simply astonishing.” Its unseen status has made the place almost mythic—it’s art-as-rumor, people say—and has turned the artist, who became known for chasing off unwanted visitors and yanking film out of cameras, into a legend, or a “Scooby Doo” villain. Heizer says that he simply does not want his sculpture judged before it’s finished.

After decades of torment—“When’s it gonna be done, Mike?”—the piece is nearly complete. Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, says that the site, which lacma will help to administer, will admit its first visitors from the general public in 2020. Govan, who has been raising money for “City” for twenty years, sees it as one of our civilization’s greatest achievements. “Mike started the idea that you can go out in this landscape and make work that is sublime,” he says. “There is nothing more powerful, romantic, and American than these gestures that in Mike’s case have taken his whole life.”

For Heizer, urgency, suffering, drama, and hazard are requisite conditions for making art. “My work, if it’s good, it’s gotta be about risk,” he says. “If it isn’t, it’s got no flavor. No salt in it.” He produced his first significant pieces—burials, dispersals, pits, motorcycle drawings in a dry lake bed—in the shadow of the Vietnam War, after being summoned before the draft board and narrowly avoiding service. “Thinking you’re going to die makes you get radical in a hurry,” he says. In “City,” Heizer gave himself a near-impossible task in a forbiddingly isolated place with no obvious means of support. Physical danger was inevitable. “My rib cage is blown out,” he said. “My feet don’t work. Every bone in me is torqued and twisted.” Since the mid-nineties, he has been afflicted with severe chronic neural and respiratory problems, likely stemming from exposures during the sculpture’s construction; treating the pain led to a morphine addiction, which he hid for years. “Then I did all this shit to my brain,” he went on. “Burned twice and almost dead. Crashed bikes. I’m surprised I’m still alive—I bet everyone is.” “City” ruined him, he says—destroyed his personal life, his health, and his finances—but he is determined to finish it if he can.

Two years ago, Mary Shanahan, Heizer’s wife of fifteen years, and for a decade before that his studio assistant, collaborator, and companion, left him. He is baffled by this loss, and can only guess why it happened. “Me and my goddam art and everyone talking about me, me, me—just overpowered her, wrecked her,” he says. The ranch declined—Shanahan had taken care of the cattle—and so did Heizer. He stopped eating, and was down to an emaciated hundred and six pounds. “Winter came, I couldn’t breathe, I was broke, I was gut-shot, probably the best thing would have been just to off myself, though I’m not suicidal at all,” he told me.

With the help of Govan and Vander Weg, Heizer left the desert for New York, bringing his favorite border collie, Tomato Rose. Now he feels like Sleeping Beauty, awakened from a needle dream. At first, he says, “my brains were gone. I couldn’t hail a cab. I got an iPhone—I’d never seen one. They’re bringing me into the modern world slowly, a step at a time. I’m pretty primitive. I got a long way to go.” The biggest surprise has been to discover that he isn’t the pariah he believed himself to be. “I pissed off everybody and insulted everybody,” he told me. “I got ’em all. And nobody likes me, or they didn’t. Now everybody likes me, now I’m accepted. Which is hilarious to come back and find out that I’m O.K.”

*Image: 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