In the mid-1960s, during the same period that Michael Heizer was making large-scale, shaped, "negative" paintings in his New York City studio, he began a series of trips to his home states of Nevada and California to experiment on the expansive raw canvas of the American desert landscape, where he created "negative" sculpture. The genre that he and his colleague Walter De Maria invented there—later dubbed "Earth art" or "Land art"—changed the course of modern art history. Working largely outside the confines of the gallery and the museum, Heizer went on to redefine sculpture in terms of scale, mass, gesture, and process, creating a virtual lexicon of three-dimensional form.
Heizer's Double Negative (1969) comprises two giant rectangular cuts (and the space in between them) in the irregular cliff edges of a tall desert mesa near Overton, Nevada. This monumental piece is iconic of the period and of works made in and of the landscape, as are Robert Smithson's later Spiral Jetty (1970), in Utah, and De Maria's The Lightning Field (1977), in New Mexico. Facing each other in the cliffs on either side of a wide cleft in the mesa, the cuts define rectilinear spaces from which bulldozers have removed the sandstone strata and rock. These spaces, which would roughly absorb the Empire State Building lying on its side, might as aptly be compared to the large-scale feats of modern engineering, or to the monumental earthen architecture of ancient times, as to sculpture. Thus, Heizer's work constitutes a challenge to sculpture's long history.
Although the "sculptural volume" of Double Negative was created by a massive movement of earth, performed with the help of heavy machinery, it isn't physical at all. Instead it is made literally of nothing, of negative space: the volume that traditionally defines a sculpture is described in these works by a void, by absence rather than presence. The first such "negative" form in Heizer's work was North, East, South, West, which the artist produced in wood and sheet metal in 1967, putting two of the four elements, North and South, in the ground in the Sierra Nevada in California. The work has now been constructed in its entirety as a permanent feature of Dia's museum in Beacon, in the size and material (weathering steel) that Heizer originally specified for it. These four diverse sculptural elements— two stacked cubic forms, one larger and one smaller (North); a cone (South); a triangular trough (West); and an inverted truncated cone (East)—together measure more than 125 feet in length, and sink from the floor of the gallery to a depth of 20 feet. When the work was first developed, such dimensions had no precedent in the art of recent times.
Heizer prefers the term size to scale in descriptions of his work, in part to emphasize the factual and visual implications of the actual distance traversed by the eye or on foot in viewing it. The sheer physical dimensions of North, East, South, West, and its physical integration into, or displacement of, the fabric of the Dia building, force an entirely different viewing experience from that of traditional sculpture in the round, an experience that is a function less of movement to allow multiple viewpoints than of the extended journey in time and space required to comprehend it. And the fact that the sculpture literally displaces the floor on which the visitor walks creates a sense of potential physical danger that further challenges the viewing experience.
The architectural scale and construction of Heizer's work, particularly Double Negative and City, begun in 1970 and still under construction in Nevada, often call forth comparisons to the megalithic monuments of ancient cultures. The son of an anthropologist, Heizer acknowledges numerous ancient sources for some of his forms but sees the comparison as more apt in the realm of effect than of specific reference:
It is interesting to build a sculpture that attempts to create an atmosphere of awe. Small works are said to do this but it is not my experience. Immense, architecturally sized sculpture creates both the object and the atmosphere. Awe is a state of mind equivalent to religious experience, I think if people feel commitment they feel something has been transcended. . . . I think that large sculptures produced in the '60s and '70s by a number of artists were reminiscent of the time when societies were committed to the construction of massive, significant works of art.1
The simplified, monumental geometric forms of North, East, South, West also share affinities with futuristic Constructivist sculpture and modernist architecture. In sum, the piece suggests the underlying Euclidean lexicon of basic three-dimensional forms—box, cone, and wedge—essential for all sculpture, ancient and modern. Going more deeply still, the forms suggest the molecular crystalline morphology from which all physical shapes in matter are derived.2
The emphasis on elemental vocabularies of form and gesture is key to Heizer's work. His most massive single (positive) sculptural shape, 45°, 90°, 180°/Geometric Extraction, is a focal point of his ongoing City project; he also created a slightly smaller version (made of industrial corrugated cardboard) of it for an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 1984. The work comprises eighteen diverse geometric forms, but its title refers to its feature elements, three rectangular blocks respectively placed at a forty-five-degree angle, vertically, and horizontally. Set on a rectangular plaza, the forms are separate volumes cut from a single triangular monolith that was itself a by-product of a drilling plan that Heizer originally developed for the removal of masses of stone block from a cliff for a vertical sculpture. As in Dragged Mass (1971), which is the result of earth displaced by literally dragging a massive thirty-ton block of stone over the ground, Heizer's "forms" are sometimes less designs than the results of a practical physical process.
Another outdoor work, Adjacent, Against, Upon (1976), comprises three poured-concrete geometric shapes, each so paired with a comparably huge natural rock as to enumerate the possible relation ships between a movable object and a fixed one: as the title describes, one rock is adjacent to, one is against, and one stands upon its concrete counterpart.3 The title 45°, 90°, 180° describes another essential axiom of three-dimensional potential: any object can stand, lean, or lie in relationship to a horizontal and a vertical plane. Similarly, the title North, East, South, West— defining the cardinal points of the compass as well as describing in total the 360° plane of the floor or ground—suggests a primary set of conditions that rest at the core of more complex variations.
Described like this by the artist himself in his titles, Heizer's work can seem less art than a collection of data or a list of fundamental laws of sculpture. Yet, to the contrary, these matter-of-fact titles only partially account for the experiential effects of each sculpture, because the translation of any abstract principle into actual form in time and space involves countless formal decisions. Even the most minimal artistic intentions, then, are infused with the unique perspective and biases of the artist and of the culture within which the work is made. The "minimal" shapes in Heizer's sculpture abound with references to the objects and architectures of ancient cultures, to the language of sculpture, and even to the underlying crystalline morphology defining all shapes. But what lies at the core of Heizer's art is his extreme reduction of such myriad specific sources.
Ancient sculpture may have specific commemorative or religious meaning to convey, but for Heizer it generates its sense of awe through its intense "commitment" to making an "architecturally sized" work that becomes "both the object and the atmosphere." Those issues of commitment and scale can equally be embodied in the contemporary artist's intense and self-reflexive process of abstraction—even negation— with the same overall results.
1. Michael Heizer, in an interview with Julia Brown, in Brown, ed., Michael Heizer: Sculpture in Reverse (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), p. 33.
2. On crystalline morphology, Heizer references James D. Dana, Manual of Mineralogy and Petrography (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1889).
3. The two materials, concrete and natural rock, are also contrasted by their different crystalline morphology.