Michael Heizer: From Archaeology to Land Art

book cover
Michael Heizer: The Once and Future Monuments / The Monacelli Press

As a pioneer of the land art movement, Michael Heizer is responsible for some of its most famous and impactful works, including Double Negative and City. And yet even by the standards of an artist, Heizer is seen as obsessive, reclusive, and contradictory. He has, throughout his life, fought attempts to frame or analyze his work by anyone other than himself. This underscores the significance of writer William L. Fox’s new book, Michael Heizer: Once and Future Monuments, which contextualizes Heizer’s work and investigates his influences.

Heizer has a unique relationship to his influences. He cops to some but not others, often insisting on his intellectual independence. “My work…comes directly out of myself.” Fox’s central argument is not only that archaeology (Heizer’s father Robert was a renowned archaeologist) and the work of peers such as Robert Smithson and Walter de Maria strongly informed Heizer’s work, but that exploring these influences is a worthwhile endeavor that adds interest to Heizer’s art.

Double Negative by Michael Heizer / Wikipedia

Fox, who is also director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art, draws on significant primary source material to support this exploration: namely, the files of Heizer’s close friend and project manager Guido Robert Deiro, made available to Fox through a donation to the museum. These files, which include correspondence, drawings, and hundreds of photographs compiled over the course of three decades, unlock new insights into Heizer and his singular vision.

Perhaps it goes without saying that Heizer did not give this book his blessing. His lack of input in what could be the definite text on his life and work ends up leaving a Heizer-sized void in the book. One senses this absence most acutely when comparing the book to Dana Goodyear’s 2016 New Yorker feature on Heizer. That article, which follows the artist in New York and visits him in Nevada, is saturated with his charm and off-color humor.

Fox’s erudition and keen insight is the Future Monument‘s draw. Fox knew and collaborated with Heizer for a time between the late 80’s and early 2000’s. The questions that drive the book’s narrative seem to have first emerged during that period. For instance, what was the extent to which Robert Heizer influenced his son, beyond instilling an intellectual passion for archaeology? It turns out many of Heizer’s more pronounced traits, including his obsessiveness and surliness, could be found in both his father and grandfather.

Fox takes these and other insights, gathered from personal conversations, interviews, and additional sources, and weaves them seamlessly with archaeological research, history, and art journalism to craft a cohesive text. Pocketing the text are interview transcripts with Deiro, who provides fascinating anecdotes of time spent with Heizer as well as details some of the technical and political efforts that went in to Heizer’s works.

Through Future Monuments, those works can be seen in a larger context. Levitated Mass, situated on pedestals at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is what Fox considers Heizer’s most recognizable work. And its success partially relies on an imposition of size and material one usually associates with ancient monuments. City, a massive installation out in the desert of Nevada, has a cultivated sophistication and theatricality to its layout, the origins of which one could trace to the built environment of the Incas.

levitated mass - Eden, Janine and Jim
Levitated Mass / Flickr user Eden, Janine and Jim, CC
City by Michael Heizer / Google Earth

Through the exploration of Heizer’s influences and biography, we may find new meaning in his work. For what it’s worth, Fox, who is an admirer of Heizer, describes him as “stronger on method than theory.” You’re free to interpret Heizer’s work as you will, but it’s worth considering if the true significance of, say, City, lies in the sheer act of it.

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