Artists Retrospective

‘There’s No Understanding of My Work’: Michael Heizer on His Monumental Art, in 1977

Michael Heizer, Altar 2 installation view, 2015, weathering steel, coated with polyurethane. ©THE ARTIST/PHOTOGRAPHER: ROBERT MCKEEVER/COURTESY GAGOSIAN GALLERY

Michael Heizer, Altar 2 (installation view), 2015, weathering steel, coated with polyurethane.


Michael Heizer is known for a body of work that relies on the beauty of his natural materials (rocks, dirt, land itself) and that often verges on near-comical grandiosity with its size and themes. With his latest show, “Altars,” at Gagosian Gallery, in New York, Heizer continues to think big with three new steel works and several older ones that make use of 18-ton igneous rocks. In honor of the Gagosian show, we turn back to the December 1977 issue of ARTnews, in which John Gruen spoke to Heizer about his ambitious projects, notably Complex I, a massive construction in the Nevada desert, part of his ongoing City piece, which he began working on in 1972. Featuring the artist discussing such topics as his sex life and why he dislikes Christo’s art, Gruen’s profile of Heizer follows in full below. —Alex Greenberger

“Michael Heizer: ‘You might say I’m in the construction business'”
By John Gruen

Renouncing the ‘delicate world of the studio,’ Heizer has spent a decade making monumental projects in the desert, but he does not consider himself an ‘earthworks artist’

For all his genuine sophistication and acute sensitivity, Michael Heizer affects the parlance and mien of the tight-lipped, diffident man of the plains—the brooding, good-looking cowboy of Marlboro Country. Indeed, the 33-year-old artist, best known for his visionary desert structures, Double Negative, Complex I and Displaced/Replaced Mass, seems entirely constrained and uncomfortable within the urban setting of an elegant East Side gallery, even when that gallery—Xavier Fourcade, Inc.—happens to be where he exhibits.

There is no question that Heizer’s career is in ascendance. Since 1967, his work has appeared in major galleries and museums throughout the United States and Europe. He is represented in important private and public collections, and he has received highly-paid commissions from individuals and cities on both sides of the Atlantic. Often the subject of controversy, Heizer’s objectives are unhindered by the public opinion. His aim is simply to forge ahead, creating an art that he considers valuable to society, and following a vision that nothing and no one can alter and deter.

The fact is that Heizer, who was in New York not long ago to supervise his Fourcade show of seven sculptures based on the circle, is happiest when recklessly driving a big-wheel open truck across the Nevada desert, racing toward his Complex I which rises like an ancient and atavistic pyramid on a high plateau in the vast and endless desert space. There, between 1972 and 1976, Heizer and his hired workmen shared a hazardous and solitary life, erecting an earth and concrete structure that, for all intents and purposes, had no significance other than its own miragelike presence.

Heizer was no less active in 1969, when he created Double Negative, a 1,100-by-42-by-30-foot work located at Virgin River Mesa, Nevada, where he and his crew gouged and carved 240,000 tons of rock out of facing cliffs to form two mammoth vertical trenches. The site is so huge that it can only be seen in its entirety by helicopter or plane. Again, its meaning and raison d’être is its own existence—nothing more and nothing less. More recently, Heizer created Adjacent, Against, Upon, six massive concrete and granite geometric forms commissioned for the city of Seattle. This piece, placed within an urban environment (in a mile-long park facing the Port of Seattle), is among Heizer’s works designed expressly for public consumption.

But within the context of so-called earthworks as practiced by artists such as Heizer, Walter de Maria and the late Robert Smithson, the sensibility at work is one which most trenchantly eschews the taken-for-granted confines of art—museums, galleries, the home or the city—perceiving it instead as an extension of nature itself. In point of fact, almost no one journeys to the Nevada desert to view Heizer’s Complex I and Double Negative or to de Maria’s Las Vegas Piece or Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake. The documentation of such art works—photographs, films or the written word—often becomes their chief means of access and proof of existence.

By now, art critics have expressed endless thoughts and ideas on the social, cultural, intellectual, and artistic significance of earthworks, attempting to find a philosophy and ethos that would explain these artists’ epic and mystifying activity. For Heizer, the language of such art criticism often obscures the work itself, and he considers much that has been written about him confusing and unenlightened.

Suspicious of interviews, the artist resisted talking to someone who might yet again misinterpret his feelings and concepts. Still, he agreed to have a talk at the gallery.

“You’ll probably think I’m putting you on,” he said. “I mean, a lot of people have thought that. I feel I have a very bad reputation on that score. What bothers me is that no one really wants to know what I’m doing. I feel that most of the art magazines are just filled with a lot of incomprehensible verbiage. There’s no understanding of my work.”

“What people don’t seem to realize is that I’m interested in the issues of art. Frankly, I’m tired of having my scene slowed down by people who don’t get what I’m doing. I’m working, but they’re not working. That’s very upsetting. Look, I don’t think of myself as an artist who’s running around expressing himself. I feel I’m performing a function for society. I think my work is important. Curators of museums are negligent. There are exceptions, of course, but most of them aren’t really doing anything . . . anything that’s important.”

Michael Heizer, Potato Chip, 2015, 18-ton granite rock in steel frame. ©THE ARTIST/PHOTOGRAPH: ROBERT MCKEEVER/COURTESY GAGOSIAN GALLERY

Michael Heizer, Potato Chip, 2015, 18-ton granite rock in steel frame.


Speaking quietly, haltingly and in something of a monotone, Heizer was referring to his monumental landscape projects, those works with their archeological, anthropological and ecological overtones resist easy codification. Dealing, as he put it, in the history of materiality, Heizer seems to look beyond the mere act of creation.

“The work I’m doing out in the deserts has to be done, and somebody has got to do it. Where in hell are all these artists? I mean, we live in an age of obligation. We live in an age of the 747 aircraft, the moon rocket—objects that are constructed by man that range from the most minuscule complex electronic dial to airplanes that have wings weighing 45 tons on them. So, you must make a certain type of art. Of course, there are limits. If you take your work too far, you end up with entertainment.”

“Basically, what I’m saying is that the European option is closed. The European tradition has to be honored, but that area is finished—it’s over with. The kind of art I’m involved with hasn’t really been done before. What I mean is, it’s the kind of art that was originally Indian art, then it was Pilgrim art—art by all those various visitors. That’s the tradition I’m interested in—the tradition of regionalism. That’s essentially what I try to do.”

Heizer does not consider himself an earthworks artist. Indeed, he refused to align himself with those artists with whom he is generally lumped together by writers and critics of the movement.

“My work is fully independent of anybody else’s, and comes directly out of myself. But during the ’60s there was this crazy phenomenon. I mean, Walter de Maria was thinking about that stuff. He had written a piece for Fluxus, and he made some drawings and so went into it. Smithson went into it. I guess Morris did too. It just came from everywhere. Claes Oldenburg was doing it and Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt. But whatever I was doing, I was doing it first. And whatever I was wishing, I was doing it myself. My area hasn’t changed at all, and this will become evident later. There will be no change. Other people’s work probably won’t change either, but distinctions will be more evident. At any rate, I don’t consider myself an earthworks artist. I never was. Look, in a lot of my work I use steel liners. They have nothing to do with earthworks.”

Heizer, a native of Berkeley, California, is the son of Robert Heizer, a distinguished archeologist currently teaching at the University of California. An expert in the study of the methods by which Pre-Columbian peoples moved huge stone blocks without the benefit of the wheel, Professor Heizer clearly fired his son’s imagination and sparked his interest in archeology. The two have made expeditions to Egypt and the Yucatan, exploring Egyptian architecture and the ancient ruins of Mayan civilizations. By his own admission, Heizer’s childhood was nothing if not fantastic.

“Ever since I was an infant, I drew all the time. I did millions of drawings and they were pretty good. When I turned 14, I traveled to Paris just to look art. I lived in Paris for a year. I saw everything—went to all the museums. That’s my background. I saw it all firsthand. The fact is, you can’t go to school and learn about art by looking at a bunch of slides projected on a wall. Anyway, I was lucky and I’m not apologizing for my luck or my background. Later, I went to San Francisco and worked at the Art Institute. Well, I didn’t go for it. I didn’t like the school idea—the programs, the courses, the studies—b.s. like that. The teachers there understood, and guys like Bob Hudson and Jim Weeks encouraged me to work alone in a studio—they said they’d come and look at my stuff there. I painted big geometric things.

“Finally, I got fed up with San Francisco. There just wasn’t any art to look at. And people like to drink a lot and have a good time. No one worked. People were screwed up, and there was no art. So, I came to New York. That was in 1965. I continued to paint and nobody wanted to look at the stuff. I didn’t sell anything for years. I mean, the paintings my dealer Xavier Fourcade sold three or four years ago were around for ten years. Anyway, I lived in New York and I had no money and I wouldn’t go to work either, because I was an artist. Finally, I had to break down. I couldn’t stand the poverty. I started spraying buildings for slumlords. I did it to pay off debts. I also met Dick Bellamy, and he started to sell a drawing or two. Then, in 1968, I started working with Heiner Friedrich in Munich. He was the very first to give me some money for my work. But the guy who really helped me was Bob Scull.”

From the first, Robert C. Scull, the well-known art collector, took a deep interest in Heizer’s work, and was particularly intrigued by the artist’s ideas on a landscape art that involved massive excavations—works Heizer called “Depressions” or “Mass Displacements.” Scull commissioned several such undertakings and continues to do so to this day.

“Bob Scull means a lot to me. He made my work interesting, because I had an audience with this guy. He liked the stuff I was doing. Back in 1969, he came out to the desert and looked at it, and flipped out. He gave me money. But it was strictly business. I mean, he bought stuff and he commissioned things. He started small, and it got bigger in the last few years. Just recently, we moved some huge rocks from northern to southern California, and it cost a bundle. I’ve known Bob for over ten years now. I spent a lot of time with him and I like him. He’s one of the few people who is really into it. He knows what’s going on. He sniffs out all these shows. He goes all over. He’s one of the few pros on the scene.”

How does Heizer actually begin a work of marathon proportion requiring months and even years to complete? And what explanation does he give to hired workmen who may question the aim and purpose of their back-breaking labor? How, in fact, does Heizer himself oversee and work on so vast a project as, say, Complex I?

Michael Heizer, Altar 3 installation view, 2015, weathering steel, coated with polyurethane. ©THE ARTIST/PHOTOGRAPH: ROBERT MCKEEVER/COURTESY GAGOSIAN GALLERY

Michael Heizer, Altar 3 (installation view), 2015, weathering steel, coated with polyurethane.


“Well, you might say I’m in the construction business. To begin with, I have a tremendous real estate file on every available piece of property in six western states. I look for climate and material in the ground. When I find the right spot, I buy it. I chose where to work in Nevada after a three-year survey, which cost some $30 or $40,000. But it wasn’t just buying real estate. I was buying gravel, clay, rock, water drainage. I was buying temperature that guaranteed a certain number of months during which I could work. I was buying isolation. When I start working, we have a pretty closed operation. The word is we don’t want people out there, because we have liability. We have blasting, and we don’t have time to have guests.

“My work in Nevada is on my property. I bought it, and I control it. If I choose to, I will give it to the U.S. government. Or I might give it to some other government. Or I might keep it, and give it to my family. It will never be misused. There’s only one other sculpture in Nevada, and that belongs to Virginia Dwan, who commissioned it.

“As for the workers: Of course, if I showed up like a prototypical artist, with long hair and sandals, and if I set myself up with an easel in the desert, I’d probably get a fast haircut and a beer bottle in my mouth. It all depends on what kind of artist you are. When I told the workers that I was an artist, they understood right away, and that’s because I’m just like those people. So we get along. And I never give them puny tasks. We all work hard and they have their hands full. They respect that. Some of them may have thought that art was indolence. Well, believe me, they know better now. That part of Nevada is now educated to the fact that art isn’t indolence. In fact, the general manager of the company we have out there went and gave a talk to the high school kids of the local town. He told those kids, ‘Look, this is what it is.’ And he showed them what we were doing. So now, kids are hearing about art, and they dig up books on Picasso and other artists, and look at the pictures. They’re getting interested.”

Asked how kids (or anyone else for that matter), should relate to his work, Heizer was quick to reply: “You don’t have to relate to it. It’s not a requirement. All you have to do is just be there. It doesn’t matter what you think when you see it. The point is, it’s work of an artist. I’m an artist. That’s my business. That’s what I do all the time. So, what you’re looking at is a work of art. You’ve got to understand that a lot of my thinking is based on preliterate societies. I’m very conscious of the preliterate tradition. So, when you talk about relating to my work . . . well, how do you relate to Maya or Egyptian pyramids?”

Clearly, Heizer’s view on art is fairly cosmic, and, to a certain extent, grim. He holds little in the way of hope for the permanence of art as we know it.

“When that final blast comes, a work like Complex I will be your artifact. It’s going to be your art, because it’s designed to last. It will stick and it’s accurate and it’s going to represent you. Complex I is designed to deflect enormous heat and enormous shock. It’s very much about the atomic age. It won’t burn up. Look, I’m not out to entertain. So much damn art is about that! You mentioned Christo to me—his [Valley] Curtain and the other stuff he does. Well, I dismiss it instantly. I think it’s fatuous, capricious. I think it’s entertainment. If it has a sculptural aspect to it, well, so did Diaghliev’s sets . . . something beautiful, you know. Actually, a set is more permanent. It can be placed in storage. It can be duplicated. But that other stuff . . . I don’t even want to think about it. I write it off.”

Heizer’s words became less audible as he spoke in genuine anger of an art he deemed perishable, fashionable and designed to please. And yet, the artist has produced a large body of work—paintings, drawings and sculpture—that is a study in elegance and craftsmanship. While these works may be distantly related to the artist’s large-scale outdoor projects, they decidedly represent an unrugged and entirely sophisticated aspect of his creative imagination.

Indeed, a duality and a sense of ambiguity seems to hover about Heizer, both as artist and private person. Asked if he cared to comment on his private life, he became visibly edgy. “My life is private, and I don’t want people to know anything about it. Actually, there’s nothing interesting about my private life.” Told that no one wished to pry into his sex life, Heizer grinned and said, “Well, that’s the most interesting part of it.” Does he read: “I read all the time, mostly periodicals and newspapers. Occasionally I’ll read a book. I’ve just read the Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn. He’s a real historian.”

Xavier Fourcade, Heizer’s dealer, was equally noncommital about the artist. He would only say that Heizer maintained residences in Nevada and in New York. He added that he did not know whether Heizer was married or not.

Basically, Michael Heizer’s life is about work. “Look, all that personal stuff is beside the point. What’s important is that I have a lot of work ahead of me. I’ve got so much backup work! It’s work that has never been built. I’ve got projects that will take my lifetime to build—stuff I thought of by the time I was 23 years old. Well, I’m determined to finish all of these works before I die. I’m not interested in the kind of work that’s being done in the delicate world of the studio or seen in the quiet atmosphere of museums. That’s not where my head is. What I’m after is investigation and exploration. It’s not about leaving remnants or making something that’s beautiful!”

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