The trip to Michael Heizer’s City begins in a city: Las Vegas, city of neon and glass, concrete and gravel. I cannot think about City without reference to its nearest desert metropolis, where water and social safety nets are in short supply. Most visitors to City will begin here. But to experience Land art is not simply to show up at a destination. It is a journey, a series of encounters with different landscapes and the systems that operate in and around them.
City has been on my mind since the early 2000s and my first visit to Heizer’s Double Negative (1969) for a Land art seminar I taught at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. To experience that work, a visitor descends into deep notches blasted from a mesa about 60 miles northeast of Las Vegas, passing between ragged sandstone walls to emerge from the cut and take in sweeping views of the Virgin River Valley. Anyone can visit Double Negative, of which Heizer has said, “There is nothing there, yet it is still a sculpture.”
City, on the other hand, is not “nothing”: it is an environment of monumental sculptures that measures 1 ¾ miles in length and ½ mile across, roughly the size of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The project commenced in 1972 and, 50 years later, opened to the public this past September. Yet City is not public art: Heizer’s Triple Aught Foundation calls it “a private sculpture,” and access is extremely limited. Visitors are capped at six daily, with advance reservations scheduled through the Foundation. I was able to visit as a writer for Art in America, and I invited my friend Catherine Borg, an artist whose videos and installations have addressed the transitory nature of cities, particularly Las Vegas.
Our first destination was the tiny unincorporated town of Alamo, where the Triple Aught Foundation is based.Headed northeast on Interstate 15 toward Salt Lake City, subdivisions end in cul-de-sacs that touch the desert. Sprawling enterprises abound on the city’s periphery: food-service wholesalers, Amazon warehouses, the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. About 20 miles outside Vegas, we turned onto the Great Basin Freeway (Route 93) and headed north alongside the MGM Resorts’ Mega Solar Array, a 100-megawatt solar farm that powers 13 of the Vegas Strip’s largest casinos. Past that, it is simply desert for 30 miles before reaching the Coyote Springs Golf Club, a tract of manicured grass and palm trees set against a backdrop of dusty mountains. Adjacent land has recently been graded in preparation for a vast housing development currently embroiled in litigation over water rights. We had left the city, but infrastructure, entertainment, and unsustainable development extend far beyond.
Past the lakes of the Pahranagat Wildlife Refuge—critical habitat for migrating birds as well as mule deer and mountain lions—we turned onto Broadway Street into Alamo and pulled up to an unmarked storefront. Ed Higbee, a fifth-generation Alamo resident and former Lincoln County Commissioner who first got to know Heizer as a fellow cattle rancher, introduced himself as our driver and guide. We hopped into his white Chevy Tahoe along with a journalist from New York who said his usual beat is Wall Street and headed north on the Great Basin Highway. Higbee explained seasonal cycles of pasturing and putting cattle out to winter range to graze public lands of the Bureau of Land Management, pointing to ranches and the locations of underground springs that irrigate alfalfa fields. We headed north on Route 318 at the juncture of Route 375, better known as the Extraterrestrial Highway, the Nevada Tourism Commission’s nod to the lore around UFOs spotted by travelers on the route. After several miles we turned onto a gravel road with a sign and informational kiosk for the Basin and Range National Monument.
City is sited on private property within the Monument, and both occupy unceded lands of the Southern Paiute and Western Shoshone people. President Barack Obama established the Basin and Range National Monument in 2015 with the involvement of Nevada senator Harry Reid and the advocacy of Heizer’s supporters, including current Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan. A Presidential Proclamation identifies concentrations of Southern Paiute and Western Shoshone rock art as well as City as rationales for the area’s monument status, describing the latter as “one of the most ambitious examples of the distinctively American land art movement.” There was also an element of realpolitik: the establishment of the Monument halted a controversial plan to transport nuclear waste by rail to geological deep storage at Yucca Mountain, on the Nevada Test Site. (The rail line would have passed through Garden Valley about eight miles from City; in 2005, Heizer threatened to dynamite his work if the railroad was built.)
The Basin and Range National Monument has no paved roads, and the last leg of our drive, through Coal Valley to Garden Valley, might have taken an hour, though time did not quite feel linear in such a vast expanse. We drove slowly, with Higbee worried about puncturing a tire on the sharp rocks. Staring up at the sky, what I thought were a pair of large black birds flying overhead all of the sudden turned into two F-16 fighter jets aligned over the road, swooping down toward us. Just as suddenly they arced back up, breaking the sound barrier with a sonic boom that echoed throughout the valley. We were shaken, but Higbee remained cool. The F-16s, from the nearby Nellis Air Force Range, were “practicing their lineups on us,” he explained. “But they held their fire.”
After we traversed a water gap through the Golden Gate Range into Garden Valley, a cottonwood grove on Heizer’s ranch came into view. Next to it, City appeared as a low, dark line. I was surprised by how horizontal it seemed from a distance. Higbee started to speak but stopped himself. He had been given instructions: don’t tell visitors what to expect at City, just assure them that they will return safely. We went on to cross a cattle grate and pulled up to a gravel berm on City’s perimeter. It was 3 p.m., and we were told to remember where we entered and return in time to leave before sunset, a little more than three hours later. If we got lost, Higbee would find us.
HIGBEE DID SAY ONE THING about City before we separated, in reference to Heizer: “What he takes from here, he puts there.” The first feature we encountered was a vast gravel depression and adjacent mound—a displacement. This method has been a constant for Heizer, who has in the past dragged granite boulders from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to trenches in a dry lake bed for Displaced/Replaced Mass (1969); placed slabs of granite quarried in the Cascade Mountains on the Seattle waterfront for Adjacent/Against/Upon (1976); and transported Great Basin rock into Manhattan gallery spaces.
We were left at the edge of City without a map or any rational understanding of the work as a whole. We wandered inside, gravel crunching loudly underfoot. We whispered, as normal speaking voices seemed too loud in the intense quiet of the desert. I could hear myself swallow and my ears ring. Not sure how to begin, we moved reflexively toward something organic, a garden-like area of desert floor that Heizer has left untouched. We crushed sage and rabbitbrush between our fingers and breathed the herbal perfume. (Higbee had told us before of a saying painted on the wall of a local Alamo school: “If you have never smelled Nevada sagebrush after the rain, you have lived only half your life—and that half in vain.”)
City makes a void of the desert. We were surrounded by monotone hues of gray and brown and an intense silence that can only be heard far off the grid. This initially felt like a kind of sensory deprivation, but as we adjusted, we began to perceive an abundance of stimuli. We noticed ambient sounds of wind and insects, and City came into focus as a complex visual field.
Looking to the northwest, we saw a sequence of triangles that belong to the sculptural complex 45º, 90º, 180º. We headed toward it, surprised to notice the distant figure of the other journalist on the sculpture’s plaza, maybe a mile away. (He had taken a more methodical approach, walking the perimeter, while we had started without a plan.) It’s strangely thrilling to see a living form in City’s emptiness, to feel mirrored by another presence. But it also illuminates the sense of loss that inflects City like the vacant plazas of a painting by Giorgio de Chirico. Where have all the people gone?
Ascending a ramp toward the concrete plaza of 45º, 90º, 180º, the thinness of the air became noticeable as I took deeper breaths. City is at an elevation of 5,200 feet, and the sun and wind are desiccating. The first sculptural array we found is a sequence of three square concrete slabs around four feet thick, one propped at a slant against a wall, another parallel, and the third one flat (hence 45º, 90º, 180º). The propped slab creates a simple lean-to that Higbee had told us could serve as shelter in the event of a sudden change of weather; judging by the accumulation of poop on the ground, many species have taken refuge there. The plaza also holds a series of 90-degree triangles that appear to have been sliced from a monumental wedge, each casting a pointed shadow on the next like the hands of a giant sundial. On this plaza, I became acutely aware of the sun: its position in the sky, its movement over time, the relief offered by shadows.
We proceeded alongside a ramp with sloped walls that appeared softly earthen. Touching the surface made for a surprise: it was concrete, poured from above and hardened into a texture like freshly spread soil. Looking up, the ramp’s rough edge drew a wavering diagonal line against the sky. The spaces of City are defined by lines, such that the long concrete curbs and the interplay of shadows and edges impart the experience of walking through a three-dimensional drawing.
Catherine and I separated. She had asked, “When do we ever have the chance for solitude?” To visit City, I had stepped outside my harried life in Massachusetts as a teacher and a caretaker. Solitude was a tremendous privilege, and also had an edge of risk. I walked without clear aim, ascending the ramp to a sort of cul-de-sac that overlooks 45º, 90º, 180º. From there, I could see Complex One at the opposite end, a little more than a mile away. Taking in such a vista is only an occasional experience inside City: much of the time one is below grade or adjacent to rising forms. The view made me realize that I had not budgeted my time well if I intended to explore all of City, though aspiring to completion is hardly the point.
DESCENDING THE RAMP, I walked toward Complex One, choosing a route along City’s northeastern border along the open desert to keep my bearings. I walked for a long time, with mounds to encircle, ramps to ascend, and choices to be made. Sunset was 90 minutes away, and my water was gone. Solitude brought awareness of vulnerability. Being lost, tired, and thirsty in the Mojave Desert, the driest place in North America, seemed to be not a distraction from City but part of its meaning: City is not for dwelling, only for passing through.
Cantilevered concrete beams frame views to and from a trapezoidal monolith, the central form of Complex One. The monolith seemed to shift in scale. Approaching it at grade, it was a monumental work of architecture with no access points, scaled more to the landscape than to me. Viewed from adjacent ramparts, the monolith became diminutive against distant mountains.
The ramparts comprise Complex Two. High-relief shapes, like sections of tremendous boulders, rise from the sides of the larger rampart to the southwest. Complex One and Complex Two have been compared by other visitors to the Mayan temple Chichén Itzá, ancient Egyptian mastabas, and military bunkers. There is an implied ritualistic significance to these forms that is unlike the Minimalist language of iterative geometries in other areas of the work, like 45º, 90º, 180º.
I walked up the main rampart of Complex Two to what seemed to be the highest point of City and stood for several minutes in perfect silence at ceremonial elevation. To stand on a raised altar in a desert valley felt more literary than real. The sun, nearing the horizon, was surrounded by a prismatic halo. It could well have been another millennium, future or past, until I noticed contrails repeating the horizontal lines of City in the sky. I thought of Heizer’s words when asked about City in 1982: “The H-bomb, that’s the ultimate sculpture. The world is going to be pounded into the Stone Age, and what kind of art will be made after that?”
I saw Catherine as a tiny figure in the distance and waved my arms to no avail. The sun was setting. It was time to find the truck to go home, but it was hidden from view, as were the portable toilets and construction equipment, all to maintain City’s illusion of atemporality. When we found our way to the truck, Higbee radioed someone at Heizer’s ranch to say we were leaving. The reply: “Roger—if I don’t hear from you by 7, I’ll start out.”
As we rolled over the dirt road everyone was in high spirits, and it was a relief to resume social interaction. We wondered about the lifespan of concrete and how entropy figured in Heizer’s mind when building a work meant to persist on a geological timescale. But mostly we talked about the silence and the solitude—how, as city people, we had found the experience disorienting and then profound.
When the sun rose the next day in Las Vegas, my surroundings looked different. I saw City in the gravel embankments that border the freeways and the graded plots of foothill subdivisions waiting to be built. Gravel and concrete underlie Las Vegas and form its infrastructure, while the Strip’s glass and neon come and go. As an abstract built environment, City is a city imagined as a ruin, unpeopled and sited in the atomic desert, a monument to the nuclear age.
Back at home in Massachusetts, I pored over aerial views of City to understand where I had been. A jet, drone, or satellite can read City as a glyphic whole, but Heizer has said the work can only truly be experienced by visiting on the ground. In any case, City has been, and will mostly continue to be, known by way of the aerial view. (For years my students and I explored City on Google Earth,never imagining a visit.) Now City is at least somewhat accessible as a set of ever-changing sightlines, shifting shadows, beetles scurrying across sun-bleached concrete, red flares of Indian Paintbrushes at the gravel perimeter, the smell of sagebrush. Fugitive encounters with wonders of this kind were the power of City, as much as Heizer’s monumental forms. The ruin was full of life.