A few weeks ago, the artist Ugo Rondinone was slowly leading me around a room in his Harlem studio, showing me miniature architectural mockups for the shows he is doing this year—in Miami, Rome, Berlin, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and Nîmes, France. Even by the standards of today’s globetrotting artists, it sounded like a seriously ambitious schedule, but Rondinone, who is 52 this year, talked about it all with absolute equanimity, as if having five one-person exhibitions in twelve months was the most natural thing in the world.
Rondinone speaks softly—almost in a whisper, but with a real intensity—and favors language that is both direct and vaguely mystical. “The intention was to bring poetry into the public space, with the contradiction of having a rainbow at night,” he said, as we examined photos of his trademark light pieces, which spell out short phrases, like the one reading “Hell Yes!” that adorned the facade of the New Museum in New York when it first opened. Another, owned by the Jumex Collection in Mexico City, reads, “Love Invents Us.”
With his Italian accent (he was born in Switzerland to Italian parents) and his fulsome beard, Rondinone had the vibe of a cardinal during the Renaissance, the sort of guy who gets things done, quietly. That sense was probably amplified by the fact that we were standing in a deconsecrated 20,000-square-foot Romanesque church that he bought a few years ago and renovated into what has to be one of the most beautiful artist studios in operation today.
He guided me over to another maquette, the reason for my visit—seven stacks of boulders, each one a shockingly bright color. This was a model for Seven Magic Mountains, the real version of which had just been installed in the desert outside Las Vegas, next to a road that heads toward California. The individual pieces stand between 30 and 34 feet high, and in a few days Rondinone would head out to Nevada to toast their unveiling, but his eyes still lit up examining the mini versions.
The idea took shape a few years ago, when Rondinone was working on a Public Art Fund project that involved installing monumental Stonehenge-like stick-figure men, made with huge rocks, at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. That was about showing “something raw within an artificial environment—Rockefeller is the most highly artificial place,” he told me, speaking deliberately, thinking it through. “Now [I’m] going to the desert with the same material, but just creating the contrary—setting something artificial into a natural environment.”
These new sculptures are funky, strange things—both primordial and pop—and they evince Rondinone’s continued zest for work that combines childlike gestures with technical wizardry, as in the menacing, clay-seeming cartoon heads that he casts out of aluminum. “They are inspired by hoodoos,” Rondinone said of the Vegas pieces. Hoodoos? “Those are the pile formations that you have in Utah, mostly, where you have granite over the limestone, and the limestone, it is softer, so it gets washed out with the ice age,” and thus tall, improbable-looking rock towers are formed. “And of course,” he continued, “also the meditation practice of balancing stones.” Does he meditate? He laughed. “My boyfriend mediates,” he said. “He’s a Buddhist”—that would be the storied poet and performer John Giorno. “I don’t have the discipline to.”
Rondinone also doesn’t gamble, eliminating one great benefit of making repeat visits to Las Vegas. It took about five years to complete the project, which was organized by the Nevada Museum of Art (the state’s only art museum, in Reno) and the Art Production Fund. “It’s the longest we’ve ever worked on a project!” Yvonne Villarreal, a cofounder of the APF, told me by phone early one morning from Sin City. She added, “I think that’s why there’s not more great public work out there—because it really takes intense tenacity.” (Disclosure: the APF’s executive director is the daughter of the CEO of these pages.) “Land art—it’s impossible,” Rondinone said. “The restriction that’s imposed now…” His voice trailed off.
Mounting major public art is indeed tricky business, but Nevada presents unique issues, like the fact that “the majority of the land is owned by the federal government,” the Nevada Museum’s executive director and CEO, David B. Walker, said. “The good news is it’s what keeps the landscape sublime and beautiful and open, but the bad news is that there’s quite a bureaucracy that you must contend with when you want to do something monumental on federal land.” (A side note: the museum is home to the Center for Art + Environment and holds a vast archive of material relating to historic Land Art works, making it a natural partner on the project.)
There were permits to be acquired, money to be raised ($3.5 million, to be exact), and road improvements to be made. A special law was even passed. “They did pass legislation, pushed it through last year, that greatly reduces the producers’ and the artist’s liability in the event that someone does something stupid,” Walker explained. There are warning signs around the works (which, despite their precarious look, are secured by a solid backbone), and the law means that “if you decide to climb to the top of one of these and fall and kill yourself, that’s no longer our problem,” he continued. “You’ve been warned.”
On a happier note, Walker said that he sees Seven Magic Mountains as “a super-positive expression of optimism,” noting that Nevada’s economy, which was particularly hard hit by the 2008 economic crisis, is on the rise—tech companies are moving to the state, jobs are being created, and housing prices are recovering. It is a uniquely jaunty piece of public art for the area, sharply contrasting the austere, canonical public works staged in the West by artists like Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, and Jean Tinguely. It is also set to become one of the nation’s—and the world’s—most famous pieces of sculpture. The Nevada Museum estimates that some 16 million people will see the work during the two years it is on view along the highway.
Asked about his favorite public works, Rondinone replied, with a hint of mischief, “the Eiffel Tower, I like. The Statue of Liberty, I like very much.” He also mentioned Mannekin Pis, the tiny little golden boy who pees into a fountain in central Brussels. Considering Seven Magic Mountains relatively in terms of scale, rather than physical size, the work is rather modest, dwarfed by the immense emptiness that surrounds it. “From a distance, everything is small,” Rondinone told me wistfully. “The striking thing of the desert, it’s the dimension. And the silence. That surprised me.”
Up close, though, the work should dazzle, coated with two layers of glowing paint. “It’s activated by the sun, because Day-Glo gets wilder with the sun,” he said.
I asked Rondinone about his hopes for the piece and he thought for a moment. “Who knows about the future?” he said. “It’s always depending on the demand—how the public looks at it. Maybe it becomes a site to visit as a spiritual—” He stopped there, but that word—spiritual—lingered in my mind. His totems are immaculate (they appear to be almost digital in their photos), attention-grabbing, and just a little bit goofy: New Age objects perfectly befitting the present moment. For now, they stand alongside Interstate 15, awaiting 65-mile-per-hour stares and road-trip stop offs, and then, after two years, they will be gone. The desert will remain, still, silent, unchanged.