Michael Heizer — Across Time and Space
In front of Reno’s downtown Bruce R. Thompson Federal Courthouse — and only a block from the Nevada Museum of Art — is the steel version of Michael Heizer’s Perforated Object. Created in 1996, the 27-foot-long sculpture is 9 feet 9 inches tall and 3 feet 4 inches wide. Its Michael Heizer’s radically re-sized version of a Paleolithic artifact excavated by his father, the renowned anthropologist Dr. Robert Heizer, from a Nevada cave in 1936. Perforated Object is on my mind because this summer the artist is installing his newest work, Levitated Mass, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The sculpture consists of a 340-ton boulder transported from a quarry 60 miles away and then suspended over a 456-foot-long slot in the museum’s grounds.
Both works are formal sculptural explorations of size and scale in time and space, but they also pay homage to Robert Heizer, whose areas of expertise included both Native Americans of the Great Basin and the ancient art of moving megaliths. In order to think about such a complicated knot, I asked Steve Glotfelty, an expert on Nevada rock art, to take me out to Humboldt Cave where the original perforated object had been found. Accompanying us were two PhD candidates in archaeology, my son Mathew Fox and his partner Jennifer Kielhofer.
The drive northeast from Reno on Interstate 80 follows the Truckee River for a half hour, then heads up the west side of the Humboldt Sink towards the town of Lovelock. Just before reaching that town — where Robert Heizer graduated from high school — we turned off onto the dirt and drove across an alluvial fan to the base of the Mopong Hills. From there it was a steady trek uphill past the site of the old archeological camp and its generator site, two weathered wooden posts from the camp tent still standing watch over the flats below.
A few hundred feet of climbing leads to an almost rectangular opening in a gray outcrop. The cave entrance is perhaps six feet across and eight feet high, and a steep floor leads down and back about fifty feet. Daubs of peeling white paint mark the level of the original floor, and it’s clear that a significant amount of dirt was removed by the team of scientists who scrubbed the cave clean in 1936. It’s an unprepossessing site now inhabited by pack rats and birds, but a fine place in which to contemplate the connections between Robert and Michael Heizer.
Robert Heizer and his colleagues took back the artifacts from the cave to be catalogued at UC Berkeley, where they now reside in drawers, as much an archive of an archaeological dig as a record of the cave contents. Michael Heizer’s version of the hand-sized perforated object, a thin piece of horn drilled through by ninety holes to no known purpose, now stands as a reminder to the federal courthouse and passersby of the area’s much earlier inhabitants, and their Paiute descendants.
After visiting the cave we drove around to the eastern side of the hills to visit two micro-playas nestled just below the ridge crest. Both of them hold the remnants of inscrutable geoglyphs — rocks arranged on the ground in the shape of anthropomorphs; sadly, both sites have long been disturbed by relic seekers, as well as the military helicopters that use the tiny dry pond beds as landing sites during maneuvers. In 1969 Michael Heizer scattered dry pigment on the Coyote Dry Lake of California to make Primitive Dye Painting #1, his own enormous version of an anthropomorph drawn out on the desert floor.
That same year he created his first earthwork just south of Mopong Hills, Displaced/Replaced Mass, a large granite boulder transported from Spooner Summit above Lake Tahoe down to the desert near Silver Springs. Issues of size and scale, the transportation of huge rock monoliths, the deep continuity of forms in a vocabulary for sculpture in North America–all are abiding interests of the artist, all are related to the work done by his father, and all arise from the family’s experiences in the Nevada and California deserts.
The art critic Lucy Lippard — who is an advisor to the Center for Art + Environment — wrote an important book in 1983 titled Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory. It’s a valuable catalog of how art of the two eras resonate with one another around the world and across time, exposing the constant human need to perform rituals connecting nature and culture. Re-scaling ourselves to the cosmos is a critical part of that endeavor, and Michael Heizer remains the high priest.