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.
Linda Fleming’s Drawing Retrospective in Fallon
The Oats Park School in Fallon, Nevada was designed in 1914, retired and eventually placed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places in 1990, and then in 1995 repurposed as the Churchill Arts Council’s multi-discipline cultural center. The adaptive reuse design includes three handsome gallery spaces that since 2003 have hosted a series of excellent exhibitions by regional artists. The latest, running through 9th, is a 45-year retrospective of drawings by Bay Area artist Linda Fleming. Known primarily as a creator of massive yet elegant metal sculptures, Fleming’s three-dimensional pieces actually arise from rigorous two-dimensional drawings.
Fleming trained early as an artist, but by the early 1970s was so technically proficient that she came to mistrust the discipline and spent most of the decade focusing on sculpture. As her exhibition demonstrates, when she returned to the flatland of drawing at the end of that decade, she hadn’t lost her touch, but instead had added an intellectual vocabulary capable of sustaining a robust body of work for the rest of her career, which continues to see her push our notion of how a drawing can perform.
Fleming’s art, no matter how many dimensions are involved, parses the universe according to a mathematical practice that is both rigorous and intuitive. The largest piece in the show, Template, could as well stand for the artist’s state of mind as well as the design for cut steel deployed in a sculpture. Its radial symmetry is worked out in a way that makes immediate and visceral sense to the viewer, even as you realize that its method is far from simple. A bit like the universe itself, in fact. White Cave from three years later features a biomorphic tracery with some structural kinship to Template, but it’s layered over an entirely realistic depiction of a rock formation housing a central void. The figure hovers in stillness before the cave even as it appears it is about to explode into motion.
The most recent work, Puddlei, which was cut out of thick felt earlier this year, is a lovely nod to the relationships between the two- and three-dimensional works. Its geometry is related to both of the previous drawings, yet like a thick drawing it has sculptural qualities signified by the rumpling of the material on the floor. As Fleming admits in her artist’s statement, materials can never fully express thought. While her work evokes universal rules underlying the cosmos, the use of a mundane fabric such as felt (even with the inescapable allusion to work by Robert Morris) anchors the idea in everyday life, a tension made manifest by the ambiguity of the felt’s dimensional presence.
Linda Fleming’s show, even though the works are for sale (a valid strategy for a community arts center), has the kind of curatorial integrity we expect of a retrospective. It’s a worthy journey just over an hour’s drive through the desert east of Reno to see exhibitions at the Oats Park School, and Fleming work is the most recent addition to a very long string of excellent events in both the visual and performing arts presented there.