It May Be Dirty Work, but Sculptor Michael Heizer Breaks New Ground Indoors and Out

updated 08/19/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/19/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

He's not about to be fenced in, but for the moment at least, Michael Heizer has come in from the wide-open spaces. On a hot June afternoon the artist, best known for his colossal outdoor sculptures in the barren reaches of Nevada, restlessly circles the fourth floor of New York City's Whitney Museum of American Art. The decibel count inside the vast gallery is earshattering as hammers and drills mingle with rock 'n' roll from a blast box on the stone floor. After bashing down an interior wall, Heizer and a team of 15 workmen set about raising a 111-foot-long, 16½-foot-high geometric edifice of silk-screened cardboard supported by metal. Not exactly your standard vision of the serene artist dabbing paints on a canvas. Then again, for Heizer—who is accustomed to working with bulldozer and blasting powder—any project turns into an earthshaking experience.

Dragged Mass Geometric, Heizer's installation that will loom at the Whitney until September 1, is a particularly satisfying benchmark in a career that has only rarely fit into museums. "The biggest museum floor available in New York got maxed out by this," Heizer, 40, says proudly of the sculpture that fills the entire room. "Before this show, people would say, 'We've never seen the big work.' Now they have."

At Dragged Mass' packed debut, painter David Hockney, art dealer Mary Boone and architect Philip Johnson were among the artistic types who strolled through, rubbernecking Heizer's carefully conceived conundrum. "It is a very moving work," says art dealer Richard Bellamy. "It reaches very deep into what we expect art to bring us, which is a kind of awe."

Well, for some of us, maybe. Others find Dragged Mass merely baffling; one guest briefly thought the work housed the museum restaurant. But to the exhibit's curator, David Whitney, it doesn't matter whether or not Heizer's work sets attendance records. "I wanted to show Heizer's sculpture because he is a tremendously important artist," says Whitney. "Unfortunately, Dragged Mass is hard for a total civilian to understand. Heizer is terribly good and subtle. But he is not superficially pleasing."

Heizer says that the shape of his sculpture, which was three years in the making, is not random. He modeled it loosely after a 1971 work that involved hauling a 30-ton boulder back and forth outside the Detroit Institute of Arts. To establish an abstract link with that outdoor work, he silk-screened the surfaces of Dragged Mass Geometric with magnified images of materials, including mud, granite and iron. "A strong work of art really leaves people speechless," he says. "They feel a little angry because they don't understand it."

Heizer works only in big, bigger, biggest, and even his giant Whitney work is small potatoes next to his latest outdoor project in Ottawa, III. Effigy Tumuli (Mound Images) has been called the most ambitious outdoor sculpture in the U.S. since Mount Rushmore was completed in 1941. On a 150-acre site destroyed by strip-mining during the 1930s, Heizer, working with a crew of state engineers and heavy equipment operators, is creating a series of gigantic land sculptures—a catfish, a frog, a turtle, a snake and a water strider—for a state park overlooking the Illinois River. Inspired in part by American Indian burial mounds that existed around 1000 A.D., the effigies, which will cost a state land-reclamation council $900,000 before completion in October, are piles of earth up to a thousand feet long. The catfish's front whisker is 170 feet long; its eyeball 28 feet in diameter. "I don't want some ditzy cornucopia of lilacs and all that stuff," Heizer says. "This is not a garden. The type of work I like is pure and simple and profound."

Heizer began thinking huge in the '60s. A onetime student at the San Francisco Art Institute, he was frustrated after moving East by the narrow confines of New York City's art world and by the dismaying prospect of producing parlor pieces to earn his living. In 1967 he headed for Nevada to work in a medium in short supply in Manhattan: the earth. "Until 20 years ago most works of art made in the U.S. were decorative objects to be used within architectural confines," Heizer says. "Working outdoors I freed myself from all those strictures. I started building works of art as big as architecture." Using a pick and a shovel, Heizer literally left his mark on the desert floor. One of his first big works was Displaced/Replaced Mass, which he made in 1969 with the support of art patron Robert Scull. For that project massive boulders were dynamited out of a mountainside in the Sierra Nevada and then deposited in huge depressions. "I saw Mike stand on top of a 50-ton piece of granite and then jump down and give the order, and the dynamite split it right in half!" Scull recalled later. "And suddenly I realized that art didn't have to involve the walls of my house." Heizer's later pieces include Complex One, an eerie 140-foot-long dirt tomb that art critic Robert Hughes called "a magnificent and gratuitous spectacle."

Early in his career Heizer earned a reputation as an outspoken maverick. "I attacked the system of art galleries and museums, and I stated the fact that I was attempting to produce art that could exist in spite of all those realities. I said terrible things. But I am more cautious now," Heizer grins. "I'm getting older. All forms of life slow down."

Though Heizer doesn't mince words, publicity makes him skittish. "I come from an academic background," he says tersely. "I wasn't raised to be into promoting myself." As a child growing up in Berkeley, Calif., Heizer spent his free time painting and drawing. He also tagged along as a camera boy when his father, the late anthropologist Robert Heizer, took field trips to Mexico and Egypt. It is no coincidence that the elder Heizer was an authority on the methods that Egyptians and pre-Columbians employed to move massive stone blocks. Those early views of colossal ancient art surely influenced Michael's adult work.

Today Heizer and his wife, Barbara, a fiction writer, divide their time between their lower Manhattan apartment and their 1,800-acre Nevada ranch. Heizer bought the place after discovering that the property, on the valley floor of the Great Basin, contains vast stretches of sand and gravel, two of his favorite art supplies. At home on the range, surrounded by a Caterpillar tractor, a road grader, a cement mixer and a dump truck, the artist couldn't be more in his element.

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