Michael Heizer's roots in Nevada go deep, back to his grandfather Ott F. Heizer, a mining engineer in Lovelock in the 1880s. Raised elsewhere, he would have to return to Nevada to find his artistic voice.
His father, Robert F. Heizer (1915–1979), an archeologist recognized internationally for his pioneering studies of early cultures in the Americas, is known best in Nevada for his work in the Great Basin, particularly the excavation of Humboldt Cave. Raised in Berkeley, California, Heizer (b. 1944) spent a lot of time at his father's excavation sites in Mexico and Central America. After studying briefly at the San Francisco Art Institute, Heizer moved to New York City.
Ultimately, Heizer found that the traditional gallery and museum system, indeed, New York City itself, could neither foster nor contain his art. In the late 1960s, he came to Nevada to "draw" on dry lakebeds and to create sculptures defining negative space and displaced mass.
Heizer created Double Negative in 1969–1970. Using blasting and heavy equipment, he cut two facing ramps into the steep flank of Mormon Mesa in remote southeast Nevada. An estimated 240,000 tons of rhyolite and sandstone were displaced, tumbling onto the alluvial fans at the foot of the mesa. The artist used the remote, rocky desert landscape to create sculpture on a scale that could not be realized in even a generous studio space or a sculpture park/public art setting. At ground level, the scale dwarfs the human figure. A view from the air makes clear its massiveness. While Heizer was originally unconcerned with the work's inevitable deterioration, he has, according to a comprehensive article on his work by Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times, subsequently considered reworking the ramps with engineered concrete.
Double Negative is not environmental art, a catchall 1970s term. It is a formal exploration of the relationships between positive and negative forms, and what happens aesthetically when one displaces the other. This is an extension of Heizer's early painting and ideas, influenced by the Abstract Expressionists of the late 1940s-1950s. Bill Fox, in Mapping the Empty, suggests that the visitor to Double Negative is deliberately displaced physically and psychologically, "a temporal equivalent to the spatial [displacements] of the sculpture itself."
In 1972, Heizer acquired land in Hiko, Nevada, east of the Nevada Test Site. This remote property is Heizer's home and the setting for his immense, architectonic project, City. Reminiscent of the temples, pyramids, and courtyards of the pre-Columbian cultures Heizer's father studied, the raised mastaba-like and geometric forms of reinforced concrete and steel, with a carefully carved out sunken plaza, are an extraordinary exploration of the possibilities and meanings of positive and negative spaces. Heizer insists that the City complex does not directly refer to specific urban or temple remains from pre-Columbian cultures, but the echoes cannot be escaped. The scale, the relationship of multiple forms to each other over a large acreage, and the dramatic desert landscape all combine to affirm that City is Heizer's meditation on the history of the Americas, preserved for the future.
Although still a work in progress, depending on funding, the City complex is internationally known, although most people will only view these massive land projects from documentary photographs.
However, Heizer has always worked on more traditionally scaled sculpture, painting, and drawing. In 1997, the General Services Administration (GSA) commissioned him to provide a sculpture for the narrow garden area in front of the Bruce R. Thompson Federal Courthouse at South Virginia and Liberty streets in Reno, Nevada, and selected Heizer's Perforated Object #27. Among the objects found by Dr. Robert Heizer's team during their 1936 excavation of Humboldt Cave is a curious piece of bone generally shaped like a fish—4.6 by 1.7 inches, it is drilled with ninety one-quarter-inch holes, with no explanation ever found for its use or meaning. The bone inspired Perforated Object #27. The weathered steel structure, 9.75 feet high by 27 feet long and 3.33 feet wide, is mounted at a ninety-degree angle to the tall, formal, grid-designed white marble structure behind it. The GSA's Reno community advisory committee asked for a smaller, second work for the rear of the building—a series of weathered steel rings representing the holes from Perforated Object. Initial public reaction to Perforated Object was negative.
While jokes about fish and swiss cheese can be heard a decade later, the work has become part of the ensemble of the building, the garden, and the distant view of Mt. Rose and the Carson Range. Passersby see a varying kaleidoscope of tree branches, grass, granite boulders, and bits of the surrounding urbanscape through its holes. Even the most hurried observer has to note the contrast in texture and surfaces between the sculpture and its surroundings, while the leisurely visitor has to resolve the ever-changing framed images.
None at this time.