Art Rock

Massive entertainment for the masses

“I want to see the Big Ass Rock”

That’s what I overheard a hefty dame exclaim as I left the scene of the massive artwork known as Levitated Mass, by artist Michael Heizer. Why do I prefer her title?  Oh well, perhaps it doesn’t really do it justice. 

By now thousands of people have stared at this hulk and wondered, why is this Art?  And that's a great thing.  Because that's what Art is supposed to do - make you question it, and everything else too.  At any rate, they all use the rock as a massive photo opp.  How many museum goes does it take to hold up a huge, f'in rock?


As LACMA director Michael Govan says of the title: “... it’s what art is - is to levitate the weight of something of our culture, of history. You levitate something so it can be seen, so it can be light.” But making The Levitated Mass ‘light’ was in fact a Herculean effort; after all, it is a 340-ton granite boulder. Its provenance is a quarry in Riverside, a town about an hour east of Los Angeles, and its arrival at LACMA required eleven days of transport and some highly elaborate engineering.

The entire artwork itself is composed of a 456-foot-long slot constructed on LACMA's campus, over which the megalith is positioned in such a way that viewers may walk beneath it.  As LACMA’s description states “ As with other works by the artist, such as Double Negative (1969), the monumental negative form is key to the experience of the artwork.” Before I actually do walk beneath this extraordinary rock, I wonder - how solid is the construction elevating it? To another spectator, I fantasize its collapse. The man quips - Well, it would be one hell of a quick death.

Above and beyond the staggering sight of the Mass itself, the architectonics of the entire work are quite evocative.  Levitated Mass is a supreme study of contrasts.  There is the the pure minimalist symmetry of the underpinning structure, a long even sweep underlining the jagged, asymmetrical heft of the rock. Contrast number 2 - that of texture: the walls of the slot, which ‘gradually descends to fifteen feet in depth’ are silky smooth poured concrete, leading one’s eye up toward the jagged, rough-hewn Mass.   The most overt contrast is of course the man-made against the organic, but the deeper corollary is the temporal: the relative speed of manufacture of the slot versus the millennial production time of the rock.

Another element to the presence of the Mass is the saga of its delivery to the museum grounds; in a sense, static though it is, the rock has its own historic momentum. One contemplates its past, and then projects into the future as well - one can wonder, will it remain here until the demise of the planet itself? Is this in fact the most permanent artwork ever created? 

Although Heizer conceived of the artwork in 1969; it took him decades to discover his perfect boulder. In fact it only appeared after a routine blasting one day in 2005.  The quarry owner called Heizer, likening the boulder to a big Hershey’s kiss.  Indeed, Heizer had found his rock.  It took until five years to find a company that would actually undertake the transport.  The hauling company states:

“What we built is a carrier beam trailer. The main frame is 132 foot long, and 27 foot wide. The piece is suspended inside the carrier; it’s holding the weight of the rock and stabilizing it. Our overall length will be 274 feet from bumper to bumper, from pull truck to push truck, and we basically will just roll down the road...”

It seems that earth and rock, are an integral part of Heizer’s DNA. As a youth, he accompanied his father (a prominent UC Berkeley anthropologist) on his field work trips here and to Bolivia.  His mother’s father was a geologist and the other grandpa was a Nevada miner. In 1967, after a short stint in New York, where he hung out with some of the great monumental sculptors of the day, Heizer decamped to the West and became one of the forefathers of Earth Art.

His best-known work is ''Double Negative,'' for which he cut a 1,500-foot-long, 50-foot-deep, 30-foot-wide gash onto facing slopes of the Mormon Mesa in Nevada by blasting and scraping away 240,000 tons of rock. Then there is the immense, stunning work called ‘City’, a project which has spanned close to 40 years of his effort and spreads across an expanse larger than the Washington Mall. According to Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times, City is Heizer’s “own version of Easter Island or Angkor Wat: a modernist complex of abstract shapes -- mounds, prismoids, ramps, pits -- to be spread across the valley.”  City is located on a tract of land Heizer bought in the seventies - a remote high desert expanse of Nevada which Heizer, somewhat of a recluse, also calls home.

''The only sources I felt were allowable were American; South American, Mesoamerican or North American. That might mean Eskimos or Peruvians. I wanted to finish off the European impulse.'' But Heizer’s basic impulses, he claims, are the abstract.  There is something in this mind-bending work which does blow away quotidien art criticism. Heizer has somehow made a work which glorifies the capacities of man while crowning them with the paramount creations of the cosmos.

New York Times article on Heizer’s ‘City’