The following essay was written in Fall 2017 in partial fulfillment for coursework with Dr. John Clarke in the Art History Department at The University of Texas at Austin as part of a Master of Architecture focusing on Interdisciplinary Studies.

Speculative Archaeology

The Monumental Shapes of Michael Heizer

You don’t have to relate to it. It’s not a requirement. All you have to do is just be there. It doesn’t matter what you think when you see it. The point is, it’s work of an artist. I’m an artist. That’s my business. That’s what I do all the time. So, what you’re looking at is a work of art. You’ve got to understand that a lot of my thinking is based on preliterate societies. I’m very conscious of the preliterate tradition. So, when you talk about relating to my work . . . well, how do you relate to Maya or Egyptian pyramids?

-Michael Heizer1

1 Gruen, John. 1977. "Michael Heizer: 'You might say I'm in the construction business'." ARTnews (Art Media ARTNEWS, llc). Accessed November 29, 2017.


In April 2011, during a 5-day trip to New York City where I was to conduct job interviews and visit with former classmates, I elected to take the 90-minute train ride north to Dia: Beacon. I was heading in that direction primarily to see the art by those artists whom I knew I liked; namely Richard Serra and Walter De Maria. Both of those artists were continual references in my undergraduate education in architecture as they both exhibited an interest in elemental geometries, material, immersive environments, and dealt with issues of scale. At the time, my education in contemporary art was self-conducted; my knowledge was limited and my impressions were crude: I knew Robert Smithson liked to stick mirrors in sand, I knew Donald Judd liked boxes, and Dan Flavin rearranged fluorescent light tubes. Suffice it to say, the trip was eye-opening for me, but among all the canonical work in the museum, two pieces stuck with me the most: the first, a massive boulder (later I would learn the term menhir) sitting in a crisp, steel-lined cavity within a wall; and second a peculiar full-room installation in which an upright truncated cone, an inverted cone, a wedge, and a box variation were excavated out of the concrete floor as voids. The same artist was responsible for both pieces – one who I had not known of prior to that day: Michael Heizer. The size of the pieces were remarkable, but it was the subversion of my expectations when I entered each room that left an impression. The rock in the wall, Negative Megalith #5 [Fig. 1], appeared to my right as I entered a cloistered-room. After three successive rooms devoted to Sol Lewitt wall drawings, I was primed to see intricate line drawings and patterns and their myriad variations but instead I was confronted with a rough, massive hunk of earth floating inside an otherwise blank white wall, shrouded by a crisp steel box.

Fig. 1

Shaken by this unexpected organic material displaced from somewhere in the American West, I continued onward and turned left into a large room. I was in the far left corner from where I entered the museum and was confronted by the series of geometric voids in the floor entitled North, East, South, West [Fig. 2]. I was already inclined to like the simple, Euclidean geometry, but the piece nagged at me throughout the day because of a dense conflict in which positive and negative space seemed to cognitively overlap one another: the room was already a negative space; the floor is my reference point, and while I would not consider a floor to be a positive from which something substantial could be carved, whatever positive nature the floor presumed was diminished by the intervention of these voids. Furthermore, the voids were cordoned off, thereby implying the presence of something that ought to be protected; but the reality is that the barrier is likely only there as a safety precaution to satisfy building code requirements.

Fig. 2

To complicate matters further, ironically, it is the only piece in the collection whose shape is depicted in the map/plan of the museum [Fig. 3], thereby further implying a positive. It felt like a physical manifestation of a double negative, though I was unaware what that term would come to mean relative to his other work. In what seemed like an otherwise empty room, the floor gave way to simple, recognizable shapes for me to contemplate, but a hidden nature was suggested beneath the 2-dimensional surface plane – one circle projected downward to a point, revealing a negative cone; the other seemed to slightly expand outward in diameter as it descended into this unfathomable depth within the floor slab. The rectangles formed equally idiosyncratic variations of the possible three-dimensional projections. At face value, these shapes could be understood, but once two dimensions became three, and negative became positive, the shapes were made indecipherable, calling into question the truth of these geometric instances.

Fig. 3

Fig. 1
Michael Heizer
Negative Monolith #5
Diorite Granite and Steel
Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York

Dia: Beacon
Extended loan, The Menil Collection, Houston; Gift of Mr. & Mrs. James A. Elkins, Jr. in honor of Dominique de Menil

Fig. 2
Michael Heizer
North, East, South, West
Weathering Steel
Photo: Tom Vinetz

Dia Art Foundation; Gift of Lannan Foundation

Great works of art exist in two separate realities: a mental reality, aided by photographic representation and memory; and a physical reality, as understood by durational, bodily experience. Parallels can be drawn to Platonic Idealism, or even Kant’s notions of noumena and phenomena, but for the sake of this essay, it is merely important to recognize the position of two such realms: simply, mind and body. Theoretically, everything in the world exists in these two realities, and while philosophers and intellectuals wax poetic over which “reality” is of greater importance, which gives us deeper meaning or a fuller conception of ourselves, it might be worth considering the third element in the pagan triquetra – that of “spirit” or “soul” - as offering a third, equally valid reality. Discussions of the soul or spirit frequently devolve into a sort of mysticism or religion, predicated on nothing more than belief; it is never discussed as a reality because it operates without empirical evidence or rational support. A discussion of the spirit requires a suggestiveness in language that presumes a common understanding of something seemingly without definition, and as such there are many words we might expect to hear in such a nebulous conversation. Consider one such word: transcend. It represents a paradox in our language. Poststructuralist theories sought to demonstrate that language is insufficient to deal with what might be provisionally called “reality,” largely because it is anthropomorphic in nature – that is, we – humans – invented it. In On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense, Friedrich Nietzsche tells us, “The ‘thing-in-itself’ (which would be, precisely, pure truth, truth without consequences) is impossible for even the creator of language to grasp, and indeed this is not at all desirable. He designates only the relations of things to human beings, and in order to express them he avails himself of the boldest metaphors.”2 It stands to reason that words have a referent supported by some manifestation within the physical parameters that govern our existence. To transcend means to go beyond some limit; to exceed the empirical parameters delineated by a thing’s scope or capacity. We can understand a colloquial definition of the word in terms of pushing beyond physical expectations of ourselves during athletic pursuits; but that is not truly a transcendental act; merely the confrontation with a set of parameters to which we believed we were subject. To accept the actual definition of transcendental is to either confirm an inadequate conception of a thing’s limits; or to proceed with the belief that at some point during human history, a thing or an experience was seen to be transcendent, whatever that may mean. If there is anything to be learned from Michael Heizer’s art, it is that he belongs to the camp that believes in the latter conception. In a 1984 interview with Julia Brown, Heizer said:

2 Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1999. "On Truth and Lying In a Non-Moral Sense." In The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, by Friedrich Nietzsche, edited by Raymond and Ronald Speirs Geuss, translated by Ronald Speirs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

It is interesting to build a sculpture that attempts to create an atmosphere of awe. Small works are said to do this but it is not my experience. Immense, architecturally sized sculpture creates both the object and the atmosphere. Awe is a state of mind equivalent to religious experience, I think if people feel commitment they feel something has been transcended.3

3 Heizer, Michael, interview by Julia Brown. 1984. Interview with Julia Brown Los Angeles, CA: The Museum of Contemporary Art.


Born in 1944 in Berkely, CA to Robert Heizer and Nancy Elizabeth Jenkins, Michael seemed pre-ordained to work with the earth. His father Robert was a renowned archaeologist who taught at UC-Berkeley, specializing in ancient Meso-American cultures and the transportation of heavy rocks, his paternal grandfather ran a Tungsten mining operation in Nevada, and his maternal grandfather was the chief geologist of California. Asked in 1979 by Avalanche Magazine whether his knowledge of archaeological excavations had any bearing on his work, he shrewdly responded, “It might have affected my imagination because I’ve spent some time recording technical excavations. My work is closely tied up with my own experiences; for instance, my personal associations with dirt are very real. I really like it, I really like to lie in the dirt. I don’t feel close to it in the farmer’s sense… And I’ve transcended the mechanical, which was difficult. It wasn’t a legitimate art transition but it was psychologically important because the work I’m doing now with earth satisfies some very basic desires.”4 Despite acknowledging his own personal associations, he decidedly downplays any direct source inspiration for his art, under-crediting the sensitivity towards ancient cultures he almost surely, unconsciously cultivated as a child. One cannot help but notice repeated reference to Egypt, Maya, Chichen Itza, Machu Picchu, Aswan, and Ramesses, etc in nearly every interview with Heizer throughout his career. The invocation of such ancient cultures and monuments serves as validation for working at the scale and in the environments for which he has become known. Common to all these ancient references is a concern with something spiritual – religious monuments and temples, which signify some of the oldest documented work done by humans. When we consider these works along with others such as Stonehenge, the Nazca lines in the Peruvian Desert, and burial mounds such as the Serpent Mound in modern day Ohio, we find ample support for working in remote landscapes with the raw materials of the earth and imbuing them with a kind of religious/spiritual cachet. In a limited sense, Heizer’s earthworks can be said to be continuing a tradition of work of this kind, but in contemporary society his actions take on new meaning; for he does not belong to an ancient indigenous culture and the pieces do not reflect a prevailing set of religious beliefs held by the wider society. Heizer’s work is best understood in relation to its context.

4 Michael Heizer, Dennis Oppenheim, Robert Smithson, interview by Avalanche. 1970. Interview with Avalanche New York, (Autumn): 48-71.


It is tempting to discuss Heizer’s work, as well as the work of other artists associated with the Land Art movement in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s (e.g. Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, James Turrell, Nancy Holt, etc.), in terms of its relationship with galleries and art-world commerce. This is a widely-accepted critical stance, and it is reinforced by Heizer’s own words:

Sure. I invented that idea… The idea that there are no values attached to something like this because it’s not portable and not a malleable barter exchange object. And that says it. You can’t trade this thing. You can’t put it in your pocket. If you have a war, you can’t move it around. It’s not worth anything. In fact, it’s an obligation. The theory is that art and land are the things that have the greatest value. Here you have both art and land, if either is usable, and neither are worth very much. I think all large sculptures have been technically difficult for all people who ever built them. I think that I haven’t tried to surpass that scale. I simply tried to keep pace with it, and it’s a historical scale. I think that it’s normal and natural to build a sculpture of this measurement at this time.5

5 Hughes, Robert. 1982. "The Future that Was." The Shock of the New.Vol. 8. New York: BBC Broadcast Archive.

The economic construct in which art exists provides the context for one interpretation of Heizer’s work. Considering the physical context though, offers a different interpretation. In Actual Size: Munich Rotary [Fig. 4], a photographic projection of a 360-degree view of his earlier work, Munich Depression, viewers must cognitively reconcile the two-dimensional representation of a no-longer-existing three-dimensional work.

Fig. 4

Completed in 1969, Munich Depression was a 16-foot deep conical void, 100 feet in diameter. The projection of the work, as seen in the fifth floor gallery at The Whitney Museum on Gansevoort Street in New York City, required an extensive space to be shown in its full extents. The photographic projections were large; six wall-sized projections from glass slides each depicting dirt from the floor up to about 80% of the wall’s height, the top of the photos showing an empty sky. Seemingly the implication is that in lieu of actually being inside of Munich Depression, a lay-person might view this surrogate as an acceptable facsimile for the original piece. But in the strictest terms, Actual Size: Munich Rotary is not simply the representation of a piece no longer in existence, but an autonomous photographic work; the size of which is not so overwhelming – anyone who has been to a movie theater has a basic understanding of a projector’s schematics and is preconditioned to handle the scale. The gallery, praised for its wide-open floorplan and its ability to contain such an artwork, pales in comparison to the grandeur of Heizer’s other sites, and – again – is not remarkably large to anyone who has ever been in a gymnasium, factory floor, or any of the myriad large spaces built by humankind. The history of human achievement and our personal histories condition our responses to the scale of the piece. The sense that this is a large photographic work in a large space is not untrue, but it only retains value in a measured analysis. A work deemed to be large can be seen as such without the apprehension of a new experience that redefines for a viewer what “large” truly is. The critical response following this realization is not one of awe or religious significance, but a reminder that a viewer is in the presence of a work of art. What matters here is that it is the work of a human (the point is, it’s the work of an artist). Heizer’s outdoor sculpture in Myrtle Edwards Park in Seattle, titled Adjacent, Against, Upon [Fig. 5] engenders a similar response – not one of awe or sublimity, but a double-take that prompts a viewer to say to his or herself “these granite boulders are actually quite large… Not the largest I have ever seen, but, impressively large rocks all the same.”

Fig. 5

The piece sits adjacent to a sweeping pedestrian bridge on one side that spans a 4-lane road and a series of train tracks before it gradually curves and lets one off at ground level just south of the piece’s Adjacent portion, which consists of a large granite boulder next to a concrete pentagonal plinth. Opposite the pedestrian bridge is a bike trail, and beyond that the Puget Sound; a reasonably large body of brackish water, mediating Seattle and the Pacific Ocean. Next to a vast body of water with a distant horizon, even three large boulders do not seem to effectually elicit a feeling of awe. The piece in its totality shows three pairs of granite boulders and concrete shapes in three distinct relationships. The first, Adjacent – as described above, is immediately south of the second, Against, which has a granite boulder resting on the gravel groundcover and leaning against the topmost edge of its concrete counterpart – this time an irregular quadrilateral. The third pair, Upon, has its granite boulder situated at rest, fully atop the horizontal top surface of the concrete triangle. The relationship of each boulder to its concrete shape seems to suggest a social pact or a transference of substance between the two: depending on the level of physical engagement, the number of sides on the concrete shape is modified; a nod to the principles of conservation of matter. One could point to an apparent dichotomy of hard-lined geometry with the organic rock masses, but it is important to remember that geometry is of the natural world as much as it is an anthropocentric construct. In Heizer’s words:

Fig. 4
Michael Heizer
Actual Size: Munich Rotary
Six custom-made aluminum projectors with steel stands and six black-and-white film transparencies mounted between glass
Photo: Ron Amstutz

Fig. 5
Michael Heizer
Adjacent, Against, Upon
concrete, granite (rock)
Photo: Max Mahaffey

Geometry is organic. The study of crystallography demonstrates that there is more geometry in nature than man could ever develop. It’s all organic in the first place so there is no reason why a crystal form which exists can’t expand and then ultimately be a part of an amalgam that is larger and less crystalline in form. There is no sense of order that doesn’t exist in nature. You won’t find the exact shape of an airplane in nature, but I don’t mean that. I mean basic forms, as opposed to designed forms.”6

6 (Heizer 1984)


Along with North, East, South West, we can discern that simple geometry forms a critical part of Heizer’s sculptural vocabulary. But his use of geometry is not the same as his friend and colleague Walter De Maria who relied on perfect, regular instances of Euclidean shapes to depict sets and permutations. “I’ve been playing with geometry all my life; it is the core of my interest”7 Whereas some of his work incorporates rigid, straight geometries, his sense for shape has moved beyond the crystalline forms.

7 Weg, Kara Vander. 2016. "Michael Heizer in Conversation with Kara Vander Weg." In Michael Heizer Altars, by Kara Vander Weg, 145-155. New York, NY: Gagosian Gallery.

I also like weird, squeezy, outer-space shapes. I’ve been trying to step beyond straight geometry – crystalline morphology – into pneumatic form. My Track Painting [1967] is a key to my shapes, with its rounded ends. I got into the pneumatic, inflated shapes because they are appropriate for dirt. That’s why there are way more of those forms in City. I came across some survey books published in 1847 with documentation by surveyors of effigy tumuli on the Mississippi River, and they showed forms on a large scale. With my work, you have to factor in everything. When you approach on foot, you encounter a diffracted image, a combination of multiple images that you recongeal in your brain.8

8 Ibid.

What is common to the pneumatic form and crystalline form is that they are perhaps better described as shapes than forms, which connote actively compositional/relational aesthetics in the process of form-making. Shapes appear to us as givens; tools to use and employ without feeling obliged to provide an alibi for one’s choice. Shapes are of man and of nature; they can resemble abstract geometry at one scale and at another can begin to refer to a fuller, representational picture, as is the case in the aerial views of his Effigy Tumuli [Fig. 6] and some of the mounds in City.

Fig. 6

Through geometry we can understand that despite exhibiting an earth-orientation, Heizer’s work does not explicitly deny an object-orientation or human-orientation. Seen at ground-level, the geometric mounds in Effigy Tumuli appear removed and distant from a complete picture: neither synecdoche nor closure seems possible at this human vantage point. Seen from above, those same abstract geometric mounds of earth become discernible objects:  frog, water strider, turtle, snake, and catfish. Art historian Germano Celant tells us:

The idea of land art is related to the idea of the globe. Especially after the space ship… the first picture of the earth gives you the idea that earth is the object. So the idea for these artists after 1963 is that you can shape something, which is a sphere. Another element that changed the vision of art was flying by airplane. So the idea of looking from a high level is changing the perspective and knowledge about art. So you have a sphere, which is the earth and you can design on it! You can draw! The aerial view is a change in the history of art.9

9 2015.Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art. Documentary. Directed by James Crump. First Run Features.

From Above

As discussed with Actual Size: Munich Rotary above, one gets the sense that Heizer’s relationship with photography is not so contentious as it is with some of his contemporaries (i.e. Robert Irwin, Walter De Maria). The early desert works by Heizer such as the Nine Nevada Depressions were inherently temporary works and needed to be documented as evidence for the gallerist, and the artist’s portfolio. The most comprehensive way to capture these works was through aerial photography. Of City [Fig. 7], the magnum opus earthwork begun by Heizer in 1971, purportedly nearing completion today, New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman says “It may be the most ambitious sculpture anyone has ever built, one of those audacious, improbable American dreams, at the scale of the West, conceived for the ages. More than a mile long, ‘City’ is a kind of modern Chichen Itza in the midst of Garden Valley, a pristine, lunar stretch of stark and unspeakable beauty, an hour’s bumpy drive from the nearest paved road.”10

Fig. 7

The size of this work and magnitude of this project is often what gets cited when discussing the project. Satellite imagery from above reveals a series of abstract shapes, identifiable as among Heizer’s “alien” pneumatic forms, constructed of gravel. The shapes are mounds, if not completely abstract, then merely allusive to representations of tools, such as a propeller or an adze. City’s proximity to Nellis Air Force Base and Area 51 is not insignificant to Heizer. “Part of my art is an awareness that we live in a nuclear era. We’re probably living at the end of civilization.”11 But when we zoom out of the satellite imagery [Fig. 8 and Fig. 9], one notices how quickly we lose sight of what was otherwise described as a grandiose, ambitious project.

Fig. 8

Fig. 9

The magnitude and extents of the surrounding earth dwarfs Heizer’s land sculpture, the product of an entire career’s duration. One is reminded of Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten, or of Carl Sagan’s eloquent monologue, The Pale Blue Dot. And while Heizer continually speaks of size as an important, and oft-uncelebrated component of art, he makes sure to not exaggerate its relative import:

10 Kimmelman, Michael. 2015. "Michael Heizer’s Big Work and Long View." The New York Times, May 13.

11 Kimmelman, Michael. 2005. "Art's Last Lonely Cowboy." The New York Times Magazine, Feb 6.

Fig. 7
Michael Heizer
View of Complex One
Photo: Tom Vinetz

Fig. 8
Michael Heizer
Satellite image from 4.82km,-115.43897054,1576.01142035a,3244.47971848d,35y,-0h,0t,0r

Fig. 9
Michael Heizer
Satellite image from 27.53km,-115.43897054,1576.01142035a,25955.83774785d,35y,-0h,0t,0r

Man will never create anything really large in relation to the world – only in relation to himself and his size. The most formidable objects that man has touched are the earth and the moon. The greatest scale he understands is the distance between them, and this is nothing compared to what he suspects to exist.12

12  Artforum. 1969. "The Art of Michael Heizer." December: 36.

The works are not intended as megalomaniacal exhibitions of pure magnitude or size, but they are always large enough gestures to make the viewer reflect on it. The size of his works are not superhuman or god-like as some would claim; the size of this work belongs to human capacities, even if the scale seems beyond those limits at first glance. Heizer’s first major earthwork, completed in 1969 at the age of 25, was Double Negative [Fig. 10]; two deep chasms cut into a mesa, separated by the concave undulation of the same landmass. The implied cut is 1500 feet across, the approximate length of the Empire State Building, if it were laid on its side. This is an awesome fact, but even the Empire State Building belongs to humankind; its size measurable by human faculties and physical achievements commensurate with societal progress and technological development.


A popular narrative about Heizer’s work is that it deals with emptiness and displacement. According to Dana Goodyear, Heizer has described Double Negative as a two-hundred-and-forty-thousand-ton displacement.13 Displacement has two thematic claims in this work, the first is the physical one of mass being displaced, and the second is of a body/mind displacement. The first claim is evident by the earth that has been pushed out into the space between the cuts. The second claim is supported by the critical response of Rosalind Krauss:

13 Goodyear, Dana. 2016. "A Monument to Outlast Humanity ." The New Yorker.

The effect of the Double Negative is to declare the eccentricity of the position we occupy relative to our physical and psychological centers. But it goes even further than that. Because we must look across the ravine to see the mirror image of the space we occupy, the expanse of the ravine itself must be incorporated into the enclosure formed by the sculpture. Heizer’s image therefore depicts the intervention of the outer world into the body’s internal being, taking up residence there and forming its motivations and its meanings.

14 Krauss, Rosalind E. 1977. "The Double Negative: a new syntax for sculpture." In Passages in Modern Sculpture, by Rosalind E. Krauss, 243-288. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Krauss’s analysis correlates with Heizer’s desire to produce an atmosphere of awe, and offers a spiritual reality in addition to the physical reality afforded by being there and the intellectual reality offered to us by the descriptions and analyses offered here. A spiritual perspective is afforded with respect to the material’s earthly origins: “I think earth is the material with the most potential because it is the original source material.”15 In this manifold sense of reality though, we inevitably return to the confrontation of the physical. The study of physics offers a new way to view his work and give meaning to displacement. The formula in physics for work is force times displacement, where force is determined by mass times acceleration. The quantitative result of such a gesture is not so important as the schematic, which defines the value of displacement in terms of work; the energy expended to make the displacement possible. With this original source material, Heizer produces the work of an artist, and it is through this work that displacement finds value, geometry finds order, size finds its appropriate evaluation, and context begets meaning. With the monuments of human civilizations long gone as his alibi, in the name of art, Heizer offers his work to the future as a testament to the limits of human endeavor and what it means to do work on this earth.

Max Mahaffey
Fall 2017

15 (Heizer 1984)