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Michael Heizer's calling is set in stone

The creator of the 'Levitated Mass' sculpture at LACMA, whose centerpiece is a 340-ton boulder, Michael Heizer is no stranger to exploring the complexities of giant stone.

May 25, 2012|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times
  • "I'm not very good at making small things," says Michael Heizer, whose "levitated Mass" installation at LACMA features a 340-ton boulder.
"I'm not very good at making small things," says Michael… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

In early 1969, a young artist working in the Nevada desert had an idea for an epic sculpture. Michael Heizer had found a 120-ton boulder in the mountains and wanted to set it above a trench dug in a dry lake bed.

Visitors would be able to walk into the trench and look up at the giant rock, as though it were floating overhead. It would be a means of celebrating and also updating the tradition of ancient monoliths by giving a rare view of a stone from underneath.

He called the work "Levitated Mass."

PHOTOS: The rock's journey to LACMA

With a small crew, he dug the trench in the lake bed, but the boulder was a problem. "We went to lift the rock up, and it broke the boom on the crane," Heizer recalled.

He couldn't afford to rent a larger crane, so the project stalled.

He went on to create other artworks out of big rocks. But he never gave up the idea of making a monumental stone sculpture that appears to defy gravity and challenges our expectations of scale. Now, after more than four decades, $10 million in funding and much determination, Heizer is finally seeing his original vision realized.

He calls the new work "Levitated Mass," like the first, and this time, it's even larger: a 340-ton boulder suspended above a 456-foot-long concrete channel.

The rock, which became an unlikely celebrity during a high-profile, 11-day journey from a Riverside quarry, reached the L.A. County Museum of Art in March. The artist arrived at the museum soon after, spending about four weeks on site overseeing the channel construction and rock placement. The museum says the installation will open June 24.

But Heizer, 67, was not working to meet any particular deadline.

"Artwork is not like a commercial business; there is no such thing as a schedule for art. You can't hurry art," he said in April, while living in his Airstream trailer on the grounds of LACMA, with his wife Mary and their border collie Tomato Rose. Heizer suffers from polyneuropathy, or nerve damage, as well as poor circulation, which can make flying difficult, and the couple had driven the trailer from their Nevada ranch to the museum.

The famously reclusive artist spoke in detail about technical matters such as grinding sections of the rock to create more surface area to rest on the channel walls. There will also be pins and wedges to ensure the rock doesn't budge. He did not say much about the artwork's meaning.

It was hard to tell whether he was amused or indifferent to the spectacle created by the boulder's slow-motion, late-night odyssey, which inspired a diverse fan following, block parties and at least one marriage proposal.

At the time, Heizer was at home at his solar-powered ranch, where he lives off the grid in a remote stretch of southeast Nevada. But he caught a bit of the frenzy over the rock.

"I turned on CNN, and there it was. But they didn't even mention my name," Heizer said.

He said he was not entirely surprised by the boulder's devoted fans. "I think people need a religious object," he said. He also understands the fascination of watching a 206-wheel, 300-foot-long transporter try to maneuver an object as wide as many streets: "The drivers told me their wheels were scrubbing the curb."

For Heizer the real question is whether the public enthusiasm for the rock will translate into engagement with the finished artwork. "I think there is a draw from the rock itself, a magnetism we will see when the sculpture is completed," he said. "But will the artwork have the same interest value as moving the rock around did?"

He paused, shrugged his thin shoulders and then, perhaps answering his own question, added: "I make static art, not dynamic art. That's what I do."

"Static art" is Heizer's shorthand for the longevity or durability of projects like the boulder installation, designed "to last 3,500 years," he said. The boulder itself is about 150 million years old.

Heizer found it in December 2006.

Michael Govan, who was then planning a public art program for LACMA as its new director and knew of Heizer's abiding interest in making "Levitated Mass," vividly remembers the phone call.

"Mike was calling from the Ontario airport and said: 'I found this amazing rock,'" Govan said. "He referred to it as the Colossi of Memnon and compared it to the great pink granite Egyptian obelisks for the quality of the stone. He said it was one of the greatest rocks he'd ever seen."

Heizer made the discovery during blasting at a Riverside quarry, where he'd gone to pick out three 100-ton rocks for other projects.

"I was there when they did a black powder shot on that wall, and I saw a lot of dust," he said. "Then I saw this rock land 40 feet up from the quarry floor."

It looked "just like my original rock," he said, calling it "granitic" in composition and "pyramid-like" in shape. At first glance, he thought the boulder might weigh as much as 1,000 tons. Quarries in the business of selling small rocks would consider such a large stone a mistake. Heizer saw its power.

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