"What I liked about this rock was 98% size, 2% looks."
It would be the right kind of boulder to create art on the scale of architecture. "The size thing is not some gimmick or attention-getting trick but a genuine undercurrent of the work," Heizer said. "Frank Gehry for instance likes to imagine his buildings as sculptures. I like to imagine my sculptures as architectural."
Gehry, who has known Heizer for decades, visited the site of "Levitated Mass" at LACMA in April, walking into the channel and looking up at the boulder. "It was awesome," he said, even with cranes and workers around.
Heizer explained his fascination with size — he prefers the word "scale" — with reference to Abstract Expressionism. "The history of American art in a way begins with Jackson Pollock and his big paintings," he said. "This theme of bigness — all painters and sculptors have dealt with it ever since."
Heizer grew up around rocks, quarries and archaeological digs. One of his grandfathers was a mineralogist and chief geologist for the state of California; his other ran a tungsten mine; and his father Robert was an archaeologist who published papers on the ancient transport of large stones.
Born in 1944 in Berkeley, where his father taught, Heizer was "a straight-F student," he once said. He attended the San Francisco Art Institute from 1963 to '64 before moving to New York. After a few years there, where he made abstract paintings, he felt constrained by lack of space.
"My paintings are big too. I'm not very good at making small stuff," he said.
Though he kept a studio in New York for the next two decades, he was drawn like other earthwork artists to the desert. In 1969, after his first abortive attempt at "Levitated Mass" in Nevada, he made one of his best-known works there.
With a bulldozer, explosives and funding from pioneering L.A. gallery owner Virginia Dwan, he moved 240,000 tons of earth to carve a pair of gashes into the Mormon Mesa, not far from Las Vegas. The work, "Double Negative," stretches for 1,500 feet — "longer than the Empire State Building lying on its side," Heizer said.
He went on to make other sculptures by moving land ("displaced mass") and paying attention to the resulting hole ("negative space"). Boulders became a favorite material. "I like granite because it's hard," he said. "Sandstone, marble, the traditional sculpting materials don't work for me."
For a 1977 project, later installed outside the Marina del Rey home of Roy and Carol Doumani, he planted four granite boulders of different sizes into lid-less concrete boxes in the earth so that the tops of the rocks are roughly level with the ground.
"Displaced/Replaced Mass" is visible from the beach as well as from a walk street. "People come by and ask if it's a fire pit, or if there are bodies buried there," Carol Doumani said. "We appreciate the way it brings nature to the house."
For a 1982 work at the IBM Building in Manhattan, Heizer sheared off the top of a large rock and cut grooves into the surface before setting it on supports hidden within a stainless steel structure. Designed as a fountain, the boulder appears to float over running water. He called the work "Levitated Mass" as well, explaining: "I don't use Greek names as titles, or dedicate artworks to my friends. I simply describe what it is."
Then there's the project that is taking longer to build than his epic "Levitated Mass": a mile-and-a-half-long art installation on private land near his ranch in Nevada, begun in 1970 and still in progress. Made largely out of earth, "City" consists of geometric depressions, mounds and plazas linked by unpaved roads.
According to the few who have seen it, the project is a compendium of his sculptural ideas comparable in complexity to ancient ceremonial cities like Chichen Itza in the Yucatan.
Asked when the public might be able to see "City," Heizer said: "It will be done in the next few years. You can't show it until it's done."
Govan, who sits on the board of the foundation that owns the site and raises money for the project, said it is, like a city, "too complex to take in at a glance."
He first visited the site in 1994 as director of Dia: Beacon, the New York museum known for its support of earthworks. Since then, Govan has become Heizer's greatest ally in the art world, raising $10 million from private donors to realize "Levitated Mass" and serving as a spokesman for the artist.
While others have criticized Heizer for being prickly or difficult, Govan praises him as "uncompromising" and "self-reliant." Heizer "is not buddy buddy with a lot of people," he added.
This has affected the visibility of Heizer's work, rarely shown at any scale by galleries or museums. Heizer did not, for example, let the Museum of Contemporary Art include any of his work in its upcoming "land art" survey, even though it owns "Double Negative."
Gehry suspects that Heizer's personality "evolved as a way to protect the time that an artist needs to make his mark."
"I envy that," the architect said.
Documentary filmmaker Doug Pray, who is making a movie that tracks the boulder's journey from quarry to museum, said he came to admire the artist's single-minded focus.
"He's completely involved with the workers — very hands-on and very clear about what he wants, coming from a huge knowledge base of working with stone. He just doesn't want to sit there and pontificate about his own work," Pray said.
Or, as Heizer himself likes to say, his art can speak for itself.
PHOTOS: The rock's journey to LACMA