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Michael Heizer

American Land and Enviromental Artist

Movements and Styles: Land Art, Environmental Art

Born: November 4, 1944 - Berkeley, California

Michael Heizer Timeline

Important Art by Michael Heizer

The below artworks are the most important by Michael Heizer - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

North, East, South, West (1967/2002)
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North, East, South, West (1967/2002)

Artwork description & Analysis: The original 1967 version of this sculpture marks Heizer's first experiment with Earth art. Adapting the geometric paintings he had been working on in New York into three dimensions, Heizer effectively began using the land as his canvas. He excavated a cube and a cone shape out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, each four feet across and four feet deep. He was interested in the potential impact of the negative space created by the displaced gravel. In essence, Heizer was experimenting with a new kind of sculpture made of air, where the artist is merely a facilitator or 'framer' of what is already there in nature. Modest and somewhat metaphysical, this experiment represented a pivotal turn in his early career, though this particular work remained unfinished.

Thirty-five years later, Heizer was commissioned to re-create North, East, South, West as a permanent, indoor installation. The new version features four geometric recesses or depressions in the gallery floor: again a cube to represent the North, a cone to represent the South, a triangular trough representing West, and an inverted, truncated cone for East. When measured together, their total length is now an impressive 125 feet. Furthermore, each depression now falls 20 feet below the gallery floor, which is where the shape may be fully observed.

This artwork contrasts traditional understandings of sculpture, where volume or mass are the focus. In Heizer's work, the volume is an absence rather than a presence. By 'framing the emptiness,' the artist invites us to contemplate, or even meditate on very earth we walk upon. Viewers are encouraged to gaze upon and consider the void left by the displaced earth, but only with their eyes. The switch in perception might be understood as a metaphor for human humility and greater environmental sensitivity, in keeping with his sympathies for both Eastern philosophy and the environmental movement.

Munich Depression (1969)
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Munich Depression (1969)

Artwork description & Analysis: This large-scale, temporary work was created and experienced over the course of a few weeks in a plot on the outskirts of Munich in Germany. It was the first work Heizer created in an urban setting. Using large bulldozers, he dug a pit, 100 feet wide and 16 feet deep. He removed approximately 1,000 tons of earth, leaving a shallow conical depression, marked by traces of the heavy machinery utilized. Then, visitors were invited to descend into the ditch to experience it first-hand. When looking up and out, a viewer would see a kind of floating, limitless horizon, with no defined edge. The perspective afforded created an optical illusion, where space, scale, orientation and equilibrium were disturbed.

Beyond the perceptual aspects, participants who experienced Munich Depression were invited to think about their personal relationship to the land and sky. While we generally rely on a horizon line for orientation and stability, viewers of this work likely realized how much it is taken for granted. This might be understood as a metaphor for life - its challenges, and our capacity to adapt. Additionally, one cannot fully ignore the specific location chosen, and the double-entendre of the title. A shallow pit in the German landscape conjured certain associations a mere 25 years after World War II, and the Holocaust (Munich's Dachau concentration camp was one of the most horrific).

The fact that the pit was refilled in a matter of weeks demonstrates the artist's reverence for the land. It also underscores the nature of the work as a kind of temporary event or performance. An ephemeral, participatory experience - or Happening as it was often called - was very prevalent in the art world at the time. It reflected less an interest in art as valuable market product and more as a communal experience. The photographic aspect of both Land art and its related, participatory events grew out of the obvious necessity to document these fleeting works. Heizer indeed documented Munich Depression in a 360-degree photographic panorama, taken from inside the pit. It later became its own work titled Munich Rotary (1970).

Double Negative (1969-1970)
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Double Negative (1969-1970)

Artwork description & Analysis: One of his most important works, Double Negative is a pioneering work of Earth or Land art, marking the beginning of this distinctly American movement. It is one of the earliest examples of large-scale, ambitious, site-specific art projects, created outside of the established art world.

Heizer created this sculpture purely through the act of subtraction. With the use of blasting and heavy equipment, he excavated two enormous trenches in the Mormon Mesa of a remote location in southeast Nevada. Removing over 240,000 tons of rhyolite and sandstone, he created two perfectly geometric trenches, each 1,500 feet long, 50 feet deep, and 30 feet wide. The two incisions in the earth line up perfectly, mirroring each other from opposite sides of the canyon. The shape implied by the two negative spaces becomes visually united as a corridor across the divide - hence a double negative.

Visitors can walk around and inside both trenches. Indeed, Earth or Land art meant for audiences to experience the landscape with and through the art. The enormous sense of scale and infinite views echoes the 19th century Romantic concept of the sublime, where viewers' contemplation of their relationship to the land may result in feelings of transcendence. Ironically, however, the scale of the work is so expansive, that the enormity of the gesture can only be fully viewed from the air.

Earth art went out into the landscape in an "anti-establishment" gesture and forced the audience to reconsider their notions of what art is or could be. With this piece, Heizer asks the viewer to consider how the earth relates to art, and vise versa, so as to blur their distinctions. In so doing, he extends the ideas and possibilities of modern art. At the same time, while the work took an enormous human effort, its modest, remote existence functions as a counterpoint to its own monumentality. Heizer had no illusions about the permanence of the work, conceding that it would change and perhaps disappear over time. In that regard, the artist underscores the triviality of man's attempt to impose his will on the environment.

The City (1972-)
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The City (1972-)

Artwork description & Analysis: Rising out of the remote Nevada desert at a scale equivalent to over 100 football fields, The City may be one of the most ambitious artworks ever undertaken by an American artist. Begun in 1972 and still under construction, The City - as its name suggests - has become an entire landscape onto itself.

The City consists of a network of giant geometric forms, mounds, pits, walls, and other freestanding structures. It is built with natural area soil, found rocks and dyed clay, as well as concrete and granite. The compound is organized into five "phases," each of which is made up of various structures the artist calls complexes. Phase One, which is the most well-known, has three complexes, the largest of which is a quarter mile long and over 80 feet tall. While the 'city plan' varies from complex to complex, taken together it is more horizontal in nature, blending seamlessly into the landscape. Until it is finished, viewers are only able to experience the artwork through photographs.

The City is a departure from Heizer's other signature works in that it is built upon the earth. Unlike Heizer's more subtle "negative sculpture," this one boasts massive volume - a more traditional approach to sculpture. City was partially inspired by Native American mound-building traditions, as well as by the ancient cities of Central and South America, such as Chitchen Itza in the Yucatan. As a young man, Heizer visited these sites with his archeologist father. The work also makes references to Sumerian ziggurats and other elevated temples and ancient holy sites. In so doing, it demonstrates a unifying of past and present where the minimalistic, abstract ideals of modern art enmesh with the spirit and ceremony of ancient complexes.

Over 40 years in the making, The City is significant not only for its massive scale but also as a sort of symbol for an artist's version of the American dream, where one can fulfill their wildest imagination with hard work and determination. While Heizer's piece is indeed epic, in the context of the vast Nevada horizon, it remains humble and anti-monumental, drawing the viewer to the sublime beauty and awe of nature. And while he created a work that is reminiscent of past wonders of human accomplishment, it is also a very personal and almost childlike realization of a fanciful vision. More recently, when the area was threatened with an encroaching nuclear waste facility, cultural institutions and sympathetic politicians protested. In 2016, President Obama declared the site a national monument, protecting it for generations to come.

Effigy Tumuli (1983-1985)
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Effigy Tumuli (1983-1985)

Artwork description & Analysis: Effigy Tumuli is an enormous work that stretches across half of the 300-acre Buffalo Rock State Park, about 80 miles south-west of Chicago. Heizer's only representational work, it depicts five animals native to the land: catfish, water strider, frog, turtle, and snake. Each a work unto itself, the creatures are simplified into abstract geometric forms and take on a massive scale. The fish, strider, and frog are made of earthen mounds, while the turtle and snake incorporate existing natural formations. There is a trail that meanders through the figures so that visitors may experience them close up. They are invited to climb on top of each mound and read informational signs.

The epic mounds of Effigy Tumuli were created as a sort of restoration effort after the land had been damaged by coalmining. The owner of the former mine had an interest in art and commissioned Heizer to create the piece as a counterbalance to the invasive work which had been done there. While playful and childlike in nature, the artwork acknowledges the unnecessary destruction of the natural habitat, a sort of effigy, and suggests a rebirth. Thus, while differing from his earlier work, the piece represents a continued interest in environmental issues.

Effigy Tumuli clearly shows the influence of ancient Native American burial mounds ("Tumuli" is plural for tumulus, a burial mound.) Specifically, Heizer evokes the famous Serpent Mound in nearby Ohio, which features a snake. In this way, the artist acknowledges his inspiration and implicitly suggests that we respect the land as our ancient ancestors did. Ironically, unlike our ancient ancestors who could never see their work in its entirety, contemporary viewers are able to take in the full Earth work through aerial photography.

Levitated Mass (2012)
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Levitated Mass (2012)

Artwork description & Analysis: Levitated Mass is a permanent installation on the grounds of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It consists of a 465-foot-long concrete ramp, crowned by a colossal 340-ton granite boulder, bolted to steel shelves. Visitors gradually descend the ramp, 15 feet at its deepest, until the surrounding landscape disappears.

Heizer originally conceived this piece in 1969 and recorded the idea in a drawing. There was an initial attempt to produce it that same year with a smaller boulder in the Sierras near Reno, Nevada. However, the rock was too heavy for the machinery of the time, and the project halted. In 2007, while Heizer was working at a quarry, he encountered this granite boulder. It inspired him to work with LACMA director Michael Govan to revisit the project. Eventually, the selected rock was moved, only at night and on a specially designated route from Nevada to Los Angeles. It was one of the largest megaliths moved since ancient times. The title ironically belies the efforts involved - both for us as well as for ancient civilizations - in moving parts of the earth.

As with much of Heizer's work, negative space is key; both the negative space of the excavated corridor, as well as the negative shapes enclosed between the contours of the boulder and the edges of the wall. By juxtaposing organic and geometric form, the artist brings together the natural and the manmade. Placing us underneath the rock offers us a fresh perspective on our surrounding geology as compared with the ubiquitous concrete structures of our urban environments. Furthermore, Heizer creates a link between the monument-building traditions of ancient civilizations (most notably, Stonehenge) and the modern technology of abstract minimalist sculpture. In so doing, he makes us conscious of a long span of art and architecture history. The new ways of seeing the earth that Levitated Mass affords are very much in line with the basic tenets of the genre Michael Heizer created.



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Related Art and Artists

Spiral Jetty (1970)
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Spiral Jetty (1970)

Artist: Robert Smithson

Artwork description & Analysis: The northern section of the Great Salt Lake, where Smithson chose to site Spiral Jetty, was cut off from fresh water supplies when a nearby causeway was constructed by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1959. This encouraged the water's unique red-violet coloration, because it produced a concentration of salt-tolerant bacteria and algae. Smithson particularly liked the combination of colors because it evoked a ruined and polluted sci-fi landscape. And, by inserting the Jetty into this damaged section, and using entirely natural materials native to the area, Smithson called attention to environmental blight. Nevertheless, he also sought to reference the importance of time in eroding and transforming our environment. The coiling structure of the piece was inspired by the growth patterns of crystals, yet it also resembles a primeval symbol, making the landscape seem ancient, even while it also looks futuristic.

Mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks, water coil - Rozel Point, Great Salt Lake, Utah

The Lightning Field (1977)
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The Lightning Field (1977)

Artist: Walter de Maria

Artwork description & Analysis: This may be De Maria's most famous work. It is an expansive installation of 400 stainless steel poles placed in a one-mile by one-kilometer grid. The rods are each two inches in diameter but extend upwards at varying heights ranging from 15 feet to 26 feet nine inches, in order to create a perfectly horizontal plane where their pointed tips stop.

This work is a significant piece of the Land art movement of the late 1960's, which began in the Southwestern United States. This piece lives in an obscure desert plain near Quemado, New Mexico, specially selected for its frequent lightning storms and isolation. The work incorporates the natural environment into art in a meaningful way, seeing the land as a critical aspect of the work, not merely a site for it. The locale was scouted precisely for its distance from other signs of human development and its ability to reflect the enormity of the landscape. The work communicates a variety of experiences of being in the landscape, and simultaneously asks individual visitors to meditate on the moment, while contemplating shifts in light and perceptions of time and space in their changing vastness.

The poles were placed outside, rather than in a museum or gallery so the work reveals the significance of the setting, beyond the built, sculptural aspect. The title calls attention to the tantalizing possibility of highly ephemeral illumination from irregularly occurring natural lighting strikes, potentially drawn down from the sky into the field by the rods. It also calls for awareness of the surrounding landscape, and the relationship between art and nature. The earth is an integral part of the artwork and acts as a canvas while also drawing attention to the sky as part of the larger environment, and our relationship to it. Visitors must travel to this remote location in order to view the work, therefore incorporating the journey away from the everyday as part of the experience of the piece, which initiates a total immersion of the senses while creating an unusual degree of intimate encounter with a liberating spirit.

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