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Artists Michael Heizer

Michael Heizer

American Land and Enviromental Artist

Movements: Land Art, Environmental Art

Born: November 4, 1944 - Berkeley, California

Quotes

"There are works of art that can be considered works of art but don't have to be in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum."
Michael Heizer
"I'm a quiet man. I just want to make art."
Michael Heizer
"I think earth is the material with the most potential because it is the original source material."
Michael Heizer
"With size you get space and atmosphere: atmosphere becomes volume. You stand in the shape, in the zone."
Michael Heizer
"If you've even been in a field of alfalfa with the meadowlarks and the rabbits and the kingbirds, well, that's a God moment. You haven't lived until then. It's what has kept me alive."
Michael Heizer
"I'm building this work for later. I'm interested in making a work of art that will represent all the civilization to this point."
Michael Heizer
"There is nothing there, yet it is still a sculpture."
Michael Heizer
"Immense, architecturally sized sculpture creates both the object and the atmosphere."
Michael Heizer
"I'm an artist. I don't work with drawings or models. This is a creative process. It's an act of faith."
Michael Heizer
"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."
Michael Heizer
"If you want to see the Pieta, you go to Italy. To see the Great Wall, you go to China. My work isn't conceptual art, it's sculpture. You just have to go see it."
Michael Heizer
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"As long as you're going to make a sculpture, why not make one that competes with a 747, or the Empire State Building, or the Golden Gate Bridge."

Synopsis

Michael Heizer brought the childhood fascination of 'playing in the sand' to entirely new levels! His large-scale sculptures, set in specific environments so as to create dialogue with the land, helped pioneer Earth or Land art, a distinctly American art movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Shunning the commercial art market and its product, Heizer took the art experience out of the austere gallery setting and placed it synergistically in the landscape, using the earth as his medium and canvas. A location-scouter par excellence, Heizer is an early proponent of the concept of site-specificity, which becomes key to later postmodern artists involved in installation and public art. Along with Walter de Maria, Robert Smithson, and others, Heizer's pioneering work coincided with and perhaps gave momentum to the larger social and political environmental movement in the United States, with its ethic of environmental restoration, preservation, and consciousness. Like Earth Day, Earth art is very much a product of its time.

Key Ideas

Heizer's innovation comes with his rejection of traditional understandings of sculpture, where volume or mass is manipulated at the hands of a virtuoso carver or welder. In Heizer's work, volume is an absence rather than a presence, a void usually left as a result of displacement. Thus, he invites us to contemplate space, land, and our relationship to it.
While Heizer's projects are ambitious and grand in scale, the results are often subtle and poetic. He re-introduces nineteenth century Romantic art's interest in the sublime, where contemplation of the infinite leads to feelings of transcendence. These metaphysical aspects, coupled with the artist's secluded, modest life, also echo Eastern philosophies - of interest to many in his generation.
While viewers are familiar with geometric forms and the play of volume and interpenetrating space from earlier modernist sculpture, Heizer is first to magnify and superimpose those concerns on the land. Likewise, while artists had been idealizing geometry for millennia, none had previously imposed geometry at such a scale into the organic landscape.
In offering a measure of perceptual disorientation, disequilibrium, and optical illusion through his sculptural environments, Heizer spoke metaphorically about our relationship to the land, raising environmental consciousness.
By surrendering control to the elements, letting his work decay and disappear, Heizer helped to usher in the idea of impermanence as an aesthetic choice. His short-lived projects emphasized time and duration, very much in common with the concurrent ideas in Happenings and Performance Art.

Most Important Art

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

Early Years

Michael Heizer Biography

Michael Madden Heizer was born on November 4, 1944 in Berkeley, California, where he lived for most of his childhood. His parents were Robert Heizer and Nancy Elizabeth Jenkins. Making structures always came naturally to Heizer, and he began creating small-scale cities at the age of six. Out on the school yard, he used found objects, cans, glass, and rocks and built a small city on a nearby hill. The school's janitor destroyed Heizer's structure, but the principal recognized the young sculptor's potential and allowed him to rebuild.

Heizer's father Robert was a prominent archaeologist and professor at UC Berkeley who became internationally recognized for his study of the early cultures of the Americas. He was a solitary figure, addicted to his work - as Heizer would become. As a child, Heizer accompanied his father on archeological expeditions to Mexico City, Bolivia, and Peru, and was greatly inspired. He never finished high school, dropping out after a year abroad in France. Heizer admits he was a "straight F student anyway," with few friends, and little interest in sports. Both of Heizer's grandfathers were also involved in excavation; one was a chief geologist and the other ran the largest tungsten mining operation in Nevada. Thus, in line with family tradition, Heizer would return to work with the rocks of Nevada later in life.

Middle Period

Michael Heizer Photo

Heizer studied at the San Francisco Art Institute from 1963 to 1964 and began producing geometric paintings there. In 1966, he moved to New York City where he lived paycheck-to-paycheck, painting buildings for a living. One of his clients was artist Walter de Maria, and the two became friends. Heizer also befriended Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Tony Smith, and Frank Stella, all of whom he admired, both for their aesthetic and their tough attitude. All of these artists were concerned with geometry, abstract reduction, and elementary forms. Heizer and de Maria began collaborating on ideas that would become the foundation of Land or Earth art. Through these new ideas, they sought to use the earth as the primary medium, and indeed would go on to create work far from the confines of studios and galleries.

Heizer lived in SoHo at the time and continued working on small-scale paintings, carving geometric shapes out of his canvases. In 1968 he and de Maria were a part of an "Earthworks" show at Virginia Dwan's gallery. Heizer was sensitive, trying to find his way in the art world. He eventually found that neither the gallery scene nor New York were conducive for the type of art he wanted to create. He subsequently moved back west and landed in Nevada, where he began working on the type of large-scale works for which he would become known and which would consume his life.

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Michael Heizer Biography Continues

Gallery owner Virginia Dawn financially supported Heizer's first major work in the desert, Double Negative. She also purchased the first parcels of land for his project The City. Michael moved onto that land and into a small trailer where he lived with his wife Barbara. Sometimes the desert would encroach and he would be stuck inside his trailer for months because of the overgrowth on his trail. Living remotely as he did, the only other signs of life were the occasional pick-up truck passing by and his one assistant. Michael shunned media attention and was seen by his peers as a recluse, but he preferred it that way. He referred to himself as "self-entertaining," a person who didn't need friends or critics to provide feedback. He regarded his own piece Double Negative as the most incredible sculpture he had ever seen. With such confidence, Heizer believed that he had started a revolution with Land Art. He eventually came to believe that others who had followed his lead, like artist Robert Smithson, had stolen his ideas and his glory (he called Smithson a "high-speed hustler.") Heizer realized that his solitude kept him from the limelight and the credit he felt he deserved, but he preferred his lifestyle to the "frivolous" parties and gallery shows in New York City and Los Angeles. Over the years, he lost friends and further isolated himself on his ranch. Those who remained by his side admired his focus, grit, and eccentricity.

Later Years

Michael Heizer Portrait

In 1995, Michael was working on The City for 12 hours a day. He thought he was invincible; he hadn't visited a doctor or dentist in over twenty years. Suddenly, his hands and feet began to hurt and he thought he might have frostbite from working long hours in the cold. When the pain increased, he finally visited a doctor who simply prescribed Tylenol along with less drinking and smoking. When the condition persisted, he flew urgently to see another doctor in New York City. On the way, he collapsed and nearly died. Heizer was diagnosed with a neurological disorder called polyneuropathy, which causes progressive loss of the use of his hands. He spent the next four months in the hospital. Being forced to be sedentary was difficult for Heizer. His morale plummeted and he decided he wanted to halt work on City and have what was left destroyed. However, his loyal following of collectors and foundations recognized the value of the project and contributed the necessary funds and the encouragement to allow Heizer to continue his work.

After recovering, Heizer returned to his ranch and continued his work, hunkering down and investing all of his energy into his projects. The City remained the most demanding project, but he undertook other pieces as well. In subsequent years, he continued a life of isolated work, accompanied only by his second wife and former assistant, Mary Shanahan. Together they raised cattle and buffalo, and grew alfalfa. Just as Heizer was finishing his epic City in 2015, he and Mary split, and he has been living and working in the Nevada desert with only his dog, Tomato Rose, by his side. He has explained that once the work is finally complete, he plans on getting back to the studio to paint.


Legacy

Michael Heizer was one of the first American artists to move art outdoors. Along with Richard Long, Walter de Maria, Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson, he pioneered the genre of Land art or Earth art. His use of the earth as both material and setting, along with his massive scale, paved the way for younger artists such as James Turrell, Andy Goldsworthy and Maya Lin.

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Heizer created and built upon the concepts of the "un-sculpture," "negative sculpture," or "sculpture in reverse," where large-scale negative spaces became the significant focus in a piece. Artists such as Colombian Doris Salcedo, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Rachel Whiteread have followed in these footsteps, working with the negative space aspects of large-scale installations. Heizer effectively added "negation, duration, and decay" to the vocabulary of sculpture and art. He pushed the envelope with his ambitious scale and long project timelines, inspiring artists like Jeanne-Claude and Christo to conceive of ever-larger works and new thresholds of persistence, in order to realize artistic vision. As a most unique individual in America culture, Heizer provides a latter-day model for an artist's 'American Dream' and 'Manifest Destiny,' where the heroic will of a self-reliant individual may fulfill any vision and achieve the highest triumph.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Michael Heizer
Interactive chart with Michael Heizer's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Walter de Maria
Tony Smith
Carl Andre
Henry Moore
Barbara Hepworth

Friends

Heiner Friedrich
Virginia Dwan

Movements

Minimalism
Modern Sculpture
Michael Heizer
Michael Heizer
Years Worked: 1960s - Present

Artists

James Turrell
Robert Smithson
Maya Lin
Richard Serra
Andy Goldsworthy

Friends

Richard Bellamy
Sam Wagstaff

Movements

Land Art
Environmental Art



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Useful Resources on Michael Heizer

Books
Websites
Articles
More
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
written by artist
Sculpture in Reverse

By Michael Heizer and Julia Brown

Michael Heizer

By Michael Heizer

artworks
Michael Heizer: Alters

By Ruth Fine

Effigy Tumuli: The Reemergence of Ancient Mound Building

By Douglas C. McGill

Double Negative

Information on artist, works, and movement

Art's Last Lonely Cowboy

By Michael Kimmelman
Feb. 6, 2005

Michael Heizer's calling is set in stone

By Jori Finkel
May 25, 2012

Review: LACMA's new hunk 'Levitated Mass' has some substance

By Christopher Knight
June 22, 2012

Art That Puts You in a Man-Made Crater

By Andy Battaglia
March 25, 2016

More Interesting Articles about Michael Heizer
interviews
Michael Heizer

By Heiner Friedrich
3/24/16

Greg.org: the making of

By Greg Allen
April 1, 2016

films
Levitated Mass

Directed by Doug Pray
2013

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Land Art
Land Art
Land Art
Land art, or Earth art, a term coined by artist Robert Smithson, refers to artworks from the 1960s and '70s that employed land and other natural elements. It is typical of a time when artists rejected the traditional art object, expanded definitions of sculpture, and sought to move art outside the conventional art world structure of galleries and museums.
TheArtStory: Land Art
Walter de Maria
Walter de Maria
Walter de Maria
Walter de Maria is an American sculptor, composer, and multi-media artist. His works have been characterized as Minimalist, Installation, Land art, Neo-Dada, and Conceptualist. De Maria's best known work is The Lightning Field (1977), consisting of 400 lightning rods situated on a field in New Mexico.
TheArtStory: Walter de Maria
Robert Smithson
Robert Smithson
Robert Smithson
Robert Smithson was an American artist best known for his innovations in Land and Earth Art. Smithson's large-scale projects employed earth and other natural resources to construct works that both manipulated and preserved the natural landscape. His most famous work is Spiral Jetty in Utah, constructed entirely from basalt, earth and salt.
TheArtStory: Robert Smithson
Romanticism
Romanticism
Romanticism
Romanticism was a nineteenth-century movement that celebrated the powers of emotion and intuition over rational analysis or classical ideals. Romantic artists emphasized awe, beauty, and the sublime in their works, which frequently charted the darker or chaotic sides of human life.
Romanticism
Happenings
Happenings
Happenings
The term "happening" was coined by artist Allan Kaprow in 1957 to decribe a series of multi-media artworks on display in a single locale. In general, a happening is an art event, often staged or pre-scripted, that requires active participation from an audience to come to full fruition. This relatively new form of artistic media could be called participatory.
TheArtStory: Happenings
Performance Art
Performance Art
Performance Art
Performance is a genre in which art is presented "live," usually by the artist but sometimes with collaborators or performers. It has had a role in avant-garde art throughout the twentieth century, playing an important part in anarchic movements such as Futurism and Dada. It particularly flourished in the 1960s, when Performance artists became preoccupied with the body, but it continues to be an important aspect of art practice.
TheArtStory: Performance Art
Carl Andre
Carl Andre
Carl Andre
Carl Andre is an American Minimalist whose prominence rose in the late 1960s with a series of large public artworks and sculpture. His linear sculpture was included in the famed 1966 Primary Structures group exhibition at the Jewish Museum.
TheArtStory: Carl Andre
Dan Flavin
Dan Flavin
Dan Flavin
Dan Flavin was an American artist best known for his Minimalist constructions of color and light. Often using nothing more than a few dozen fluorescent bulbs for his work, Flavin was a crucial figure in the Minimalism of the 1960s and '70s. His light installations altered the physical exhibition space, and were designed as experiential art rather than visual art.
TheArtStory: Dan Flavin
Tony Smith
Tony Smith
Tony Smith
Tony Smith was a twentieth-century American sculptor and visual artist. Smith's body of work is closely aligned with the Minimalist movement, despite having close personal ties with the Abstract Expressionists Rothko, Pollock, Newman and Still. Heavily influenced by his one-time employer Frank Lloyd Wright, Smith's sculptures were comprised of modular block formations, designed to physically alter the space in which they existed. He is considered one of the key originators of the Minimalist sculpture movement.
Tony Smith
Frank Stella
Frank Stella
Frank Stella
Frank Stella is an American artist whose geometric paintings and shaped canvases underscore the idea of the painting as object. A major influence on Minimalism, his iconic works include nested black and white stripes and concentric, angular half-circles in bright colors.
TheArtStory: Frank Stella
Richard Long
Richard Long
Richard Long
Much of Richard Long's work is considered a response to the natural environments he enters, incorporating mixed-media and various non-art elements such as landscape, rock, maps, and text.
TheArtStory: Richard Long
Nancy Holt
Nancy Holt
Nancy Holt
Nancy Holt is best known for working with Earth art, Installation art, and large-scale public sculpture. After her artist husband Robert Smithson died in 1973, Holt turned her focus on her own art and created the seminal Sun Tunnels.
TheArtStory: Nancy Holt
James Turrell
James Turrell
James Turrell
James Turrell is an American artist whose works are primarily concerned with light and space. He is best known for 'Roden Crater', a project he began in 1979. For the work, Turrell is transforming this natural cinder volcanic crater into a massive naked-eye observatory.
TheArtStory: James Turrell
Andy Goldsworthy
Andy Goldsworthy
Andy Goldsworthy
Andy Goldsworthy is a British sculptor and photographer who has created site-specific Earth art all over the world. From a young age Goldsworthy worked the land as a laborer on farms; the rhythmic nature of this work influencing the way that he makes his sculptures. Goldsworthy uses photography to capture his nature-based artworks at their apexes.
Andy Goldsworthy
Maya Lin
Maya Lin
Maya Lin
Maya Lin is a Chinese-American sculptor, landscape artist and installation artist. Lin will likely be remembered most for designing the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., a commission she won at the age of 21 and while still an undergraduate student.
TheArtStory: Maya Lin
Doris Salcedo
Doris Salcedo
Doris Salcedo
Doris Salcedo is a sculptor known for her works which give form to pain, trauma, and loss, while creating a space for individual and collective mourning.
Doris Salcedo
Gordon Matta-Clark
Gordon Matta-Clark
Gordon Matta-Clark
Gordon Matta-Clark was an American artist who is most widely know for his site-specific works. In his "building cuts"series, he removed sections - floors, ceilings, and walls - from abandoned buildings. In 1970, he co-founded Food in New York, a restaurant run entirely by artists. His parents were the artists Anne Clark and Roberto Matta.
Gordon Matta-Clark
Rachel Whiteread
Rachel Whiteread
Rachel Whiteread
Rachel Whiteread is an English artist, best known for her sculptures, which typically take the form of casts. She is probably best known for Ghost, a large plaster cast of the inside of a room in a Victorian house, and for her resin sculpture for the empty plinth in London's Trafalgar Square. She won the annual Turner Prize in 1993-the first woman to win the prize. Whiteread is one of the Young British Artists, and exhibited at the Royal Academy's Sensation exhibition in 1997.
Rachel Whiteread
Jeanne-Claude
Jeanne-Claude
Jeanne-Claude
Jeanne-Claude was a Moroccan-born French artist known for her environmental works and her collaborations with her husband Christo. Jeanne-Claude and Christo created monumental artworks that were both aesthetically beautiful, which was of great importance to Jeanne-Claude, and often overtly political.
Jeanne-Claude
Christo
Christo
Christo
Christo is a Bulgarian land and environmental artist, best known as one half of the married artist team Christo and Jeanne-Claude (his wife who died in 2009). Together, Christo and Jeanne-Claude created temporary land art installations, so grand in scale and ambition that controversy often followed. The best known examples of their work include Wrapped Coast (1969) in Little Bay, Australian, Wrapped Reichstag (1995) in Berlin, and The Gates (2004) in New York City.
TheArtStory: Christo
Environmental Art
Environmental Art
Environmental Art
Environmental art refers to art dealing with ecological issues and/or the natural, such as the formal, the political, the historical, or the social context. In its early phases it was most associated with sculpture. The expanding term of environmental art also encompasses the scope of the urban landscape.
Environmental Art
Henry Moore
Henry Moore
Henry Moore
Henry Moore was an English sculptor and artist. He was best known for his abstract monumental bronze sculptures. His forms are usually abstractions of the human figure, typically depicting reclining figures, or even more commonly, the mother and child theme.
TheArtStory: Henry Moore
Barbara Hepworth
Barbara Hepworth
Barbara Hepworth
Barbara Hepworth was an English sculptor. She helped develop modern sculpture, along with her contemporaries Henry Moore and Naum Gabo. She won a scholarship and studied at the Leeds School of Art in 1920, where she met Moore.
TheArtStory: Barbara Hepworth
Heiner Friedrich
Heiner Friedrich
Heiner Friedrich
Heiner Friedrich is a German art dealer, and gallery and museum founder. In 1974, he helped start New York's Dia Art Foundation and in 2011 Friedrich opened a contemporary art museum in Traunreut, Germany entitled DASMAXIMUM.
Heiner Friedrich
Virginia Dwan
Virginia Dwan
Virginia Dwan
Virginia Dwan was a prominent art dealer and Los Angeles gallery owner who played a key role in promoting several high-profile artists of the mid to late twentieth century. Working alongside the likes of Andre, Reinhardt, Guston, de Maria and Smithson, Dwan's interests and dealings spanned many different movements, including Minimalism, Neo-Expressionism and Land art.
Virginia Dwan
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism emerged as a movement in New York in the 1960s, its leading figures creating objects which blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and were characterized by unitary, geometric forms and industrial materials. Emphasizing cool anonymity over the passionate expression of the previous generation of painters, the Minimalists attempted to avoid metaphorical associations, symbolism, and suggestions of spiritual transcendence.
TheArtStory: Minimalism
Modern Sculpture
Modern Sculpture
Modern Sculpture
Modern sculpture emerged in the late-nineteenth century out of the collapse of the academic tradition and the exhaustion of older traditions of figurative public sculpture. It was initiated by Auguste Rodin, but it evolved throughout the twentieth century to encompass a wide variety of approaches to object-making.
Modern Sculpture
Richard Serra
Richard Serra
Richard Serra
Richard Serra is an American Process and Minimalist artist. His sculptures have ranged from hurled drips of molten lead to gigantic steel pieces installed in public places.
TheArtStory: Richard Serra
Richard Bellamy
Richard Bellamy
Richard Bellamy
Richard Bellamy was a New York art dealer whose Green Gallery was one of the most important showcases of avant-garde art during the American art explosion of the early 1960s. He devoted much of his later curatorial career to the work of artist Mark di Suvero.
Richard Bellamy
Sam Wagstaff
Sam Wagstaff
Sam Wagstaff
Samuel Wagstaff was an American art curator an collector who is most well known for being the benefactor of Robert Mapplethrope and Patti Smith.
Sam Wagstaff
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