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Michael Heizer Photo

Michael Heizer

American Land and Enviromental Artist

Born: November 4, 1944 - Berkeley, California
Movements and Styles:
Earth Art
Environmental Art
"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."
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Michael Heizer Signature
"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."
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Michael Heizer Signature
"I'm a quiet man. I just want to make art."
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Michael Heizer Signature
"I think earth is the material with the most potential because it is the original source material."
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Michael Heizer Signature
"With size you get space and atmosphere: atmosphere becomes volume. You stand in the shape, in the zone."
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Michael Heizer Signature
"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."
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Michael Heizer Signature
"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."
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Michael Heizer Signature
"There is nothing there, yet it is still a sculpture."
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Michael Heizer Signature
"Immense, architecturally sized sculpture creates both the object and the atmosphere."
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Michael Heizer Signature
"I'm an artist. I don't work with drawings or models. This is a creative process. It's an act of faith."
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Michael Heizer Signature
"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."
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Michael Heizer Signature
"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."
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Michael Heizer Signature

Summary of Michael Heizer

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.


  • 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 19th 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.

Important Art by Michael Heizer

Progression of Art

North, East, South, West

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Biography of Michael Heizer

Early Years

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

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.

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

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.

The Legacy of Michael Heizer

Michael Heizer was one of the first American artists to move art outdoors. Along with Alan Sonfist, 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.

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 Christo and Jean-Claude 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
Michael Heizer
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
  • Heiner Friedrich
    Heiner Friedrich
  • Virginia Dwan
    Virginia Dwan
Movements & Ideas
Friends & Personal Connections
  • Richard Bellamy
    Richard Bellamy
  • Sam Wagstaff
    Sam Wagstaff
Open Influences
Close Influences

Useful Resources on Michael Heizer

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Michael Heizer Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 15 Jul 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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