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Michael Heizer - Biography and Legacy

American Land and Enviromental Artist

Movements and Styles: Earth Art, Environmental Art

Born: November 4, 1944 - Berkeley, California

Michael Heizer Timeline

"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."

Michael Heizer Signature
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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 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.

Most Important Art

Michael Heizer Famous 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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Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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