Friday, September 14, 2012

Designer of the Month: Michael Heizer

Week 2: North, East, South, West and Double Negative

My first exposure to Michael Heizer's artwork was through Dia:Beacon, home to North, East, South, West (1967/2002), one of his earliest Earthworks, and Heizer's first deliberate use of negative space within the Earth itself.[1] To create the work, Heizer used wood and sheet metal to form four sculptural "elements" of various sizes and shapes, placing two of them, North and South, in the ground in California, in the Sierra Nevada.[2] In 2002, Dia:Beacon had the work constructed out of weathering steel, in its entirety, as a permanent feature of the museum. "These four diverse sculptural elements," Michael Govan explains, "— two stacked cubic forms, one larger and one smaller (North); a cone (South); a triangular trough (West); and an inverted truncated cone (East)—together measure more than 125 feet in length, and sink from the floor of the gallery to a depth of 20 feet."[3]

Michael Heizer, North, East, South, West, 1967/2002. Dia Art Foundation, gift of Lannan Foundation. Photograph by Tom Vinetz. Courtesy of Dia:Beacon

If you've ever been to Dia:Beacon, you'll certainly remember this work. Although the museum doesn't let you get close enough to see into any of the forms other than North, they're a dominating void in a magnificent space. For those of you who haven't had an opportunity to visit the museum, if you're ever in the New York City area, I would highly recommend a visit. The town of Beacon is located about an hour and a half North of the city and is very close to the train station, making it a great day trip even for people without cars. Housed in a former Nabisco printing factory, the museum is lit almost entirely by natural light through the many large windows and skylights throughout, and as such, it's hours of operation change dramatically based on the seasons. It's simply one of the most impressive spaces and collections of contemporary art that I've ever come across, and it makes sense that Heizer's work is an important part of its permanent collection. It may be difficult to grasp the significance of a work such as North, East, South, West, but when it was first developed, there was really no precedence to its dimensions.[4] Of course, Heizer was just getting started. As Govan explains of the work:
Heizer prefers the term size to scale in descriptions of his work, in part to emphasize the factual and visual implications of the actual distance traversed by the eye or on foot in viewing it. The sheer physical dimensions of North, East, South, West, and its physical integration into, or displacement of, the fabric of the Dia building, force an entirely different viewing experience from that of traditional sculpture in the round, an experience that is a function less of movement to allow multiple viewpoints than of the extended journey in time and space required to comprehend it. And the fact that the sculpture literally displaces the floor on which the visitor walks creates a sense of potential physical danger that further challenges the viewing experience.[5]  
Michael Heizer, Double Negative, 1969. 240,000-ton displacement of rhyolite and sandstone, 1500 x 50 x 30 ft. Located in Mormon Mesa, Overton, Nevada. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles Gift of Virginia Dwan. Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

While North, East, South, West represents Heizer's first use of negative space within the landscape, Double Negative (1969) is his first true Earthwork, and despite its remote physical location, (it's part of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles' permanent collection, but the work itself is located in the Nevada desert) is one of the single most influential works within the cannon of contemporary art.[6] Seem unlikely? Maybe, but stick with me here, because it may not look like much is going on, but there's actually quite a bit at stake. As MOCA Director Richard Koshaleck and Curator Kerry Brougher describe the work:
Monumental in scale and imposing in presence, the approximately 1,500-foot-long Double Negative is, as its title suggests, an absence, a removal. Two long, straight trenches, 30 feet wide and 50 feet deep and displacing 240,000 tons of desert sandstone, art cut into the 'tabletop' of the Mormon Mesa, located approximately 80 miles from Las Vegas and 5 miles from the small town of Overton, Nevada. The cuts face each other across an indentation in the plateau's scalloped perimeter, forming a continuous image, a thick linear volume that bridges and includes the 'negative' space between them.[7]
Michael Heizer, Double Negative, 1969. Courtesy of double negative.

Double Negative is, admittedly, a difficult work to either understand or love. Blurring the lines between sculpture, architecture and landscape, its the embodiment of absence on a monumental scale; not only does it take its surroundings into account, but it is, quite literally, a part of them.[8] And then, of course, is that fact that it's located in the middle of the Nevada desert. The concept that a work of art must be housed and displayed within the confines of a gallery or museum was an idea that artists like Heizer were attempting to break away from with such works, and Double Negative's massive scale, distant location and immobility are all vital components of this experimenting and redefining process.[9]

[1] Michael Govan, "Exhibitions: Michael Heizer, Introduction," Dia Art Foundation online,, (accessed September 12, 2012).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Richard Koshaleck and Kerry Brougher, "Foreward," from Michael Heizer: Double Negative, Sculpture in the Land, (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 1991), 10.

[7] Ibid., 10.

[8] Ibid., 10.

[9] Ibid., 10.

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