A Land Art Masterpiece or Colossal Concrete Biohazard?

After five decades, Michael Heizer is ready to pull back the curtain on his magnum opus, the monumental and otherworldly City in the Nevada desert. Though no doubt an astonishing feat of human ingenuity, its artistic merit is tougher to pin down.

“Complex One, City” by Michael Heizer. Photography by Mary Converse, courtesy Triple Aught Foundation

Nearly everything about Michael Heizer’s monumental City, a sprawling Land Art megastructure in the remote Nevada desert, feels superlative in nature. Hell-bent on realizing his life’s work exactly to his specifications, Heizer chipped away at the project over 52 agonizing years. The work itself spans a mile and a half long and half a mile wide, punctuated with pristine dirt mounds, depressions, and concrete triangular monoliths that toe the line between alien and primitive. The nearest traces of civilization, besides Area 51 and Yucca Mountain, sit an hour away, past a few mountain ranges and on a former livestock trail. 

Its origin story is also the stuff of lore, mythologized over time as somewhat of an “art-world Atlantis.” Riding the high from the success of Land Art masterpiece Double Negative (1969), whose deft use of negative space proved influential, Heizer promised an equally audacious follow-up. The pyramids of Egypt were fresh on his mind after an expedition to Luxor, and armed with a loan from art dealer Virginia Dwan, he bought land in Garden Valley, Nevada, to begin working on Complex One, just one component of the now-completed City. Decades of setbacks—health issues and funding mishaps—stymied progress, and Heizer considered demolishing City until Dia’s new director, Michael Govan, intervened and helped push it over the finish line.

“45°, 90°, 180°, City” by Michael Heizer. Photography by Ben Blackwell, courtesy Triple Aught Foundation

Fast forward to today, and Heizer is finally ready to reveal City to the world, albeit slowly—the remote location, unforgiving terrain, and Heizer’s dedication to keeping the site as undisturbed as possible mean that only six people are allowed to visit per day, weather permitting. All visitors must book a reservation, which costs $150 for adults and $100 for students. The new nonprofit Triple Aught Foundation will oversee the sculpture and build a $30 million endowment for its upkeep. Major institutions like the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Glenstone Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art are lending their custodianship. “I’m a fool, alone, helplessly watching as they wait for me to die so they can turn my ranch into a gift shop and motel,” Heizer told the New York Times. “This is a masterpiece, or close to it, and I’m the only one who cares whether the thing is actually done.”

When asked to peel back the layers behind City, Heizer demurred. “I am not here to tell people what it all means,” he told the Times. “You can figure it out for yourself.” While the work is up for interpretation, the site’s complicated environmental legacy has been well-documented. The work germinated at the dawn of the environmental era but sits near the Nevada Test Site, which for years belched remnants from ‘50s-era nuclear detonations across the region. 

“45°, 90°, 180°, City” by Michael Heizer. Photography by Joe Rome, courtesy Triple Aught Foundation
“45°, 90°, 180°, City” by Michael Heizer. Photography by Joe Rome, courtesy Triple Aught Foundation

Today, the Nevada Test Site contains some of the world’s most radioactive land areas, with underground testing having irradiated dirt, rubble, and aquifers near the site. City also makes heavy use of concrete, a building material responsible for roughly eight percent of the world’s carbon emissions. Some early evaluations have been unsparing—an “ecological mess” according to New York art critic Jerry Saltz; a “toxic concrete biohazard” stated Instagram architecture watchdog Dank Lloyd Wright.

There’s also the notion that Land Art is rife with masculine gestures—egotistical monuments disturbing nature to valorize the sole creative genius behind them. In that sense, City doesn’t depart from the norm. “Land Art has long had a reputation as a masculine arena populated by rugged men reshaping remote landscapes with heavy machinery,” art historian Jacob Proctor told Smithsonian. “Although recent scholarship has complicated this reductive reading, it has proven remarkably consistent.” Nancy Holt’s nearby Sun Tunnels disrupted that stigma, as did Judy Chicago’s ethereal Atmospheres, created as a sly rebuff to a Richard Serra artwork that involved felling Redwoods. With all this in mind, is City a masterpiece or a monstrosity? Like so many of history’s monumental artworks, the debate is sure to rage on. 

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