PRINT February 1986


SINCE THE LATE ’60S Michael Heizer has pushed Modernism toward the ancient builders of megaliths and carvers of the earth’s surface—simultaneously backward and forward. Drawing and forming with the tools of industrial engineering and building technology, he has blended the tenets of Quetzalcoatl with those of Marcel Duchamp, the history of art with the history of earth. Although he is hardly lacking in ambition, the mammoth size of most of his works has to do less with personal ego than with an intentionality that has made the surface of the earth the subject and the object of an acute sculptural concern with mass, volume, and materials. In his most recently completed work, at Buffalo Rock, just outside Ottawa, Illinois (75 miles southwest of Chicago), Heizer has made five vast earth mounds whose animal configurations seek a direct link with precolonial North and South America. Seeming to relinquish the militant abstraction so crucial to his previous sculpture, and to Modernism itself, he has taken a giant step into the public realm.

The flat Illinois topography has been cultivated, tamed, and occasionally even tortured by civilization. This monotonous land is far less spectacular than the desolate deserts and dry lakes that Heizer has so frequently interrupted and punctuated in the past. The site of his new sculptures looms over the region’s relentless horizontality with the kind of picturesque heroicism so favored by the Hudson River School painters, in the 19th century—a sandstone plateau carved out by the Illinois River, and standing on its north bank, about 100 feet high, half a mile wide, and a mile long. In the jargon of government and corporate bureaucrats, this once-arcadian site became severely “disturbed” after being strip-mined for low-grade coal in the ’30s. That attack on the surface left deep ridges and dank, tumorous piles which exposed in the soil an underlying acidity so toxic that even after forty years, in the late ’70s, the site could support no vegetation. Acidified surface water ran off and polluted the river and a nearby lake; the eery beauty of this sterility and erosion can still be witnessed elsewhere in the area.

Funds for the reclamation of this mined land came from a tax imposed on coal-mining companies, starting in 1977, and redistributed by the Department of the Interior to state agencies (in this case the Illinois Abandoned Mined Lands Reclamation Council). The site itself, which adjoins a small existing park, was deeded to the public by a local mining company and a foundation formed by one of its executives. (The foundation also paid Heizer’s compensation.) Plans for the park were initiated in 1978. Protracted negotiations with Isamu Noguchi proved unsuccessful; later, a panel of experts recommended a conventional sculpture park, which was rejected. Heizer was offered and accepted the commission in 1983, and construction began in the summer of 1984. The dedication, on October 29, 1985, was only slightly premature—at this writing, the work is to all intents and purposes complete. That Heizer could successfully negotiate the bureaucratic maze he was confronted with, for the duration of construction, is itself a noteworthy achievement.

Minimizing esthetic choices and maximizing the decision-making processes as they interact with and liberate the chosen material are crucial to the sculpture developed in the late ’60s by Heizer and peers of his such as Barry Le Va and Richard Serra. Heizer’s interest has always been in the primary materials of the earth itself; he has literally and figuratively used the earth as the ground for a revelation of process. At Buffalo Rock he had to incorporate the techniques and budget of reclamation into his work. He did not approach a relatively static site, but acted upon a place being ecologically reactivated. Some 460,000 cubic yards of material were excavated and graded to make more stable slopes, and about 6,000 tons of limestone were applied to reduce the acidity of the soil, making possible the establishment of vegetation. To minimize costs, Heizer’s mounds had to utilize existing protrusions and disturbances as much as possible. So that the sculptures could be accurately built, the artist had to study soil mechanics and slope permeability and to learn how to make elevation studies and topographic maps, how to use the machinery of wheel compaction responsible for the bulk of the shaping of the mounds, how to let this particular earth take a relatively stable form.

What forms was the earth to take? Heizer’s dialogue with the site’s materials was accompanied by the dialogue with American Indian cultures that has been an ongoing force in his work. The sculpture at Buffalo Rock is specifically engaged with the much-neglected earth mounds left by Indians throughout the Midwest and Southeast—many of them circular, oval, conical, or, especially along the lower Mississippi, roughly pyramidal burial structures. Other mounds take the form of effigies of birds, reptiles, humans, and quadrupeds. The largest of the extant mounds is to be found at the Cahokia Mounds Historic Site, east of East Saint Louis, Illinois; rising in several graded terraces to a flat top, it is 104 feet high, 1,080 feet long, and 710 feet wide. The effigy mounds are all considerably smaller, seldom more than 4 feet high. Heizer chose to make effigies, but, except for two, their mass and volume are related to the burial mounds or tumuli. He titled them Effigy Tumuli Sculpture.

Five effigy mounds now stand at Buffalo Rock: a water strider, a frog, a catfish, a turtle, and a snake. (The original plans for eight effigies had to be abandoned because building costs were much higher than anticipated.) All these water creatures are indigenous to the Illinois River Valley. Although turtles and snakes are not uncommon subjects of the old Indian mounds, Heizer did not simply appropriate his species and forms from Indian iconography; these are effigies, but they are first and foremost contemporary sculptures, constructed from his own vocabulary. Most Indian effigy mounds are organically rounded and simplified, but Heizer’s painting and sculpture have given body to a kind of primal clarity of plane, and he had to find a means of constructing animals congruent with his planar geometry. The structure of many animals is shrouded by skin; arthropods are a major exception, their bodies revealing their symmetry. The self-evidence of the water strider’s structure became the key to the construction of all the mounds, which were built not as mimetic representations of animals but as geometricized three-dimensional maps of animals. Each mound is a replica, vastly increased in size, of a carefully constructed and measured topographical analysis of its subject. Elevation maps of the configurations of the earth’s surface employ flat planes graduating into stepped and sloping terraces; Heizer has imposed these planes upon the earth itself. In a way, the site becomes a map of itself, for the mounds are effigies at once of animals and of the mapping procedures of their construction. The sculptures range along the southern, river side of the site, finally moving over the steep incline to the water. To varying degrees, their actual siting was adapted to the existing topography of the land; the frog, for example, was suggested by the shape of an existing hummock, and the water strider and catfish cap broader, flatter slopes compatible with their shapes. The turtle and the snake are more actively and specifically molded from the configuration of the plateau.

In a broad sense topography—the analysis of surface—and the topographical view have been major concerns of Modernism. The view as seen (Cubism, Surrealism, Expressionism, and so on) and the view down have largely supplanted the view through (the painting as window, the picturesque) and the view up (religious art, statues on pedestals and such). The topographical view became particularly critical to the radical sculptors of the mid and late ’60s (Carl Andre, Serra, Le Va, Heizer himself, and so on). In this context Heizer’s immense drawings into the ground (Nine Nevada Depressions, 1968, for example) carried over these intentions from the gallery or museum floor to the earth, while also making visual his involvement with ancient Indian cultures. They relate, for example, to the vast still drawings on the desert floor of Peru’s Nazca Valley Those drawings are level with the ground, and can only be visually grasped in their entirety from the air; although all Heizer’s Buffalo Rock effigies but the snake far exceed the viewer in height, in their extreme size they can only yield a full gestalt when viewed from on top or above.

Like all true art, Heizer’s mounds are about seeing, not recognizing. The viewer must become the topographer Upon entering the park, at the east end, one becomes aware of three states of nature: vegetation and stone bluffs at the edges of the park represent land not devastated by strip mining, and part of the original ecology; around the mounds themselves, graded, sodded, and seeded slopes, aspiring to naturalness, are the reclamations of the earth engineers; and finally the mounds, with their sodded and seeded angles congregating in prismoidal shapes, are the reclamations of the artist. Because the angularity is moderated by its grass covering, it only gradually thrusts itself upon the viewer. Once one’s eye adjusts to the place, Heizer’s forming process becomes ever more imposing. The visitor’s first encounter is with the water strider, 685 feet in length from leg to antenna and 14 feet high, placed parallel to the park’s southern, river edge and about a third of the way across the plateau. The strider’s natural geometry makes it the most readily recognizable of the mounds, once the viewer has walked between the thigh-high ridges that make up spindly antennae and legs and out onto the top of the body The angled, stepped terracing of the body is so shallow and gentle that the overall form approaches a rounded ovoid.

Moving west-southwest, one encounters the frog, at an angle to the edge of the plateau. Its near-square compactness—it is 340 feet long and 370 feet wide—makes it the most monolithic of the mounds, but its slow rise from flatness to the forward-slanting masses at the 17 1/2-foot-high summit still makes it very much of the earth. It crouches like a springy sphinx. Its interlocking planar volumes share their sumptuous angularity with the mastaba shape of Heizer’s more dramatically isolated Complex One, 1972–74, in Garden Valley, Nevada; both works blur the distinctions between sculpture and architecture, and refer to the massive earthbound geometry of early Mexican and Egyptian structures. As with the nearby water strider, this huge mound only fully relinquishes its symmetry to become a figurative form after the viewer has walked onto its top.

Size as a quality, an active participant in the dynamics of seeing, is most pronounced in the catfish, which sprawls beyond the frog in near conformity to the plateau’s west-southwest–running axis. From tail to antenna it is 770 feet in length, and from fin to fin 280 feet wide. Coming from the frog, one approaches the catfish from the rear, where at first it looks like some sort of half-submerged amphibious spaceship. The sheer size of the work makes it hard for the viewer to collect from it the attributes of a catfish—antennae, tail, fins, and scaleless roundedness. Once seeing has accumulated into recognition, recognition dissolves back into seeing, into the visual richness of the mound’s constantly unfolding panoply of planes and prismoids. Prism shapes—now approaching linearity, in the radiating antennae, now simple rounded volume, in the subtly angled terracing of the body’s bulk where it swells into curves—are studded with planar constructions at once complex in measurement and clear in profile: the dorsal, tail, and side fins are like exquisite pyramids variously rendered in radical perspective. Two independent circular mounds for the eyes complete the play of forms. Heizer has taken the painter’s acute awareness of plane and built it into sculptural mass and form.

Height is perhaps the most deceptive dimension. Because the water strider, the frog, and the catfish are so gently raised up from the rounded and graded slopes about them that they remain clearly of the earth, their height only becomes imposing when they are viewed from their tops. From there one feels dwarfed, first by one’s distance from the ground (18 feet, on the catfish); then, increasingly but still in humanly graspable terms, by the distance to the river below; then finally, and immeasurably, by the surrounding vastness. However, the viewer is not encouraged to surrender consciousness to the overpowering forces of nature but to use that consciousness in a way compatible with nature. The size of the mounds literally and figuratively grounds the artist and viewer in rational measure; the sculptures are platforms for the viewing simultaneously of their own making and of the more inscrutable procedures of the nature they are drawn from and within.

What these tumuli bury is industrially induced erosion; what they celebrate is the ability to reclaim and restructure the materials of the earth. Even the normally unnoteworthy experience of walking on the ground is incorporated into Heizer’s sculptures. Standing on the mounds one has a direct, physical awareness of the densely compacted earth that forms the mass of the works, as well as of the silky grasses whose roots hold the contours in place.

The turtle and snake mounds are lower—the snake is 7 feet high—but more specifically extruded from the topography They are more purely effigies than burial mounds. Beyond the catfish the plateau begins to fall off to the river, and the turtle plunges with it. A prismoid tapering to a point, and flanked on either side by a truncated mastaba form, lies at the top of the descent. Down below, almost at the water’s edge, are three mastaba forms, the center one higher, chunkier, and projecting forward more than the flanking two. It takes some effort to see that the arcs made by the interior edges of these six forms outline a fat oval—the turtle’s shell—and to connect the tail and feet above to the head and feet below. (The overall length is 650 feet.) Heizer has not modeled the intervening ground; he has left the normally regular pattern of the turtle’s shell to be suggested by the random pattern of the ridges and rivulets carved by erosion, incorporating the site’s history of destruction into its reconstruction. The monumental precariousness of the configuration mocks and mimics the slow, often awkward persistence of the turtle (and the artist).

Beyond the turtle’s hindquarters, the viewer’s perplexity is renewed by a series of seemingly disconnected straight and zigzag prismoidal mounds embracing a spectacular ravine that drops down 90 feet and mirrors the pointed end of the plateau. One has to survey the 2,070 feet of this sculpture’s twisting path from above, as it climbs up from a bay in the river on the northwestern edge of the site, moves around the ravine, and drops back down to the water, to a headland that juts out into the river. The model (a water snake) is animal; the material, earth; the measuring and building tools used in construction are products of modem technology; the prismatic planes of the construction seem to relate to the crystal structures of the minerals beneath the surface. The raised zigzagging configuration of the snake relates to one of Heizer’s earlier, depressed forms cut into the ground at Nevada’s Jean Dry Lake—Rift, 1968. Further back, it also alludes to the rounded and coiled formation of the Great Serpent Mound, 1,245 feet in length from jaw to tail, constructed by Indians in Adams County, Ohio, about 1,000 years ago. Like its four companions, the snake is almost as rich in reference as it is in planar profusion. All five effigy mounds are at once monumental and gentle, clear and complex, technological and organic, animal and mineral, representational and abstract, contemporary and precolonial.

From the aerial view—the privileged view, the bird’s-eye view, the view once only permitted the gods and stars—the subjects are almost instantly recognizable and starkly and joyfully dramatic. While the turtle and the snake render a gestalt more readily to boats passing on the river than to the viewer on the ground, the entire site snaps into focus from above. Seen from a helicopter, the mounds yield their complexity of plane and mass to form the clear, almost linear contours of a breathtaking cosmic graffiti. Rewarding as this instant recognition is, however, it is less rewarding than the earthbound viewer’s exploration of this mammoth topographical map, in which seeing and surveying precede and supersede recognition of the effigies’ models.

The biggest public sculpture park since Gutzon Borglum’s Mount Rushmore, 1927–41, in South Dakota, which it exceeds in size, Heizer’s park too is about national pride, but his pride is in the achievements of Native American culture. He is not fired by notions of progress and patriotism, as was Borglum, but is intensely aware of America’s ecological fragility and vulnerability The park, however, is not an embodiment of postnuclear despair; it is rather an embodiment of the positive dialogue possible between modern technology and the earth. Heizer’s art becomes a metaphor and a ritualization of reclamation. Because the sculptures are so much of the earth and so free of harangue, the public can choose to explore or to ignore the “artness” of the park. The sculptures advance or recede, depending upon one’s view; for those who choose to incorporate the art procedures into their view the reward is multiplied in geometric progressions.

Klaus Kertess is a writer and the Robert Lehman curator at the Parrish ART Museum, Southampton, New York.