TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT February 1990

DESERT SONG

THOSE WHO HAVE “SEEN” Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, 1969–70, have likely seen the grainy aerial view reproduced on the cover of the 1984 catalogue from the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. Here, the perspective delivers the long stroke of excavation in a glance, fixing its inscription across the Nevada desert landscape. But to stand by the actual sculpture, to view it from the ground it is made of, to walk around it and to walk through it, offers another perspective entirely, one informed by the distances you must cross to experience this now 20-year-old earthwork face-to-face. For earthworks are, by definition, manipulations of land, not of film emulsion. As an earthwork is seen in the light, both literally and figuratively, of the land around it, it takes on different meaning, and delivers its messages in that context. And in the trip by car to the bluff above Overton where Double Negative is cut, there is ample time to consider the land, and the changes that time may have brought to this particular form of artistic expression.

Four years ago, Double Negative was officially added to the permanent collection of Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, perhaps marking a new era in the institutional art world’s capacity to assimilate works previously thought to be resistant to, or defiant of, its grasp. Yet perhaps more than ever, despite the fact that you know Double Negative is now, technically at least, only a far-flung extension of MoCA’s exhibition space, a vast sense of privilege attends this trip. First, there is the privilege of expending resources. You have come to Las Vegas by plane, and you must rent a car. The expense of this visit is not on the order of a museum admission, but is hundreds of dollars, the order, perhaps, of a museum membership at the patron’s level. You have, on the seat beside you, a map drawn by the artist himself, or by one of his crew of Mormon contractors from Moapa, or by a MoCA curator. Whatever the source, it is an arcane document. Perhaps this landscape, where everything is, ipso facto, rarer, promotes this thought. In the quiet ride of the car the whole desert, a million acres, gathers brightly at the windshield. No place, you feel, could be farther from the frenzied centers of the art market.

Just over twenty years ago, Heizer returned from New York to Nevada. He had grown up in the West; mining, construction, and land-leasing were part of his heritage, but he was a painter. His first earthworks show a painter’s sensibility. The land he chose was smooth and taut; he stained the surface with dyes dropped from a plane; elsewhere he scored the desert surface with tire tracks. Double Negative, on the other hand, would be all about volume.

Two decades ago, only one aspect of the distance from earthworks to urban art was spatial. The ecological offshoots of Conceptual art, earthworks took the globe itself as material, claiming a broader arena for artistic action than any museum or gallery could handle. As the earth changed, so would the work. Simultaneously monumental and ephemeral, earthworks were literalizations, not metaphors or expressions, of the artist’s idea. Conservators can claim to bring the “original” colors back into the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, or can sustain a peeling Jasper Johns for the auction block. But how can one preserve the mark on or manipulation of the land itself? The natural world itself becomes part of a project called art, and vice versa. And after the work is “completed,” it isn’t over. Time, weather, dry seasons and wet ones, become the forces that join with Heizer in the production of the Double Negative of 1989.

The straight rise of highway out of Las Vegas to the valley’s edge is thirty miles long; then you are on the road nearly alone. The few structures along the road, smelter and quarry apparatus, five and ten minutes apart, are visible for miles. Only as the ranges of mountains channel from valley to valley does this straightaway shift direction. Forty miles out of Las Vegas, in what’s called the Valley of Fire, a roadside trailer with its own cloverleaf on-ramp and off-ramp advertises fireworks and untaxed cigarettes—the Moapa Indians’ exercise in the privilege of federal jurisdiction.

The map engages with the journey at the turn off to Overton. The furrow that runs beside the road is the Muddy River. To the east is a low, desolate bluff, miles long. You don’t go so far as Overton, but turn off on a road at its outskirts where an old military tank stands on the cracked pavement in front of a National Guard office. This is the airport road, and it shortly turns sharply toward the bluff, where a huge capital M, carved into the sandstone and whitened with chalk, marks the place with its alphabetic meaning. This is the same bluff the map shows the sculpture is on. But the M is a decoy. Like Double Negative, it is large of gesture and must refer inherently, I imagine, to this place. But I suspect its instigation is civic, and its reference particular––to Moapa, or nearby Lake Meade, or the high school football team of Overton––maybe they’re called the Mavericks?

Along this road planted with trees—ash and palm and cottonwood—rises the smell of water. There are houses. The old ones are small and of wood. There are new houses with red tile roofs, white stuccoed walls, and rock gardens. Here and there, you spot chalet-style prefabs, or one of the foundationless houses of Indians, their several cars around them. There are trailers that have stayed long and become houses.

Now the road cuts between the airport and the cemetery; the sign on the cemetery gate: “No loitering.” Suddenly, the county’s paved road dissolves into a lane of gravel rising straight up to the pastel-colored bank of the bluff; the gravel pops against the undercarriage of the car as you start the ascent. You expect some solemn marker announcing that you have almost reached your destination. Instead, to the left and right, the low hills are scribbled with motorbike furrows, and the smell of burning tires drifts from a dozen small dumps. One senses that whatever else is here, is here without maintenance or celebration, contending in abandonment with the small abuses of a small place.

As the road mounts the bluff, it begins to turn soft beneath the car wheels, a milky powder of sandstone dotted with pebbles. This whole mesa is silt, the deposit of alluvial cement laid down by the rivers ancestral to the Virgin and the Muddy, which have cut the deposit away on either side. The car now raises up the fine particulates that once swirled in the churning waters. It is nearly three miles to the eastern precipice, then northward again. In slow movement over uneven ground you feel the wonder of a car; its undulating accommodation to the ground, its relentlessness. In this terrain you could turn any direction, but there is a faint track ahead to follow, a bleached tracing of earlier wheels.

As much as you have been mindful of it, you see the furrow of Double Negative only when you are nearly upon it. And then, reaching the edge, you get the whole deep run of it: this long trench carved in the ground, steep-sided and closed at both ends. The eroding rim of the bluff cuts the trench in half, making it a double negative too. After all this, there seems to have been no approach, there has been distance and apprehension and now arrival, but no margin, no gradual reckoning, no stages of revelation. Suddenly you are at—but not yet in––Double Negative.

Underfoot, small desiccated desert plants rustle, then a cut 20 feet wide, then, on the opposite side, plants just like them growing in the still air and bright light. The excavation is completely straight; the sides of the furrow completely sheer. The artist’s strategy to make a work that could survive in this obliterating landscape is evident in the mathematics: only a negative times a negative makes an impact.

Your first association, oddly enough, is to simple road work: Double Negative resembles nothing so much as the cut and graded road you’ve just traveled. The same stream-tumbled pebbles lie in the fine dust all around the sculpture. Nor is the cavity of the sculpture of a different order than road work; only a millionth part of the butte has been cut away in this sculpture. Regardless of the like dimensions in a cityscape (the length of Double Negative is more than the height of the Empire State Building), in this environment it seems a modest size. But there is a severity to this cut, a precision by which its arbitrary placement becomes abstract. It commences seemingly without instigation and it ends without arrival.

It is morning in the desert. Climbing down into the Negative, it seems to be a luminous and quiet chamber. The sheer walls of the cut are clean and they hold details of the finest particularity. In the accretion of sand and rock that the cut reveals, a tiny stone, which has been still in its stratum since the river deposited it, falls loose. The dust is fine, the rocks irregular, the dwarfed and dry plants well resolved in the desert light. It could be a garden: creosote and the scattered dry stands of bunch grass. In the light breeze there is the lovely sound of dry stalks against one another, the soundlessness of a small bird as it flies through. The strict floor of the cut, which the first photos of the finished work showed, has been softened with debris. Boulders have fallen from the upper strata and lie at the bottom of the trench. Yet such erosion is inconsequential against the sculpture’s vastness.

Double Negative was created by a process of removal, the same process that formed the Great Basin it sits upon, that emptied bowl, that intermountain flood plain drained of its ocean. That such land has had, until now, little commercial value explains its availability in 1969 to a young artist, and why so much of the area is still deeded to Indian reservations. For the geologic basin has been a cultural basin as well, a container. One hears the word “containment,” once applied to Indians, now applied to chemical and nuclear wastes. One hears often, in the same breath, mention of Nevada, or the other Basin states, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, as places to put it.

Double Negative, of course, contains nothing except great silence. Inside the trench one is doubly removed, as in a quiet room in a quiet house, the room the essence of this house, and Double Negative filled with the essential silence of the Great Basin itself, suggesting, perhaps, that American resourcefulness, that privilege of diversity and expansiveness, may be a property more fundamentally of the land than of the people. Perhaps what Heizer has ultimately done is simply to scratch the surface of that land (and that idea) and leave the opening there for us to look into.

Driving back down the butte, your mind is still strict from the straight cut of the sculpture. But Overton is a place to stop and take tally. There is a swap meet today and cars are parked on the fresh grass of the roadside. A Mexican restaurant serves ham and eggs for a late breakfast. You learn that in the grassy meadows of this town Wayne Newton keeps his horses. There are signs written with the names of candidates; a shop for diesel boat repairs, a grange, a real estate office. The tentative and frontier are giving way.

You have been in a trench cut from the river’s slow deposition. You have felt the weight of that accumulation all around, the gravel, strata on strata of clay. Wind, water, and the changes of climate have started to crumble the bluff away. Nature is slow, man is quick, is the simple reflection that visiting Double Negative in the magnetic stillness of the desert morning gives rise to. But also this: Double Negative is cut so perilously close to the eroding rim of the butte that stone by stone the disintegrative process, the giving back to the river what an earlier river laid down, will subsume the sculpture. How long before that defiant line—the result of one man’s idea and the labor of a few months, some dynamite, a caterpillar tractor and several hundred gallons of diesel fuel—will be gone? We can’t know. But Heizer cut the ground where he did so that we could watch it happen; high above the rivers, a sympathetic ritual where the past and future will meet.

Hank Hine is a writer and an art publisher who lives in San Francisco.