Michael Heizer

Estuary Park

Despite the trend toward so-called “public sculpture,” artists producing these works frequently become mired down by bureaucratic specifications and uninformed assessments of their pieces. It has been difficult for some contemporary sculptors to make the transition from the gallery to the external environment. Without the museum, sculpture that affects a nonart look often fails to engage our full attention. Michael Heizer overcomes this limitation by responding to the site as a place that is distinctive and vivid. He has consistently shunned the museum and gallery in favor of more natural locations for his work; many of his pieces have been conceived for remote desert locales. More recently he has made urban works in New York City, Lansing, Michigan, and Seattle, Washington.

Heizer recently completed Platform, a contemporary “artifact” in an urban setting. The imposing steel construction was commissioned by the city of Oakland as part of its ambitious plan to turn the city into a sculpture park. The three-ton sculpture has been installed in Estuary Park, which is on the waterfront in industrial west Oakland. A flat, anonymous parcel of land, the location was selected by Heizer after lengthy search. Platform’s massive, graceless rectilinear form is a perfect foil for the site’s industrial toughness. Though the sculpture is not involved with the landscape in any pictorial sense, the appearance of the place becomes part of the content of the work. One becomes aware of the distinctive forms of cargo ships and of tugboats moving silently through the silvery water, of cranes and lacy, skeletal steel forms. Concrete storage cylinders contrast with the blocky, angular sculpture.

Platform’s large size and real space is the antithesis of the accidental, free organic shapes in nature. The mathematical precision of the rational forms gives a good deal of added resonance to the environment.

Platform is stolid yet mutable. Its subtle variations of tone and texture are unreadable at a distance; the work is most effective at close range. Variations in the weather play a decisive role in determining the appearance of the work. In bright sunlight the construction seems to be etched in high relief, the weathering steel takes on greater textural and tonal variations, and long, raking shadows create enigmatic new forms. On an overcast day, one tends to focus on environmental factors rather than on the great mass of steel. Nuances are lost and the work becomes more ambiguous. The sculpture is not less powerful then, only different.

Joanne Dickson