New York

Michael Heizer

IBM Building

On December 16 the International Business Machines Corporation unveiled a new and important sculpture by Michael Heizer. IBM’s decision to commission this work is itself a significant gesture; not only is the award to a relatively young American artist different from typical offerings to, say, Henry Moore or Alexander Calder, but Heizer’s public sculpture has always sparked controversy (witness the 1976 Seattle commission, Adjacent, Against, Upon). Levitated Mass is sited in a small outdoor plaza at Madison Avenue and 56th Street, near one entrance to the corporation’s new office building (this entrance leads into a triangular enclosed atrium wedged between IBM and Bonwit Teller; IBM’s main entrance is at 57th Street and Madison). And it is also located in one of New York’s most valuable and prestigious locations, now including the Trump Tower, Tiffany, Bonwit Teller, and IBM, and reaching out into the adjoining block to embrace the Philip Johnson — designed AT&T headquarters. The sculpture cannot be considered apart from this location; in a manner slightly different from publicly funded public art, it sits at the intersection of political, corporate, economic, social, and esthetic factors, representing at once an investment in real estate values, a public amenity, an indication of corporate art patronage and community support, and a company image. And, of course, a work of art, although one which is significantly inflected by these concerns, one which cannot be considered in isolation from certain highly limiting factors.

Facts first, Levitated Mass consists of a low-lying horizontal slab of wire-cut Vermont granite, narrowly framed by a five-sided stainless steel tank. Its dimensions are 2 feet, 6 inches by 16 feet, 6 inches by 25 feet, 6 inches. Invisible recessed posts support the granite, under which flows a continuous sheet of rushing water; hence the appearance of levitation. The sides of the granite are rough, retaining their original quarried shape, but the top surface has been smoothed and incised with an intricate linear pattern. Three groupings of parallel lines represent a “lineal code” developed by Heizer (I quote, here, from the press release); despite its unbreakable hermeticism, the schematic grid suggests streets, avenues, and blocks, thus relating the sculpture to its site and to its overall urban context (the granite’s shape might be seen as an evocation of Manhattan Island). This attempt to moor an otherwise unrelated sculpture to its space, creating a specific “place,” is continued in the gridded squares etched into the surface, which refer both to the plaza pavement and to the floor of the adjoining atrium. This dual pattern is echoed in the tank, joining steel and granite surfaces, smooth and rough. The tank functions as a pedestrian bench, thus fitting within that amenity classification, dear to public art, of “street furniture”; but it also provides a platform from which to survey a sculpture whose delicate detail, quiet sounds, and low-lying overall dimensions privilege intimate viewing.

As a corporate work, Levitated Mass serves as a marker for a building to which it is not physically related: Edward Larrabee Barnes’ green travertine wedge is already “sculptural” enough. However, it is best seen as one element in a tripartite complex of building, atrium, and sculpture. Its most important relation might be to the atrium, on whose entrance path it rests, and which opens onto the inner doorway to the IBM building. And we all know about atria: they are not only the lofty, leafy paradises awaiting the weary city laborer, but also the developer’s public tender for going higher, wider, or whatever-er than zoning regulations permit. This one, inaugurated concurrently with the sculpture (the release fuses them as “public amenities incorporated into the [building’s] design”) is an 11,000-square-foot, four-story, glass-enclosed plaza, a “garden” of space, a refreshment kiosk, and tables ordered by a grid of planters holding 45-foot bamboos, greenery, and contorted-looking chrysanthemums. It is a careful coding of the notion of an atrium. Visible from inside, the sculpture relates to the atrium both through its lineal code (which harmonizes with the paneled glass walls) and through the etched squares (which pick up the pavement pattern). But it is also related to the overall scheme through the use of water, which is not only one of the major ingratiating devices in public sculpture (see my “Public Sculpture” I, Artforum, March 1981, for a discussion of water’s “universal appeal”), but also an element central to the Edenic ambience of atria. The avatars of water are varied: the cascading waterfall; the fountain; the quiet, often reflective, pool. And water has different acoustical functions, both creating a pleasant subcurrent of sound to drown out aberrant noise, and adding a dreamy, pastoral note to soothe the harried pedestrian. In this case water, absent from the atrium, became a sculptural demand for the commission, and Heizer solved the problem very well with the gimmick of the horizontal stream. He contributed, then, to the integrity of the complex.

Heizer is to be commended, on the one hand, for what might be the best corporate sculpture so far. This is an admirably considered effort which fits all the public, corporate, and political bills, integrating into both the site and the general sequence of demands, and providing a distinctive logo. It is a mailbox on Madison Avenue, a serviceable seat, and a visually subtle work, alien to the corporate baubles of the ’60s. But it is also tepid sculpture. Cross the street, and the low-lying work fades away . . . it appears like a planter without the plants, or like slick designer seating. Come close, and your attention doesn’t hold: the detailing dulls on the imagination and the water gimmick palls. The work is too tasteful, too textural, too seductive in its attributes; it acquiesces rather than asserts, displaying a perfect public demeanor. It is an illustration of the forces that inform, and form, most corporate productions, which are more interesting as problem-solving than as sculpture.

Kate Linker