Los Angeles

Michael Heizer

Museum of Contemporary Art "Temporary Contemporary"

Since the late ’60s Michael Heizer has “cut,” “dragged,” “elevated,” “isolated,” “compressed,” “levitated,” and “collapsed” objects in relation to their sites, revealing each as tensive situations. The word “tensive” is significant: with its root, the verb form “tense,” and like the words “dragged” or “isolated,” it can express a passive state of matter or an action. Heizer’s droll one-liners precisely describe certain physical conditions of sculpture, as well as the procedures by which those conditions are exposed. A boulder cut is a cut boulder. Indeed, Heizer’s work is typified by a state of suspended activity or pause in which an idea, an action, and an effect are sequential versions of each other. He works, one might say, in the gap between movement and stasis. Thus by isolating a fragment from its source Heizer defines a situation in which mass is understood in terms of its relative positioning over time. In a sense, mass becomes transparent.

Displacement and its reverse, replacement, are among Heizer’s favorite activities. I should say “is” rather than “are,” for “they” are an “it,” a single conceptual gesture, not so much cyclical as seeming to retreat and advance along a scale of activity on which a finished artwork is a given point. A good example is Vertical Displacement, a work planned in the early ’70s for sites in Switzerland, Montana, and Nevada in which masses of rock were to be cut from cliff faces and lowered onto different precut perches. In fact, the piece is the model of which Heizer’s 45°, 90°, 180°/Geometric Extraction, 1984, installed in this museum’s temporary exhibition space as part of its “In Context” series, is a “civilized” version (Heizer’s term).

Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether the piece “works” as sculpture, it is interesting to note the implied tension between the idea of the museum as site and this corrugated-paper version of an idea about transitional place. Civilized, the piece is also constrained, if not by the given interior space then by the conservational context of the museum per se. Yet Heizer avoids the ideological stasis of fabricating a conservable artwork by designing a temporary, even recyclable one. The placement of a tame conceptual cousin of a work meant for the mountains of Switzerland and the American West within the temporary confines of an important new art museum is meaningful because, in a sense, both the artwork and its exhibition space, removed from their preferred sites, are removed from the denser rhetoric of public monuments and institutions. Meanwhile, the invisible corporate alliances (i.e., processes) that joined the two are among the most operative structures here, are sensed as tools and production values in the same way that one senses the bulldozers and the dynamite at Heizer’s outdoor sites. On the arch of converging interests and resources they represent, the tensive union of art and site is a juncture, a compromise of sorts. As a big sculpture, Geometric Extraction is oddly absent.

So does the piece work? Sure. Its logical premise is that segmentation describes the whole. As such, the work describes an awakening geometric pattern from which it leans back toward a matrix of mass and ahead toward a matrix of movement. In verb fashion, each of 17 corrugated-paper segments implicitly proceeds out and thrusts ahead from a diagonal rear-wall “crypt,” almost a stage, in a slow, methodical march of blocks toward some post-Modern pyramid. This procession of mammoth fragments opens up the museum’s interior and creates a kind of perceptual wake in which spaces swell, alleys tighten, and shelters await discovery.

It is generally true of Heizer’s art that the clarity of his conceptual gestures tends to diminish one’s perception of the actual size of his works. Indeed, Geometric Extraction is very big. At the same time, its white board, printed with a black surface pattern derived from magnified rock grain, is, perhaps unintentionally, an ironic play on the idea of size. The ragged-edged images resemble maps, and suggest the extension of microbes into masses of land.

The most interesting comparison, though, is with the site itself, and the most interesting tensions are ideological. Given the perception of past antipathy between them, how civilized can the relations between earthworks and museums be? The question is begged. Civility, even cooperation, is a reflection of the mutual transience of this work and this exhibition space, a transience emphasized by the exposed industrial skeleton of the former warehouse that houses the “Temporary Contemporary.” That a museum can function as an umbrella rather than a glass box is the extended meaning of the “In Context” series. But credit must ultimately be given to Heizer, whose work simply does here what it does in the desert—it exists in relation to its site. With nature still the standard, it is helpful to think of this space as a nonsite.

Jeff Kelley