New York

Michael Heizer

Ace Gallery

Michael Heizer has moved indoors, abandoning (no doubt temporarily) the wide-open spaces of the West for more circumscribed if still magnificent quarters. Two amorphous, vaguely “imagistic” pieces set into steel boxes in the wall, marked either end of a long, grand passage. The six still imposing but less grandiose rooms off this passage had been turned into sculptural shrines—into Japanese stone gardens of a kind. Indeed, the sense of stark, hard material—sometimes raw, unshaped, and opaque, sometimes perforated and highly polished—inhabiting a heroic space was overwhelming. The changes in light from room to room created related changes of mood. One brightly lit space was particularly startling: massive pieces of granite were embedded in the concrete floor to awesome yet intimate effect. The objects invited contact even as they forbade it, seeming to enforce a distance between themselves and the viewer. It was as if the viewer were being led on an austere mental pilgrimage or were standing in a cathedral of art, invited to meditate on the irreducible ultimates of material being.

At the same time there was something amiss; it was all too stagy. The contradiction between the open field in which Heizer previously placed his work and the gallery space in which he had installed these recent pieces only served to make the stagelike character of the field self-evident. The installation’s quasi-religiosity became unwittingly self-debunking—it looked like a short-lived aftereffect of a hyped-up theater of the abstract. It was in essence the static production of an impresario. Well, what’s wrong with the operatic orchestration of objects in an ideal immensity? These days, when art no longer has to be immanent in objects, stagy installation is a way of implying it. But the problem with such installations is that they stall once you become conscious of them. They seem little more than a sum of props, more posed than poised for emotional liftoff. If the sublime makes us forget ourselves, conspicuous theatricality makes us feel that we are inescapably ourselves—claustrophobically trapped.

It is as though Heizer has, without intending to, taken us behind the scenes. He shows us how the sublime works and in shattering our illusions, his installation bogs down in its own materiality and grandiosity. It performs itself and thus becomes self-defeating: an opportunistic sum of pretentious stage presences that add up to a predictable sublimity. The stone garden doesn’t work when Americanized: it loses its mantric character. Spirituality is not a matter of quantitative machismo but of an inward quality, one that Heizer’s installation lacks completely.

Donald Kuspit