New York

Michael Heizer

PaceWildenstein 22

The eight concrete sculptures included in Michael Heizer’s recent exhibition at PaceWildenstein spotlight a moment in his practice during which an interest in excavation was expanded to encompass the objects thereby unearthed. While the massive mesa gashes of Double Negative, 1969–70, for example, or the pits and mounds of his City project (1970–) often resemble the work of an archaeologist, here the allusion is even more direct: These sculptures, all of which were made in 1988 or 1989, are colossal replicas of an assortment of Paleolithic and Neolithic tools. (Biography is not an interpretive stretch in this case; the artist’s grandfather was a mining engineer, and his father an anthropologist who was often accompanied in the field by his son.) Heizer’s earthworks have often been likened to ancient monuments, but this (for him) smaller-scale work is no less high-flown in its evocations, summoning as it does that crucial evolutionary phase when hominids, in part by making and using tools, started to become humans.

In a quotation printed on the wall near the gallery entrance, Heizer stated his intention with this series: He wants these tools to “contribute” as sculptural “forms,” not mere “applications”—as art objects, not implements. Their size alone accomplishes this end. The functionality of any given hand tool is simply not pertinent when that tool measures sixteen feet, and Heizer’s long-standing assertion that he is more concerned with size than scale becomes conspicuously evident (the logic of scale, which implies a relativity of measurement, is upended when an originally tiny chipping blade is inflated to this degree). This lack of utility, and resultant lack of context, lends dry prehistoric titles such as Adze #2, 1988–89; Prismatic Flake, 1989; and Biface Perforator #3, 1988–89, a romantic peculiarity that extends to the works themselves. Charmstone #3, 1989, is a puce-colored, squat propeller shape, its points rounded, with a perfect hole carved out of one of its arms; Implement, 1988, is a tubelike utensil that is curved at one end, slightly flattened at the other. With form and function indecipherable, visual interest comes in the details, in the medley of scores, gouges, and pockmarks Heizer has used for the sake of verisimilitude, in the coloristic range—sandy buff to obsidian black—attained by modifying, pigmenting, and staining concrete; and in the spatial rhythms generated by the works’ installation at varying heights.

Seen at the time of their making, these sculptures might have related to what Hal Foster called the “ethnographic turn” in some art of the 1980s and ’90s, yet Heizer’s engagement with the artifact, to say nothing of his propensity for aestheticization, now feels a bit misplaced, even shopworn. But I couldn’t help thinking that these outsized tools looked like crude weapons, and that they invoked the end of civilization as much as they referenced its beginning—and this presentiment imbued the show with a biting contemporaneity. Heizer is deeply pessimistic, maybe even a little paranoid (understandable, perhaps, when the Department of Energy is planning to run train tracks for the transport of nuclear waste directly through your home and through a work you’ve spent over three decades making). “The world is going to be pounded in[to] the Stone Age, and what kind of art will be made after that?” he asked a few years ago. It is to his immense credit that these sculptures render such a question less alarmist than alarmingly real.

Lisa Turvey