Decades in the making, Michael Heizer’s colossal desert City readies for its public debut

Not A Mirage

Decades in the making, Michael Heizer’s colossal desert City readies for its public debut

45°, 90°, 180°, City, © Michael Heizer. (Photo: Ben Blackwell/Courtesy the artist and Triple Aught Foundation)

Five decades and one national monument designation later, sculptor and land artist Michael Heizer’s sprawling pièce de resistance in the high desert of eastern Nevada is completed and ready to receive visitors beginning September 2 on a limited and reservations-only basis.

First Initiated in 1970 when the Bay Area–born artist was 27, Heizer’s City is a large-scale earthwork—a real-deal megasculpture composed of compacted dirt, rock, and concrete—that spans 1.5-miles-long and half-mile-wide within Basin and Range National Monument, which was designated in 2015 by former President Barack Obama to protect the vast 704,000-acre landscape from industrial exploitation and a planned geologic repository for radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain. While most of Basin and Range National Monument is public federal land overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, sizable swaths of the landscape, once described as “one of the emptiest spaces in a state famous for its emptiness,” are privately owned, including the ultra-isolated City site in the Garden Valley.

Located roughly 200 miles north of Las Vegas, the national monument is within the ancestral territories of the Nuwu (Southern Paiute) and Newe (Western Shoshoni) nations.

As previously reported by AN, the establishing of the Basin and Range National Monument was celebrated by both environmentalists rallying for the safeguarding of pristine public lands and the art world.

a work of land art in the high desert
45°, 90°, 180°, City, © Michael Heizer.  (Photo: Joe Rome/Courtesy the artist and Triple Aught Foundation)

“Designating the Basin and Range National Monument achieves two remarkable outcomes—a world-class artwork would endure into the future as it was envisioned, surrounded by sublimely beautiful open country; and a majestic Western American landscape would remain unspoiled for future generations,” said Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and former director of the Dia Art Foundation, in a 2015 statement.

Both LACMA and the Dia Art Foundation are among several institutions that have over the years helped Heizer to realize his enigmatic and ambitious City, which was initially self-funded by the artist, through organizational and financial support. Additional largesse has come from Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Glenstone Museum, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and the Santa Fe, New Mexico–based Lannan Foundation along with many private individuals who have bestowed the ambitious project with the gifts of money and time.

Today, LACMA, Glenstone, Crystal Bridges, and MoMA together comprise a four-member coalition dedicated to “ensuring the financial and operational sustainability of the City.” The coalition supports the Triple Aught Foundation, a Nevada-based nonprofit established in 1998 to serve as steward of the site.

Rising from the high desert at an elevation of over 5,000 feet like a lost primordial metropolis, the monumental work itself is meant to evoke “ancient ceremonial constructions through its complexity and size” while also taking a form that’s “suggestive of the central hub or nucleus of a modern city,” the Triple Aught Foundation described. The site has grown over the years, with Heizer acquiring different parcels over the span of decades; the earthen materials used to construct the sculptural forms of City were mined directly from the land.

Wrote art critic Dave Hickey of City: “Approaching the cut on foot from the north or south, elements of a cityscape seem to be rising or falling from within the excavation that cuts flat into the rising ridge… As one walks up to an overlook, Heizer’s cultural interventions open out the space. The roads and domes and pits within the excavation are elegantly curbed into long, quiet Sumerian curves. They restore our sense of distance and scale, so the complexity of City reveals itself as a gracious intervention in the desert… composed and complete.”

a massive work of land art in the desert
© Michael Heizer (Photo: Mary Converse/Courtesy the artist and Triple Aught Foundation)

Nearly 25 years after the Triple Aught Foundation was established with Heizer himself serving as board president, the nonprofit continues to own and operate the large-scale artwork and, as such, is leading the effort to bring visitors to the far-flung site.

Beginning September 2, the foundation is organizing short day trips of six or less people to the site on a strictly reservations-only basis. These excursions are dependent on weather conditions, and the inaugural visiting season only lasts through November 1. Considering the remote and rugged locale (there are no habitable structures within miles), viewing City on a non-pre-arranged tour “is thus potentially dangerous, and it is strictly prohibited,” the foundation explained. Site visits will set adults back $150 although the residents of three surrounding Nevada counties—Lincoln, Nye, and White Pine—can explore City for free. Even for these “locals,” reservations are still very much required.

“Over the years I would sometimes compare Michael Heizer’s City project to some of the most important ancient monuments and cities,” said LACMA’s Govan, who also serves on the board of the Triple Aught Foundation, in a more recent statement. “But now I only compare it to itself. It’s an artwork aware of our primal impulses to build and organize space, but it incorporates our modernity, our awareness of and reflection upon the subjectivity of our human experience of time and space as well as the many histories of civilizations we have built. Working with Michael Heizer for more than 25 years to help him realize his City project has been one of the most important experiences of my own life and work.”

For those who don’t have the lonely expanses of eastern Nevada in their upcoming travel plans, permanent, albeit smaller, installations by Heizer are also on view at several of the previously mentioned institutions including LACMA, Glenstone, and Dia Beacon as well as at Seattle’s Myrtle Edwards Park, Rice University in Houston, and elsewhere. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, also owns and manages Double Negative (1969), a land sculpture by Heizer on view on Mormon Mesa near Overton, Nevada.