Michael Heizer (born 1944) is a land artist specializing in large-scale and site-specific sculptures. Working largely outside the confines of the traditional art spaces of galleries and museums, Heizer has redefined sculpture in terms of size, mass, gesture, and process. A pioneer of 20th century Land Art or earthworks movement he is widely recognized for sculptures and environmental structures made with earth-moving equipment, which he began creating in the American West in 1967. He currently lives and works in Hiko, Nevada and New York City.
Heizer began his artistic career in New York in 1966 with a series of geometric canvases painted with PVA latex. The paintings that would follow, characterized by non-traditionally shaped canvases, demonstrate Heizer’s early exploration of positive and negative forms; such harmonies of presence and absence, matter and space, are essential to his art. In Trapezoid Painting (1966) and Track Painting (1967), he emphasizes the perimeters of raw canvases by painting them black, while the white interiors are perceived as negative spaces. These hard-edged “displacement paintings” parallel the immense geometries he achieves when moving earth. The slate grey contours of U Painting (1975), for example, anticipate the shapes of the depressions and angular mounds that appear in his forthcoming project City.
In the late 1960s, Heizer left New York City for the deserts of California and Nevada, where he began making his first “negative” sculptures. These works were created by removing earth to shape subterranean negative forms directly into desert floor. Completed in 1967, North, East, South, West, consisted of several geometrically-shaped holes dug in the Sierra Nevada. The following year Heizer completed Nine Nevada Depressions, a series of large negative sculptures located primarily on dry lakes throughout the state, Jean Dry Lake, Black Rock Desert and Massacre Dry Lake, near Vya, Nevada among them. In 1969, Heizer made the series Primitive Dye Paintings, in which white lime powder and concentrated aniline dyes were spread over the dry desert landscape, covering large areas that, when viewed from the air, formed amorphous, organic shapes. The culmination of this critical early period was the creation of Double Negative in 1969, a project for which he displaced 240,000 tons of rock in the Nevada desert, cutting two enormous trenches—each one 50-feet-deep and 30-feet-wide and together spanning 1,500 feet—at the eastern edge of Mormon Mesa near Overton, Nevada.
Heizer has since continued his exploration of the dynamics between positive forms and negative space. His Adjacent, Against, Upon (1976) juxtaposes three large granite slabs in different relationships to cast concrete forms; the 30-50 ton granite slabs were quarried in the Cascade Mountain Range and transported by barge and train to Myrtle Edwards Park. For Displaced/Replaced Mass (1969/1977), later installed outside the Marina del Rey, California, home of Roy and Carol Doumani, he planted four granite boulders of different sizes from the High Sierra into lid-less concrete boxes in the earth so that the tops of the rocks are roughly level with the ground. For a 1982 work at the former IBM Building in New York, Heizer sheared off the top of a large rock and cut grooves into the surface before setting it on supports hidden within a stainless steel structure. Designed as a fountain, the boulder appears to float over running water. He called it Levitated Mass, a title he would use again in future. Commissioned by the president of the Ottawa Silica Company, the Effigy Tumuli earthwork in Illinois is composed of five abstract animal earthworks reclaiming the site of an abandoned surface coal mine along the Illinois River; the shapes (1983–85)—a frog, a water strider, a catfish, a turtle, and a snake—reflect the environment of the site, which overlooks the river.
In 2012, Heizer completed Levitated Mass (2012). On permanent installation at Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, Levitated Mass is a massive white, diorite boulder (21.5 feet wide and 21.5 feet high) that sits atop a 456-foot-long sloped walkway, allowing viewers to experience the weight of the rock as they walk through the empty space below. It took eleven nights, from February 28 to March 10, 2012, to move the 340-ton rock from Jurupa Valley to the museum. The installation is situated in a field of polished concrete slices, set at a slight angle between the Resnick Pavilion and Sixth Street. Heizer opened the exhibit on June 24, 2012. A feature documentary, also named Levitated Mass, was directed and edited by the filmmaker Doug Pray. It details the making of the sculpture as it relates to Heizer’s career while portraying the boulder’s 105-mile journey through Los Angeles and the public’s reaction to its installation. Other recent public artworks by Michael Heizer include Tangential Circular Negative Line in Mauvoisin, Switzerland, commissioned by Fondation Air&Art directed by Jean Maurice Varone, as well as Collapse (1967/2016) and Compression Line (1968/2016) at Glenstone, Potomac, Maryland.
In the early 1970s, Heizer began work on City, an enormous complex in the rural desert of Lincoln County, Nevada. His work on the project continues to this day, supported by the Dia Art Foundation through a grant from the Lannan Foundation. City is not yet available to the public.
A campaign to have the Basin and Range area around City designated as a national monument to protect it from development took place, and a group of American museums, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Museum of Modern Art, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston and the Walker Art Center, have joined together to draw public attention to a petition urging preservation of the area. In July 2015, President Barack Obama signed a proclamation (using his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906) creating the Basin and Range National Monument on 704,000 acres in Lincoln and Nye counties, an area including Heizer’s City.
Heizer’s artworks are represented in museum collections and public spaces worldwide.
Major permanent commissions
Tangential Circular Negative Line (2012), Mauvoisin, Switzerland, an Air&Art Foundation commission directed by Jean Maurice Varone
Levitated Mass (2012), Resnick Pavilion North Lawn at LACMA (Los Angeles, California)
Effigy Tumuli (1985), Buffalo State Park, Ottawa, Illinois
45 Degrees, 90 Degrees, 180 Degrees (1984), Rice University (Houston, Texas)
Levitated Mass (1982), 590 Madison Avenue, New York. EJM Equities Collection, New York
North, East, South, West (1982), 5th and Flower Streets, Los Angeles
Isolated Mass/Circumflex (#2) (1968–72), Nine Nevada Depressions, Menil Collection (Houston, Texas)
Rift # 1 (1968–72; deteriorated), Nine Nevada Depressions, Massacre Dry Lake, Nevada
Windows and Matchdrops (1969), seven small rills in the floor in front of the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf entrance, Germany
Displaced/Replaced Mass 1, 2 & 3 (1969), Silver Springs, NV. No longer extant.
Double Negative (1969–70), located near Overton, Nevada
Dragged Mass (1971), Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit
City (1972, unfinished), Lincoln County, Nevada
Adjacent, Against, Upon (1976), Myrtle Edwards Park (Seattle, Washington)
This Equals That (1980; removed), Michigan State Capitol Complex, Lansing, Michigan
North, East, South, West (1967/2002), Dia:Beacon, Beacon, New York
In 1968, Heizer was included in Earth Works, the influential group show at Virginia Dwan’s gallery, and then in the Whitney Museum painting annual in 1969, where his contribution was a huge photograph of a dye painting in the desert. For his first one-person show, at the Galerie Heiner Friedrich, Munich in 1969, he removed 1,000 tons of earth in a conical shape to create Munich Depression. In 1977, he was included in documenta 6, Kassel. Major exhibitions of his work have been staged at institutions such as the Museum Folkwang, Essen (1979), the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1984), and Fondazione Prada, Milan (1996). Recent gallery exhibitions have been held at Gagosian Gallery.
Selected solo exhibitions
1971 Michael Heizer: Photographic and Actual Work. Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit
1979 Michael Heizer.Museum Folkwang, Essen. Travelled to Rijksmuseum Kroller-Muller, Otterlo, Netherlands.
1984 In Context: Michael Heizer: 45°, 90°, 180°/Geometric Extraction. Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
1985 45°, 90°, 180°: A Sculpture for Rice University. Libbie Rice Farish Gallery of the School of Architecture, Rice University, Houston
1985 Michael Heizer: Dragged Mass geometric Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
1988 Michael Heizer: New Sculptures. Akira Ikeda Gallery, Tokyo
1996 Michael Heizer: Negative – Positive + Fondazione Prada, Milan
2010 Michael Heizer: Works from the 1960s and 70s. David Zwirner, New York
2012 Michael Heizer: Actual Size. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles
2015 Michael Heier: Altars. Gagosian Gallery, New York
2016 Michael Heizer. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
2018 Le Bourget, Paris 
Selected group exhibitions
1966 The Annual Invitational Exhibition. Park Place Gallery, New York
1968 Earthworks Dwan Gallery, New York
1968 1968 Annual Exhibition: Contemporary American Sculpture. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
1969 New Media: New Methods Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, NJ; Organised by Museum of Modern Art, New York.
1969 Op Losse Schroeven: Situaties en Cryptostructuren (Square pegs in round Holes). Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Travelled to: Verborgene Strukturen. Museum Folkwang, Essen.
1969 Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form. Kunsthalle Bern, Bern, Switzerland. Travelled to: Museum Haus Lange, Krefield, West Germany; Institute of Contemporary Arts, London.
1969 Land Art: Long, Flanagan, Oppenheim, Smithson, Boezem, Dibbets, De Maria, Heizer. Fernsehgalerie Gerry Schum, Berlin. Televised April 15, 1969.
1969 1969 Annual Exhibition: Contemporary American Painting. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
1970 XXXV Esposizione internazionale d’arte di Venezia Venice
1970 Information. Museum of Modern Art, New York
1971 Sixth Guggenheim International Exhibition. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
1971 VII Biennale. Parc Floral de Paris, Paris
1973 American Drawings 1963-73. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
1976 Drawing Now. Museum of Modern Art
1977 Biennial Exhibition. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY.
1977 Documenta 6. Museum Friedericianum, Kassel, Germany.
1980 L’Amérique aux Indépendants, 1944-1980 : 91ème Exposition, Société des Artistes Indépendants. Grand Palais, Paris, France.
1984 Collectie Becht. De verzameling Agnes en Frits Becht. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
1986 Individuals: A Selected History of Contemporary Art, 1945–1986. Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA.
1987 American Drawing and Watercolors of the Twentieth Century. Selection from the Whitney Museum of American Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; traveled to The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH.; Achenbach Foundation, California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, CA; Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock, AR; Whitney Museum of American Art, Stamford, CT.
1987 Photography and Art: Interactions since 1946. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA; traveled to The Museum of Fort Lauderdale, Fort Lauderdale,
1988 Vital Signs: Organic Abstraction from the Permanent Collection. Whitney Museum of American Art. New York, NY
1989 20 Jahre Internationale Kunstmesse Basel. Galerie Hans Mayer, Dusseldorf, Germany.
1990 Pharmakon ’90. Nippon Convention Center, Makuhari Messe, Tokyo, Japan.
1997 47th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Venice, Italy.
2009 Photoconceptualism, 1966–1973. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY.
2010 The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; traveled to Kunsthaus Zürich, Zurich, Switzerland.
2013 When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013. Ca’ Corner della Regina, Fondazione Prada, Venice, Italy.
Mungo Thomson, Levitating Mass (2012), Aspen, Colorado.
Régis Perray, 340 grammes déplacés… during Levitated Mass by Michael Heizer (2012), Nantes, France.
Jack Daws, Life on the Farm (Heizer), 2010
Charmstone (sculpture), Houston
Michael Heizer National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Michael Heizer, Isolated Mass/Circumflex (#2) (1968-72) Center for Land Use Interpretation, Los Angeles.
Christopher Knight (June 3, 2012), Art review: ‘Ends of the Earth’ brings Land art indoors Los Angeles Times.
Michael Heizer, Adjacent, Against, Upon (1976) Seattle Public Art
Jori Finkel (May 25, 2012), Michael Heizer’s calling is set in stone Los Angeles Times.
Christopher Knight (June 22, 2012), Review: LACMA’s new hunk ‘Levitated Mass’ has some substance Los Angeles Times.
Deborah Vankin (September 22, 2011), LACMA set to roll away the stone Los Angeles Times.
The Boulder (Doug Pray/Jamie Patricof)
Tennent, Scott (18 March 2015). “Protect Michael Heizer’s “City””. LACMA. Retrieved 19 March 2015.
Burns, Charlotte (18 March 2015). “Museums unite in campaign to save massive land art project”. The Art Newspaper. Retrieved 19 March 2015.
Steve Tetreault & Henry Brean, A done deal, Obama to create Basin and Range monument, Las Vegas Review-Journal (July 9, 2015).
Mascaro, Lisa (December 20, 2016). “The artist and the senator: One built a desert masterpiece, the other a Nevada legacy”. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 27 December 2016.
Christopher Knight, A rock star is born–or is it?, Los Angeles Times, March 13, 2012
Sturm, Daniel (November 12, 2003). “The disturbing remains of ‘This Equals That'”. City Pulse. Retrieved March 11, 2017.
Michael Kimmelman (February 6, 2005), Art’s Last, Lonely Cowboy The New York Times.
Michael Heizer Archived 2012-06-28 at the Wayback Machine Dia Art Foundation.
Aspen Art Museum, July 4, 2012, exhibition[permanent dead link]
Observatoire du Land Art, Feb 29 – March 10, 2012, transatlantic action
Greg Kucera Gallery http://www.gregkucera.com/_images/daws/daws_life-on-the-farm-heizer_web.jpg
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Michael Heizer.
Webpage of Heizer at the Dia Art Foundation
“Levitated Mass” (2012), Public Art in Public Places Project
Levitated Mass Michael Heizer in the spotlight of California. (world press review)
Michael Heizer in the National Gallery of Australia’s Kenneth Tyler Collection