Michael Heizer at PaceWildenstein
Until September 23
545 W. 22nd St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-989-4258
A Neanderthal wandering around Chelsea might feel at home at Michael Heizer’s show — but then again, he might not. The forms in Mr. Heizer’s eight “stone sculptures” will seem familiar to him, as they are near-exact reproductions of Stone Age tools, a range of Paleolithic and Neolithic implements from disparate parts of the world. But the function could not be more remote. Pointed up with precision from minute user-friendly originals, (made by and for the hand, the tools were an inch or so long) these have been blown up to as much as 16 feet, to confound the hardiest neanderthal.
“Prismatic Flake” (1989) is the longest at 197 inches; some kind of cutting device in its original usage, it is suspended on a steel base, an open cube with welded bracket supports. The sheer, elongated form has the graceful menace of a Samurai sword. Like the other tools, it is reconstructed in modified concrete around a hollow interior. Whatever one’s response to the works aesthetically, technically they are a tour de force.
Although produced at the end of the 1980s and exhibited in London in 1990, this is the first American showing of this group of sculptures by the veteran Earthworks artist. They may be outlandishly scaled for anyone used to the manual originals — Neanderthal or otherwise — but by Mr. Heizer’s own scale-values they are decidedly intimate. The artist lives in Nevada where he has been engaged since 1972 on a giant sculptural project, “City,” that takes up much of a valley. An ongoing project threatened by proposed rail routing of nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain, this massive, sprawling installation entails a series of complexes using geometric shapes and abstracted urban structures worked in concrete and earth excavations.
He is known to visitors to Dia:Beacon for its 2002 reconstruction of his 1967 site-specific installation from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, “North, East, South, West.” A sequence of mammoth subterranean geometric shapes, the piece registers at the surface as black voids into which the intrepid viewer can peek. In contrast, the “Stone Sculptures” are easy viewing. Producing individual objects that can be transported to a gallery is an exception in the career of a rugged individualist known for his uncompromising scale, big budgets, and long timelines.
Coming of age, artistically, in the 1960s, Mr. Heizer belongs to a generation that was determined to break with any notion of art as a containable experience. He was one of the pioneers of Earthworks, the movement involving largescale wilderness projects, although he has downplayed a sense of esprit de corps with erstwhile collaborators Walter de Maria and the late Robert Smithson, claiming they took credit for his ideas.
His occasional returns to relatively small, saleable art objects or local commissions no doubt arises in part from personal needs. (The to-date $25 million “City” project is sponsored by Dia and the Lannan Foundation, with others in the past.) But the aesthetic issues at stake in his games with scale and time are of a piece with his larger project, as is the underlying spirit.
Mr. Heizer is an odd mix of materialist pragmatism and romanticism (which can also be noted in Smithson.) He was the son of an eminent anthropologist specializing in Precolumbian American cultures who took him on excavations when he was a boy. He wants to make art that you see sequentially, rather than as one gestalt, arguing that the big scale is American, the containable art object European. “I like the work so large that the camera can’t eat it,” he has said. But he also sees his City as a work that will survive our doomed civilization, a self-contained, precision-built entity that will last in its wilderness for millenia. “The H-Bomb, that’s the ultimate sculpture. The world is going to be pounded in the Stone Age, and what kind of art will be made after that?” he has said.
There is a similar divide in his way of thinking about the primary shapes adopted and inflated ad absurdam in his sculptures — romantic and anti-romantic. He is fascinated at how forms crafted at the dawn of civilization echo in recent tools and inventions. “Biface Perforator #2” and “#3” bear this out in their aerodynamic resolve, as does the rocket-like “Awl #2” (all 1988-89). But he resists any woolly, Jungian notion that there are Ur-shapes lingering in a collective unconscious. “The fact that they existed thousands of years ago does not mean that people have them indexed in their minds as sculptural forms.” If at all, he argues, they are registered as “some obscure artifacts put away on a shelf that you’d walk by very fast in a museum.”
A fascination with prehistory links Mr. Heizer’s Stonehenge-like “City” to these sculptural objects, though his architectural forms are fastidiously hard-edged in comparison with the flint-facetted tools. But for all his insistence on freeing himself from European precedents, to explore instead an American sense of wide open space and anti-individual scale, Mr. Heizer’s prehistoric sensibility has a long modernist precedent with deep roots in European culture. Allied to, but distinct from primitivism, prehistoricity is a persistent trope in modernist sculpture. In view of his generational tastes and allegiances, Mr. Heizer might be embarrassed at how his sculptures can bring to mind the menhirs of Barbara Hepworth, or the weathered henge forms of Henry Moore. Prehistoricity relates to a desire among these early modernists for a rugged, timeless pedigree for their streamlined forms.
Seeing things that derived their function from their relation to the hand magnified to a scale larger than the whole body has simultaneously humbling and humorous effects. There is the Surrealist joke of the object losing its identity through impossible scale — Magritte’s painting of quotidian objects, like a brush and comb, almost scraping the ceiling of a bedsitting room comes to mind. But so does Fuseli’s romantic sketch of a diminutive man contemplating a carved foot larger than himself, a fragment of a lost colossus.
Similarly, scale inflation engenders conflicting responses: It aestheticizes the original object by abstracting it to a new level of spatial experience, forcing us to confront objects we might overlook in a display case, making us aware of their surface complexity. But it also denies any kind of empathetic experience in the way the object looks and feels by the extreme literalism of its rendering.
If it weren’t for a sense of his aesthetic and intellectual intentions lying elsewhere, his Stone Age redux would sit well with the pop-conceptual reconstructions of historic porcelains by Jeff Koons, which are infected with a similarly perfectionist nuttiness. If we survive the apocalypse Mr. Heizer predicts, perhaps curators of the future will will hang these sculpture with a Koons and a Hepworth, leaving us all as blissfully unaware as Neanderthals of their differences.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, August 3, 2006