Thursday, November 07, 2019

Michael Heizer

Michael Heizer: The Once and Future Monuments
William L. Fox
The Monacelli Press, September 2019

Hardcover| 6-1/2 x 9 inches | 232 pages | English | ISBN: 978-1580935203 | $45.00

Publisher's Description:
Michael Heizer is among the greatest, and often least accessible, American artists. As one of the last living figures who launched the Land Art movement, his legacy of works that are literally and metaphorically monumental has an incalculable influence on the world of sculpture and environmental art. But his seclusion in the remote Nevada desert, as well as his notorious obduracy, have resulted in significant gaps in our critical understanding. Michael Heizer: The Once and Future Monuments spans the breadth of Heizer’s career, uniquely combining fieldwork, personal narrative, and biographical research to create the first major assessment in years of this titan of American art.

Author William L. Fox, founding director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art, has alternately been a sponsor, advocate, and critic of Heizer’s work for decades. Fox’s understanding of the artist’s history and connection to landscape, his time spent with Heizer at the remote ranch where Heizer is finishing his magnum opus – the mile-long sculpture
City – and his access to some of Heizer’s key associates give him a unique position from which to discuss the artist’s work. Fox has also made numerous site visits to Heizer’s work–including early pieces in the Nevada desert now largely lost to the elements–to correct the often inconsistent accounts of their locations. Last, Fox imparts a crucial new understanding of Heizer’s work by elaborating on the artist’s bond with his father, the famed archaeologist and cultural ecologist Robert Heizer, who enlisted his son on important digs in Mexico and Peru, providing the young man with an appreciation of site, landscape, and geology that would thoroughly inform his work. Michael Heizer: The Once and Future Monuments is a long overdue addition to the critical and biographical literature of this major figure in American art.
dDAB Commentary:
In my review of James Crump's 2015 film Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art, I rhetorically questioned why the documentary did not include much footage of Michael Heizer's famous Double Negative, while artworks by Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt were presented visually at some length. At the time I did not know how controlling Heizer, now in his mid-70s, was about the documentation and presentation of his artworks in words and images. His unwillingness to allow all but drone footage of Double Negative must have frustrated Crump, though given that the footage is from the air rather than on the ground I'm guessing Heizer didn't even have a say in its use. Likewise, Heizer's controlling nature means The Once and Future Monuments has very few images (it led me to omit spreads in this post), although the ones included are quite interesting, such as artist Shawn Patrick Landis's Air Check installed inside Double Negative in 2003. What's left are the words of William L. Fox, a writer who got to know Heizer and his controlling nature personally, followed the artist's wishes about exposure in previous books, pissed off Heizer regardless, and then swore off writing anything else about him and his art. The Once and Future Monuments is proof that Fox eventually changed his position, and fans of Heizer should be happy, for it straightens out many errors in histories about Heizer and delves into the the artist and his artwork deeper than anything I've come across.

I should say that Fox's words aren't technically the only things accompanying the scant few images in this book. It has a trilogy of "Deiro Transcripts": documents from the archive of Guido Robert Deiro, who served as the "all-around fixer" for Heizer and Walter De Maria, artist of the famous Lightning Field, for around thirty years. In 2009 Deiro donated his archive to the Center for Art + Environment, where Fox was and is director. That donation, along with Crump's film, helped convince Fox to write The Once and Future Monuments, thereby having, respectively, access to information on the reclusive artist and a precedent for creating something without his participation. Part criticism, part biography, part guidebook even, The Once and Future Monuments is an enjoyable read, jumping around in space and time to portray Heizer and his most important artworks. Yet I can't shake wanting to see the art being discussed. Yes, "this is the age of the internet," as Fox writes in the "note about images or lack thereof" that starts the book, but I'm a firm believer in the power of illustrated books, of words and images on the page together, not words on the page and images on the screen. Even though Heizer makes such a book close to impossible, Fox has pulled off the next best thing. As long as you don't go in expecting a visual feast, you'll be pleased with Fox's revealing portrait of an important artist.

Author Bio:
William L. Fox is founding Director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art and has variously been called an art critic, science writer, and cultural geographer.
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