Overview:

'City' took 50 years, construction teams, heavy machinery, and many millions of dollars to get finished—and the incredible vision and gumption of one maverick artist.

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A colossal work of art called City recently opened for viewing in Nevada. Over a mile long and a quarter-mile wide, taking 50 years to complete, this installation makes a huge splash even when seen from high overhead. It’s a statement that speaks to one of the most human things about us: our desire to create art for its own sake.

The prehistory of City

Michael Heizer, who is currently pushing 80, has been working as an artist since the 1960s. His work tends to be minimalist shapes. In particular, he likes to explore negative space. This is usually the area around the main part of the art. But artists can also incorporate negative space into the subject itself, or use it to make a subject in whole.

Consider for example the logo of the Guild of Food Writers:

Via CreativeBloq.com. Fair use for commentary.

The black fountain-pen nib creates a negative white space shaped like a spoon. It’s a visually arresting image that tells us right away exactly what this group is about (if its name didn’t clue us in).

Michael Heizer does something similar in his work. One prime example of his negative-space work is Track Painting (1967), viewable at the New York gallery’s site that hosted an exhibition for him in 2015.

The photograph captures it at a slantwise angle. Normally, it’d be viewed head-on and would look like a lozenge-shaped, plain black racecar track with an inner oval of pure white.

But he clearly had bigger things in mind.

A couple of years later, he finished Double Negative (1969), a massive art installation near Overton, Nevada. Double Negative consists of a 30’x50’x1500′ trench of negative space that begins on one side of a canyon, proceeds invisibly through space, and continues on the other side of the canyon. Heizer excavated that space by displacing 244k tons of rock. An art dealer with an interest in huge artworks, Virginia Dwan, had purchased the land for it. Without her help, it’s unlikely he’d ever have been able to create the project.

Heizer’s Double Negative from the north trench toward the opposite south trench. Photo by Thure Johnson under CC BY 2.0

(Residents seem to have grown fond of Double Negative somewhere along the line. We can infer their affection because they defeated plans last year to build a solar energy farm nearby that would have potentially threatened the piece.)

All of this stuff was just preparation, in a sense, for Heizer’s grandest project: City.

A City is born

He chose a remote location in Nevada for the site in an area called (perhaps in an excess of optimism) Garden Valley. It’s some hours’ drive north of Las Vegas. In 1972, Heizer got himself some heavy equipment and began moving chunks of the planet around.

His plan was to evoke the ceremonial feel of civic engineering projects like Angkor Wat or Easter Island, or even the Tuileries Gardens at the Louvre—and to fuse that feel with Minimalism on the grand scale. It is not, of course, a livable city in any sense of the word. Instead, it’s an artistic evocation of the concept of cities: vast, isolating, impossibly huge, and impeccably engineered.

45°, 90°, 180°, City. © Michael Heizer. Courtesy Triple Aught Foundation. Photo: Joe Rome

At first, we learn from a 2005 New York Times article, Heizer worked alone on the first part of City, which he called Complex One. In 1974, he finally completed this first part. But the next few complexes he’d planned proved to be far more difficult and challenging for a lone artist approaching middle age. A big cash infusion from deep-pocketed patrons allowed him to recover from a serious health crisis, hire workers, get better heavy equipment, and return to his project.

For a while, he figured he’d finish the piece around 2010.

City is a very isolated, isolating experience

In fact, Heizer and his team finished City in 2022. The entire project took 50 years and about $40 million to complete. Along the way, in 2015 the legislators of Nevada made 704k acres around City into the Basin and Range National Monument, thus protecting City and a bunch of natural wonders for the future.

City opened to the public in September 2022. But to preserve the sense of isolation, a maximum of six people are allowed to walk through the vast, curated spaces of City at a time. Those visitors must get permission and tickets from the Triple Aught Foundation, the nonprofit that owns and administers the site. In fact, the foundation’s agents meet these visitors in Alamo, Nevada and drive them to the site, give them a few hours to wander around, and then take them back to town before dark.

45°, 90°, 180°, City © Michael Heizer. Courtesy of Triple Aught Foundation. Photo: Ben Blackwell

Very quickly, 2022 tickets were bought up, but apparently they’re offering 2023 viewings running from May through November, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Oh, and no one is allowed to take photos or videos of any kind while there.

If any potential visitors decide to visit on a more impromptu basis, as it were, Heizer apparently has, in the past at least, threatened to shoot trespassers.

A monument to the human situation

City is baffling to a lot of people. It’s huge and serves no obvious purpose. It took 50 years, millions of dollars, and a lot of hard work to create. And, as a Tony Hawk architecture-appreciation subreddit noted in dripping disdain, you can’t even use any of those glorious embankments and ramps to have some truly righteous fun on your skateboard.

Yet what illustrates the human situation quite like this piece?

Sure, some animals create art that serves no real function, like the famous example of elephants painting canvases. Still, I notice that most of these artistic creatures are pets or otherwise kept animals. As well, some primates in the (semi) wild have been known to do stuff like stick bits of grass in their ears, and this seems to have no purpose beyond the pleasure of self-decoration. They’re still not making art that outlasts their own lifetimes.

As lasting art goes, City is perfectly human: one artist with an incredible idea and the wherewithal to make it happen. One artist creating something of this unimaginable scale out of the desert for no reason at all beyond the statement it makes to the vanishingly few people who will ever see it in the flesh.

Imagine if we found out that Angkor Wat was made for similar reasons. Or the Pyramids. Or the Lincoln Memorial. Just art projects with no religious or civic reason behind them. Just one artist’s vision. It’s staggering.

In the case of ancient art, archaeologists tend to declare that it has some unfathomable religious purpose. Millennia from now, if City lasts that long, one wonders idly what future archaeologists will say about it.

Complex Two, City. © Michael Heizer. Courtesy Triple Aught Foundation. Photo: Joe Rome

City isn’t the only place where artists have dreamed big

As our society becomes more and more specialized, as artists dare to dream bigger and bigger, they can devote themselves to finding new ways to speak to our hearts.

For example, last year, Sacha Jafri finished painting The Journey of Humanity. At 17,000 square feet (1595 m2), it won the Guinness World Record award for the largest canvas painting ever made. It’s not the largest painting ever, though. Just the biggest canvas painting. The biggest one ever would be the 130k sf2 (12,086 m2) one that Hung Chi-Sung painted on the ground in 2018. (It depicts the Great Buddha.)

If humongous sculptures have toodled your fancy, you’re in luck. Double Negative and City are part of a genre called Earth Art. You can find examples of it in a lot of places, though mostly in the United States and the United Kingdom.

If you get a chance to see anything like City, I hope you take it. I still regret skipping an event in my teens that turned the entire downtown district of Houston into a backdrop for a laser-embellished concert.

In a very real sense, art might not be able to get much more human than this.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...