Far out of context: Michael Heizer’s enormous land-art sculpture in eastern Nevada is so unlike anything else, I never found my bearings

At Michael Heizer’s mile-and-a-half-long land-art installation in eastern Nevada, there are no signs or curatorial statements. The iconic work, 50 years in the making, is in the remote Basin and Range National Monument, where hunting, hiking and camping are allowed, but there are no park amenities—no entrance booth, no ranger station, no bathrooms, no campgrounds. There is no gift shop, no souvenir travel mug.  

There is no tour. There is no tour guide. There’s a driver, Ed. He brought a truckful of us two-plus hours from the town of Alamo, dropped us off, showed us a subtle landmark so we could find the truck again, pointed out a semi-hidden portable toilet, and said he’d see us in three hours. 

While Ed is an easy conversationalist, quick to spin a yarn about local geography or his baby chukars, he was next to mum about the project, which he called only “the project.” Its title is “City.” Not once in eight hours did Ed say the word “City.” He only mentioned the name “Heizer” when he was talking about how he used to run cattle for the 79-year-old art star and rancher decades ago. 

The Basin and Range National Monument, established in 2015, is open to hunters, hikers and campers. Admission is free, but the area has no paved roads, campsites or bathrooms. “City” is on privately run property within the monument, and access is only available by reservation. Photo/Kris Vagner

There is no How It’s Made episode, no behind-the scenes-documentary, no coffee table book. Photography is prohibited. (The New York Times, however, got an exception and published some fantastic drone shots. The scale of “City” is impossible to grasp in the still photos released to the rest of the media, but the drone shots do it justice.) 

Before the trip, I’d received no talking points from the media team. (There are always talking points from the media team to arts reporters. Rest assured, I usually ignore them.)

Typically, with any art piece—especially one this ambitious, especially one by an artist whose status as a giant in the international art world was secured in the 1960s—there are reams and reams of statements, declarations and documentation. Heizer, though, has been avoiding the press for a long time. 

A detail of “City,” copyright Michael Heizer. Photo/Ben Blackwell, courtesy of Triple Aught Foundation

“I’m a quiet man. I just make art,” he told The Guardian in 2015. In 2016, he talked with The New Yorker for an extensive profile. I haven’t seen another one since. After Bill Fox, director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art, published a book discussing Heizer in more biographical detail than the artist would have liked, Heizer changed the terms of their friendship. Fox had to write his 2019 book, Michael Heizer—The Once and Future Monuments, without any input from Heizer. 

This the least-mediated art experience I have ever had in my life—by many orders of magnitude. 

A lucky break, a lucky icebreaker 

I was in the back-row bench seat of a white, late-model Chevy Tahoe bouncing along a gravel road, gawking at Garden Valley’s vast expanse of sagebrush steppe, the fingers of snow running down the peaks in the distance, and a few vertical, gray-blue brushstrokes near the horizon—passing rainstorms, maybe 40 miles away. I was pretending not to be carsick. I was caffeinated as heck. 

I was there due to a stroke of happenstance. If you called it a “buddy deal,” I couldn’t argue. 

Technically, “City” finally opened to visitors in 2022, but few people have seen it. The New York-based Triple Aught Foundation, which owns and administers it, sells only six tickets per day, three days per week, for six months of the year. I’ve applied for tickets a few times, to no avail. In 2022, I pled my case to the foundation: Wouldn’t it be nice to have a Nevada journalist add to a discussion that’s been dominated so far by the national art press? Art in America got in. The New York Times got in. I got two brusque brush-offs by email. 

Earlier this year, Brent Holmes, a Las Vegas artist and arts writer—who’s also a colleague and friend—got a job with Triple Aught. A few months later, he texted to say the foundation would open the velvet rope for a few Nevada journalists. The journalists’ outing I joined was the second of two. 

Back on the third-row bench seat, the carsickness was not at all impeding a lovely conversation with Taylor Avery, a politics and government reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, who was grateful to be on the clock yet off the beaten path, a four-hour drive from her windowless office. 

Taylor is a good interviewer. She asked me how I got interested in art and what I get out of being an arts writer. Every time someone asks me this, I stumble through a half-resolved answer. Due to the two cups of cold brew I’d downed back in Alamo, I stumbled through it faster than anyone could possibly want to hear. Taylor asked follow-up questions until I managed to sort of put it into words. It was something like this: 

Art is this undefined, unregulated mental territory where people are trying to get at something that is probably not a declarative statement, but is still somehow useful to know. Art is where there’s room to explore and organize and attempt to make sense of the world, in ways you cannot do in other disciplines, by manipulating materials and ideas into some kind of output that might end up ephemeral—possibly unclear or alienating, even. But when it works, there is something there that you can’t get elsewhere. Visual artists get to carve out this space where they’re the masters of their own domains. Sometimes they use an existing visual language to create their own world (like a comic book artist). Sometimes they invent their own language out of images or objects (like Michael Heizer with $40 million, several square miles of raw desert and bulldozers). Somehow, some of this output helps some people connect meaningfully with some other people. 

That was as far as I got. It’s further than I usually get. 

In the ‘City’ 

After Ed dropped us off, our group of five walked along a perfectly flat, machine-made butte, then descended a perfectly graded, weedless slope into a maze of tidy mounds, depressions and flat spots made of gravel and rammed earth. Miles of cement curbs swoop and angle across the land like drawings. The closest real-world comparisons to these shaped bits of ground I can think of are subdivisions that have been graded but not yet built, or maybe the early foundation of a fanciful, futuristic racetrack that’s not yet paved. But these shaped bits of ground have no practical purpose. They exist only to behold. 

A detail of “City,” copyright Michael Heizer. Photo/Joe Rome, courtesy of Triple Aught Foundation

Our group was under no obligation to stick together, but we quickly agreed that what we were seeing was so disorienting, so hard to process, that perhaps we could help each other out in trying to grasp it and describe it—so we did stick together. 

We each tried our normal sets of references: How does “City” compare with other outings in wide, breathtaking Nevada valleys? With other massive land art pieces? Was it the setting for a dream? Like walking inside of a drawing? A macho, industrial zen garden? Keep in mind that, as journalists, we analyze, discuss and describe things every day. Here, we all came up short, over and over.  

We meandered up and down the slopes and along the pathways. Sometimes we had a worm’s-eye view of nothing but the factory-perfect slopes and curbs under the passing clouds. Sometimes, at the sculpture’s edges, we felt like we’d reached the edge of a Hollywood movie set, where we’d been so engulfed in the story that a sudden glimpse of the real world seemed jarring. 

At opposite ends of “City,” there are two groups of concrete structures that look like minimalist, sci-fi cityscapes that jumped off a page and became gravity-defying structures with concrete beams and steep triangles jutting in unlikely directions. They were appealingly confounding. 

The discussions meandered to some of the major critiques that have been published about the piece. Many have called it a wasteful imposition on the environment. Others have pointed out that the land that looked like a blank canvas to a prominent, white artist in the early 1970s is the same land that was stolen from the Western Shoshone when the U.S. government violated the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley.  

“The matter has been in and out of courtrooms for 150 years,” wrote art historian Chris Fernald in Double Scoop (the statewide arts journal of which I am editor) in 2022.  

“Ultimately, ‘City’ offers us the worst of our present and past,” Fernald wrote, “an immersive environment for selfie-taking and exclusive art tourism, a generational unwillingness to grapple with the complex legacies of colonization, and a willful ignorance of the interconnection of self and land.” 

Our group of five discussed the fact that the exclusivity of this grand experience we were having was, on one hand, noticeably uncomfortable. We all wanted to go pick up cars full of friends and family members and share this artwork. On the other hand, when we’d each been offered a chance to jump the line, we’d all taken it, and there we were on a sunny afternoon, wandering this otherworldly marvel without a crowd, enjoying the quiet. 

After maybe an hour, we stopped trying to figure it out, rationalize it, critique it or describe it, and settled into just wandering through and experiencing it. After two hours, Brent—who had been at Heizer’s nearby ranch talking with the manager—joined us. Brent is among the most perceptive, articulate discussers of art I have ever known. He has never spoken with Heizer (who is back in New York and in poor health), and when it comes to the hows and whys of “City,” he hasn’t been privy to much more than the rest of us, even though he is employed by the foundation. But given how skilled he is at getting his finger on the pulse of that elusive, ephemeral something that a painting or performance might be accomplishing, I admit I was expecting an illuminating, if improvised, docent talk—or at least a quality rant. He started a few times and told a few stories, but when he got to trying to explain why “City” feels so meaningful, he kept skipping straight to a half-frustrated, “It’s just such fucking good art.”  

I have to hand it to Taylor for asking me the right question at the right time. The only framework that made sense that day was my bumbling answer: Art, at its most successful, taps into some undefined, unregulated, immensely satisfying thing that I’ve always struggled to put into words. This time, it was that undefined, unregulated, immensely satisfying thing—writ 1,000 times larger than I’d ever imagined.  

The mile-and-a-half-long land art installation, as seen on Google Maps. 

“City” is located in the Basin and Range National Monument in Lincoln County, 157 miles north of Las Vegas and 108 miles south of Ely. While the monument is open to the public and free to use, “City” is on private land and will be accessible in 2025 only between May 13 and Nov. 13, and only by reservation. Tickets are $150 for adults; $100 for students outside of Nevada; and free for residents of Lincoln, Nye and White Pine counties, and Nevada students and educators (although reservations are still required). Ticket sales for 2024 have closed, and the Triple Aught Foundation plans to open requests for 2025 on Jan. 2, 2025, at 9:01 a.m. Visitation days are Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Learn more at www.tripleaughtfoundation.org. 

This article was also published on Double Scoop, Nevada’s source for visual arts news and commentary.