Recalling the first time she saw the site on which Michael Heizer’s City would eventually be built in 1973, the artist’s ex-wife Barbara Heizer said that there was “nothing there but me, Michael, a few survey markers and a lot of wind.” Her words reflected an essential truth about the project that Heizer repeated at the time: that there was no reason why he had chosen to create the work in this high desert stretch, located about three hours northwest of Las Vegas, other than the important fact that land there happened to be abundant and cheap. City would be built on land acquired with a loan from the late dealer Virginia Dwan, and at least at the inception of Heizer’s undertaking, it was a work completely divorced from its surroundings. Around the time Heizer landed on the Garden Valley plot on which he would live and labor for the next five decades, he had his eye on real estate in six western states, purchasing “remote land as raw material.” (Later, he would repeat about the Nevada and the Great Basin region from which he hails, “This land is in my blood.”)
Nothingness haunts Michael Heizer, White land artists of his generation, and City — his one-and-a-half-mile-long by half-a-mile-wide magnum opus in Garden Valley, Nevada, which officially opened to visitors earlier this month. The colossal structure, a labyrinth of mounds and pyramids, took half a century to construct, an arduous process set into motion by the artist when he was just 27. Despite much enthusiasm in the press over its recent unveiling, City has been seen by only a select few. Heizer was notoriously secretive while creating it, and only six people per day have been allowed to go since its opening. (Regular tickets are $150 and $100 for students and free for residents of Lincoln, Nye, and White Pine counties. All slots through the end of the year have been booked.) Yet, the work has already become wrapped up in a sort of mythological lore that portrays it as a miracle amidst desiccated nothingness — a characterization that some Indigenous artists and thinkers more attuned to the historical processes of settler colonialism take issue with.
“[Heizer’s] father — being an archaeologist, anthropologist, and somewhat historian — would know that people were killed off. People were removed from these lands,” Diné artist and composer Raven Chacon told Hyperallergic when asked about descriptions of the geographical area around City as empty and featureless. “So that’s what we’re looking at: people replacing those that were displaced with their own monuments.”
Indeed, City was built on Western Shoshone land, says Alicia Harris, an Assiniboine professor of Native American art history at the University of Oklahoma. In 2020, she submitted a PhD dissertation entitled “Homescapes: Indigenous Land Art and Public Memory,” in which she argued that works by the likes of Heizer, Robert Smithson, and Walter de Maria — despite being cast as trenchant critiques of the commoditization of galleries and the New York-centered art world in the ’70s — reaffirm the structure of settler colonialism. “Land art made by settlers can’t function as a wholesale rejection of capitalism and the market economy, because the land used to create those works was still considered ‘property,’” she wrote.
“All these artists ended up wanting to do these pieces out where I’m from, out in the desert of the American Southwest,” Chacon said, speaking to the wave of artists who headed out west in the 1960s and ’70s to create land art. “They came to the lands of the Hopi, the Paiute, the Navajo, in Utah and New Mexico. Why didn’t they do it in Berkeley or New York City?”
Heizer, with Dwan’s support, purchased the Garden Valley tract in 1972. Today, the land beneath City is jointly owned by Michael Heizer and the Triple Aught Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization incorporated in 1998 specifically to oversee the work.
Heizer’s insistence that the choice of place was incidental has been echoed in the reception of City’s site as a blank canvas ever since. When Senator Harry Reid previewed the work during the Obama administration, he instantly became a City fanatic, telling the Washington Post, “the visuals are dramatic … seeing nothing for miles and miles and then, out of the middle of nowhere is this massive thing.” Reid’s visit turned out to be integral to City’s future. President Obama, who was considering a proposal for the construction of a nuclear waste line through the region, decided at Reid’s beckoning to declare the 704,000 acres of land around City as public land as part of the Basin and Range National Monument, protecting it from development for posterity. The irony is that City might never have opened to visitors had the land it sits on not been federalized; because it is part of a national monument, it must be open to the public by law. Meanwhile, that City is in the “middle of nowhere” has fast become a truism in reporting about the work.
In conversation, Harris referenced the lives and activism of Mary and Carrie Dann, who fought for the recognition of their tribal lands as part of the Western Shoshone Nation. The 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley, the Dann sisters argued, formally enshrined their claim to the Western Shoshone territory, a 60 million-acre carpet of land that covers parts of Nevada, Idaho, Utah, and California. The Nevada Museum of Art, which holds archival materials related to Heizer and the Triple Aught Foundation, also collects photographs and documents related to the Western Shoshone Defense Project, founded by the Dann sisters to mobilize against the United States’s encroachment on ancestral lands.
Neither Heizer nor the Triple Aught Foundation responded to requests for comment. A line in the foundation’s press release about the project states that “Triple Aught Foundation respectfully acknowledges that City has been created within the ancestral territories of the Nuwu (Southern Paiute) and Newe (Western Shoshoni), who lived in and around the vicinity and call this land home, as their ancestors did before them.”
Chris Taylor, director of the Land Arts of the American West, a Texas Tech University field program in which students learn about land art by visiting and experiencing it directly, emphasized that these works are made to be viewed in context — and that there is something missed when they are severed from their necessary relationship to place. “Was it made with a sense of what’s there, or is the land treated as a blank canvas?” It’s a question Taylor poses to all works in the genre. “That’s not an empty metaphor, right? It comes from a famous tradition in painting.” He continued, “We can be critical of this work for that, and still appreciate that this is a work that took years.” Taylor added that in the past, many critiques of Heizer’s prior work came from a very particular experience of it: viewing aerial photographs of it on the walls of Dwan’s gallery in New York.
In defense of land art, Taylor argues that the colonial relationship with land that only views it binaristically, as either “virgin” or fully developed, is precisely what the genre seeks to complicate. That kind of lens, Taylor says, “comes from a failure of imagination — a failure of the ability to look with greater depth at what’s present.” The challenge, he says, “is training our perceptual abilities to read places that appear homogenous at first glance as one with many qualities. With many Western desert landscapes, that’s changing the lens on the magnifying glass.”
But the conditions of possibility for something like City, Harris maintains, go beyond mere land ownership. “There’s money involved,” she says, and “there are systems and governments involved to make it. It’s a misdirect from the real history of that place, and the meaning and kinships that people have built there over millennia.”
For Harris, it’s not a coincidence that Virginia Dwan, an early and chief backer of Heizer’s work, was an heiress of the 3M Corporation. (“3M” could be considered a euphemism. The company used to go by the blunter name Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, and it continues to pursue exploratory drilling in Nevada.)
“At the same time that [Heizer, Smithson, and Nancy Holt] started making these works [of land art], 3M was in court fighting over dumping toxic waste into rivers and streams in Minnesota. The woman who benefits from that directly is funding these artists to go and make violent aggressions toward the land,” Harris says. “And then we filter that down through the next generation, thinking about [this land art] as a beautiful sight.”
“It’s like this band-aid over this gaping wound — like, ‘we’re poisoning the land but we’re going to make this beautiful sculpture on top of it,’” she adds.
Melissa Melero-Moose is a Northern Paiute artist who founded Great Basin Native Artists, a collective bringing together Indigenous artists across California, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, and Utah. She agrees that Heizer’s work is fundamentally an incursion on the land. “If you love the land, you’re not disturbing it, and you’re not making it do things that it wouldn’t normally do on its own — like building a building on it.” Resigned, she adds, “I’m not going to protest every condo that’s going up and down; I just can’t do that. But I’m not going to say that that’s good for the land either.”
Adding to her sense of injury in reading about City is her impression that Heizer’s relationship with Indigenous culture is an extractive one. In 2013, she saw Shoshone-Paiute artist Melvin Brown’s “Regenerated Pendant,” a sculptural work created as a rebuke to Heizer’s 1996 sculpture “Perforated Object,” commissioned for the lawn in front of Reno’s federal courthouse. Heizer’s work is an abstracted enlargement of a burial artifact that his father excavated; the fact of its excavation is, then and now, controversial, with some maintaining that those remains should never have been disturbed. Brown’s piece protests both the scientific violence Robert Heizer’s archaeological work represents to him and Michael Heizer’s perpetuation of such violence through art.
“This feeling that I get sometimes in seeing ‘Double Negative’ is that it seems that there’s an impulse to extract or even destroy the land,” Chacon says of a 1969 land art piece by Heizer consisting of two incisions into the Mormon Mesa in Nevada. “And with City now, there’s this choosing to mine the designs of Chichén Itzá and other Indigenous North American sites,” he adds, referencing Heizer’s allusions to being inspired by Native American mound building traditions and pre-Hispanic Central and South American cities.
Nora Naranjo Morse, a Pueblo artist whose work includes land art in the city of Albuquerque and an installation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, offered the most generous appraisal of City of all the artists I spoke to. “Michael’s sculpture is so magnificent and huge, and represents so much of America’s will, determination, and industrial approach to creating a society,” she said. Naranjo Morse is “awed” as an artist by his “absolute determination” and feels “gratitude” toward the work. But, she says, she still has “questions that are inspired by the writings of Rina Swentzell.”
Naranjo Morse is citing a short essay entitled “An Understated Sacredness” by Swentzell, a Pueblo architect and teacher who she says has been hugely influential for her thought. In the text, Swentzell recounts how she felt “puzzled” when a friend chastised his girlfriend for stepping on the walls of Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, built by ancestral Puebloans in the 800s CE: “I felt nothing sacrilegious had occurred,” she wrote. “I could not cause desacralization. No one can cause desacralization because the concept of original sin is lacking in Pueblo thought.”
“She taught generations of Pueblo people how to think about their surroundings and how they are not more than but equal to this plant that is growing, or this rock that is sitting there. I approach my work from that perspective,” Naranjo Morse said.
“I think Michael, in his own way, thought a lot about the area he was working in,” she continued, adding that it was noteworthy that he chose a location downwind of a nuclear weapons testing site. “These are monuments to an industrialized society that are neither good nor bad, but just saying, this is where we are as a human society.” And Heizer’s use of materials conventionally thought to be useless, such as dirt and rock collected from nearby, coheres with Pueblo ways of life. “We’ve been using this material that has been taken for granted for so long, and is still being taken for granted.”
To Harris, the assumption of emptiness or neutrality common to descriptions of land art gives way to historical forgetfulness. “That eventually ends up normalizing and erasing the political and legal struggle that people had to maintain their homeland,” she said.
In Chacon’s words: “The land itself is already sacred. The land already has stories inside it, already has meaning inside of it.”