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Michael Heizer's rock: Levitating the masses

March 12, 2012 |  2:45 pm

"I hope that's not costing us a lot of money," said the man on a bicycle at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and 36th Street in Long Beach, as we waited for the light to change the other day. Down the block, the 340-ton granite boulder that will be the centerpiece of artist Michael Heizer's sculpture "Levitated Mass" sat in the middle of the road, suspended in an industrial sling within a massive, specially built transporter two-thirds the length of a football field. A crowded block-party swirled around it.

This was Day 8 of the circuitous, 11-day journey that began in a Riverside stone quarry and ended, 22 cities later, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. There, over the course of the next few months, the two-story-high rock will be positioned atop a deep, 456-foot-long trench of structurally reinforced concrete running along 6th Street. The trench was mostly completed last fall. When the sculpture is finished in late spring or early summer, a viewer will be able to enter the sloping trench and pass beneath the giant boulder balanced above.

Did eager anticipation for that day spark the flame of public imagination, drawing international media and tens of thousands of visitors during the rock's 105-mile journey? No. But the spectacle is worth considering. It tells us about the distinctive intersection between art and the public today.

Michael Heizer's "North, East, South, West" (detail),1981, stainless steel"Levitated Mass" will be the second large-scale sculpture by Nevada-based Heizer, 67, in L.A. Four monumental geometric forms in brushed stainless steel have nestled since 1982 in a public arcade downtown. They appear to hover a few inches above the outdoor floor at the corner of Fifth and Flower streets. (Incidentally, a different Heizer sculpture also titled "Levitated Mass" was commissioned in 1982 for the former IBM building on New York's Madison Avenue at 57th Street.) But LACMA's is the only work by the reclusive artist to have generated a massive wave of publicity -- and it isn't even built yet.

In Long Beach, I'm guessing that few revelers knew of the stainless steel sculptures 22 short miles up the freeway. But before the day was out, official estimates put the steady stream of boulder-oglers at 20,000.

'No," I replied to the bicyclist who had casually inquired about the obvious expense, "it's not costing 'us' anything. All the money was privately raised." He nodded, grinned and, apparently satisfied, pedaled away.

The $10 million, more or less, that the entire Heizer project will cost has been a prime catalyst for the rock's celebrity. Americans might be generally indifferent to art, but money they care about.

Usually this project's cost is voiced as a disbelieving question, as in "$10 million? For a rock?" Apparently some folks think that the cash has been raked into a big pile, doused with gasoline and set aflame. Or else converted into a giant cashier's check and deposited in a charlatan-artist's Nevada bank account, like a lucky Lotto winner.

There soon follows a rhetorical question of topical dismay ("In this economy?") or else a dull suggestion of how all that money would be better spent -- always on something of special interest to the grumbler. But both are merely matters of personal taste and preference.

Sure, Heizer gets a fee. (The amount is undisclosed.) But the bulk of the money has paid for industrial building materials -- monumental construction projects aren't cheap, and this is nothing if not a monumental construction project -- as well as for the salaries of hundreds of workers, Heizer included. The 22 cities across four counties issued about 100 permits (ka-ching!). "Levitated Mass" will be landscaped at LACMA, where the boulder and rig finally came to rest Saturday morning before the sun came up.

Besides money, what else draws easily distracted eyeballs toward budding celebrity? Ask Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. Sex, in the case of the rock, requires a bit of explanation.

As a source of public fascination, art's psycho-sexual position in American life matters. Art has a gender in popular consciousness, and that gender is female. Like it or not, art is presumed to be feminine, not masculine. Under those circumstances, if art in a patriarchal society is to have a prominent public life, femininity just won't cut it.

Consider the four (and possibly five) notable artists engaged by LACMA Director Michael Govan for big outdoor commissions at the museum -- Heizer, Chris Burden, Robert Irwin, James Turrell and (maybe) Jeff Koons. Their aesthetics sharply differ, but diversity doesn't exactly describe the selection. The rock and its enormous 196-wheel truck are just about as butch as it gets.

Frida Kahlo, "Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird,"Coincidentally, as the boy-toy rolled into town, lampposts across the city are festooned with banners for a current LACMA show of Surrealist women artists. The banners feature the famous face of painter Frida Kahlo, the feminist icon who stood up to that philandering bully, Diego Rivera, and who, as a fierce cross-dressing woman sporting a faint mustache, decisively wore the pants in the family. I wonder what she might have thought of the big truck rolling by?

As Kahlo's celebrated example shows, for an artwork to reach mass consciousness, factors need to work against the presumed femininity of art. Compensation can come from the business success implied by stratospheric dollar amounts ($10 million!). It can come from a work's heroic, hyper-masculine forms (for a rock!). "Levitated Mass," a pricey engineering feat of the first magnitude, advertises both.

Add in dramatic visuals -- you don't see something like this hulking cavalcade every day -- and TV cameras typically indifferent to the more static, not to say obscure charms of art simply cannot stay away. Social media, the personalized counterpart to corporate broadcasting, piles on. LACMA's blog, Unframed, and The Times' Culture Monster, with my colleague Deborah Vankin astutely blogging and live-tweeting from the road, saw rock-followers collect across Facebook and Twitter. Simultaneously they drove and registered public fascination.

What all of this means for "Levitated Mass" remains to be seen. (I can't tell you how many people have asked whether I like a sculpture that doesn't yet exist.) So far, the parts are merely being assembled. At the very least, expectations have been raised.

Heizer conceived the sculpture 40 years ago. One might wonder whether the finished work will feel old-fashioned -- an early '70s relic, like bell-bottom pants, disco and Ms. magazine. Yet, engaging a desert boulder from the bottom of an ancient sea conjures geological rather than merely historical time, here in the middle of the city. In the epic scheme of things, a 40-year journey through time and space is the merest blink of an eye.

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Art review: 'Alighiero Boetti by Afghan Women' at UCLA Fowler Museum

-- Christopher Knight

@twitter.com/KnightLAT

Photos: "North, East, South, West" (detail),1981, stainless steel. Credit: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times

Frida Kahlo, "Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird," 1940, oil on canvas. Credit: LACMA

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