The Sublime Is Then and Now | Arcy Douglass

Michael Heizer's Double Negative. Photo: Arcy Douglass.

Michael Heizer’s Double Negative. Photo: Arcy Douglass.

The first time I went to Double Negative was almost 20 years ago. I remember driving along Mormon Mesa looking for signs that might point me in the right direction. After 45 minutes and more than a few wrong turns, I finally arrived, and what do I see? Nothing. There is no sign or plaque, no admissions desk or bookstore, and certainly no café. There was nothing to tell me that I was in the right place. It was just me and the work, and the work was exactly the experience that I made of it.

I remember walking down into the piece, inside the cut and across the mesa to the edge. Looking across the chasm to the next cut in the neighboring mesa, it was impossible to tell where the work ended. Immersed in the space of the piece, everything was important: the light, the shadows, the layered patterns of sedimentation, the silence alternating with the crunch of gravel underfoot. Double Negative seemed to fold in the entire space of the mesa, the mountains to the north and the river to the south into itself. An already very large work seemed to take up half of southern Nevada. It felt like the entire purpose of the work was to get the viewer to do one thing: Pay attention.

My first visit to Double Negative was one of the most profound art experiences that I have ever had, and I have spent the better part of 20 years trying to understand what happened to me that day.

This is not a history of Double Negative or any other work that is discussed here. There are better and more complete histories available online, in books and among museum archives. My intention is to view these works as archetypes and to determine if there are patterns and opportunities that might be embraced by others who, like me, are looking to process their experiences of land art. This is not so much a look back, but a look ahead. And it may be that the original artists’ intentions are challenged, or even creatively misread, in the hope that a discussion of these works is generative, rather than tied to a specific set of conditions that existed in the late ’60s and ’70s.

This journey includes three main stops: Michael Heizer’s Double Negative from 1968, and Walter De Maria’s Las Vegas Piece from 1969 and The Lightning Field from 1977. Our road trip ends with Donald Judd’s 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum from 1982-86.

Man vs. Nature

First, let’s get the elephant out of the room. When Heizer took a bulldozer and a box of dynamite to cut up two sides of Mormon Mesa, he was trying to make a work so large and so grand it would be impossible to show in any New York art gallery. After a lifetime of digging in pits with his archaeologist father, he wanted to make the biggest hole of all. Big enough to swallow the New York art world in one enormous gulp.

Fine. He made his statement. We ended up with a great work of art. We look at the environment differently now than Heizer did at the time Double Negative was created. He might have seen Mormon Mesa as a blank canvas. We might see it as a fragile desert ecosystem trying to survive until the next rain. Wilderness he may have viewed as commonplace, we now see as exceedingly rare. What Heizer may have seen as empty, we see as full. When something is full, it is difficult to destroy what is already there to put something else in its place.

Double Negative is also surprisingly context-sensitive. I had a conversation with a friend who said that if Double Negative was next to Half Dome in Yosemite, it just wouldn’t work. It is also easy to imagine that Double Negative next to the Grand Canyon wouldn’t work either. Half Dome and the Grand Canyon are already too interesting and would render Heizer’s cuts too subtle and probably invisible. Double Negative needs an environment that is interesting, but not too interesting.

Double Negative was also meant to last forever. With the help of Count Guido Deiro, Heizer was able to buy property so that his work would be permanent. There also seems to have been two versions of Double Negative. The first one was thinner and shallower and was later recut to be more dramatic. This work brings together very specific conditions, including the opportunity to buy available land at a reasonable cost, the realities of finding a patron and financial backing, a different view of desert ecosystems, and the danger of literally driving a bulldozer off the edge of a cliff.

Where does that leave us now? The lesson of Double Negative is not for artists to go buy plots of land and have at it with bulldozers and dynamite. First, I would be hard-pressed to name an artist who even tried to do that. Second, Heizer has moved away from this kind of work, even if there are still echoes of this language in his dramatic slot at LACMA.

Looking back on my experience, it is clear that Double Negative was meant to last forever, yet it could not. At its heart, the work is an impossible and inherently irresolvable contradiction. How do you build something to last forever when you ignore the fundamental process and characteristics of the site? After the piece was made, a younger Heizer accepted the natural erosion of the mesa that would sooner or later render the clean lines of the cuts nothing more than a shallow dip. I wonder if later he wasn’t quite as comfortable with the idea of erosion because one would hear rumors that he wanted to install concrete retaining walls to clean up the geometry. If retaining walls were built, that would change the work in a profound way.

I think these ideas of control and intention at odds with nature are what makes Double Negative so interesting and relevant for artists today. Heizer begins the project with a clear idea about negative space superimposed on the land. The geometry relates to his intentions, is influenced by his own experiences, and not really related to the conditions of the site, other than the mesa allowed the sides to be visible across the scalloped edges of the landscape. It was an idea imposed upon the land.

Whether he wants it to be or not, the work has become collaboration between his original intention and the natural erosion of the site. The site is not natural because of the cuts, but the site is also not unnatural because the sediment reveals how the mesa changes over time. When you look at photographs of Double Negative, you can readily see the walls crumbling into small avalanches of sediment. The work began moving subtly yet steadily away from the artist’s intention at the very minute, the very second, Heizer drove the bulldozer out of the slot. A work that was intended as a statement of permanence has become a monument to change. When you go against nature, nature always wins.

Time and Space

Fifty miles north and one year after Heizer lit the fuse on Double Negative, Walter De Maria built a piece that encoded precise distances in a vast, sloping desert plane. The surrounding landscape at De Maria’s Las Vegas Piece stands in stark contrast to Heizer’s site. On Mormon Mesa, you get a more or less flat plane populated by small shrubs. In the Las Vegas Piece, you encounter large Joshua trees, and the whole site is traversed with sizable streambeds that flood during storms.

If Double Negative is all about depth, then the Las Vegas Piece is all about surface. After several years of experiments with chalk in dry lakebeds, De Maria, like Heizer, wanted to build something permanent and make a drawing with a bulldozer. The Las Vegas Piece comprises two mile-long lines connected at a right angle. One line is oriented north-south and the other east-west. Each mile-long line is subdivided at the half-mile mark. The two half-mile lines also connect at a right angle. When viewed in aerial photos, the Las Vegas Piece resembles a very large baseball diamond without the curve of the outfield.

Distance in the desert is misleading. It is impossible to gauge the distance of mountains. One’s perception of space in the desert is very fluid. Vast distances are compressed to seem impossibly close. You walk through the desert, but your senses are amplified. Into this environment De Maria inserted fixed limits marked off by the shallow cut of a bulldozer blade. He encountered a void and imposed a grid; the work is inseparable from the space that surrounds it. As with Heizer’s work, every detail becomes important.

De Maria’s lines cross streams, move rocks aside, and leave shallow indentions that are visible some 45 years later. Along the east-west line, the half-mile marker falls just after a large Joshua tree. It makes you wonder if he got lucky and that half-mile length is, in fact, just after the tree, or if he subtly changed the distance so that the tree itself becomes a kind of marker within the space of the piece. The end of the east-west line also terminates near a Joshua tree. Did the artist get lucky again, or is the distance slightly longer or shorter than one mile to accommodate the tree? If the tree were in the middle of the path would it have been bulldozed as well? Those trees are hundreds of years old, and I believe they raise the issue of an inherent contradiction within the work.

The current site is flat, but not especially so. There are probably dozens or maybe a hundred sites that would have suited De Maria. He could have built the Las Vegas Piece nearly anywhere. In fact years later, there were rumors of him building another one in New Zealand. For years, he built all kinds of ephemeral chalk pieces on the sunbaked surfaces of dry lakebeds throughout Nevada. He knew that if he built the bulldozed piece then maybe he could get people to come out to the site and see the desert as he saw it. This was the place he wanted to share with people through his work. And that is the contradiction. The desert that he wanted to share with people was scraped away and destroyed to make the work. In the process of making the work, he literally took away part of what brought him to the site in the first place.

Except he didn’t. After more than 45 years, the lines fade, and the desert comes back. Rather than being compromised by natural processes like erosion, the work collaborated with nature. The geometry has softened and is often only revealed by subtle indentations or small rocks in lines that remain in place after rolling off the edge of the bulldozer blade all of those years ago. What was once a wide-open clear path is now clogged with bushes, so the line has become fragmented and complex. Floods have washed out parts of the lines so that a search is required to find the line after it crosses a streambed. So the piece that was once so clearly linear has now become complex and provisional. Sometimes you know you are walking line, and sometimes you just have to take it on faith.

Here, our land art road trip takes a short detour to the East, the Far East. There is a story about the Zen garden Saiho-ji in Kyoto. Three hundred years ago, it was designed like any beautiful temple garden with every rock, tree and subtle ornament in its proper place. One day there was a rainstorm and a flood that destroyed the original design, upending earth and stone and causing so much disorder that the garden was abandoned for 200 years. Nature and numerous species of green mosses took their course, and now the garden is believed to be a masterpiece because it is a work that transcends human hands.

There is always potential for beauty when a design that is built one way is forced to change because of the environment. Time has changed the Las Vegas Piece just as defiantly as De Maria changed the desert with a bulldozer. The trick is to understand that time and change are part of the work, and that in this environment the artist’s intention was only one piece of the pattern we should now observe. In both Double Negative and the Las Vegas Piece, time and change have become essential parts of the work. For better or worse, the current conditions were only barely acknowledged, or all together ignored, by the artists. Are these pieces only about the intention of the artist? How much change can these works absorb and still be considered the authentic work? What does authenticity even mean when we are talking about these works? Should we applaud the artist’s willful ignorance of the conditions of the site? Should we cling to photos from the past to interpret the work today? Or should we confront what is right in front of us in its current state?

I sometimes wonder when an artist makes a work in these situations if he or she surrenders a bit of the original intention to nature. By definition, these works are collaborative. De Maria of all people should have understood this. A dry lakebed is often a very windy place. His chalk lines were probably being blown away almost as fast as he could put them down. It is literally the nature of the work. To ignore the natural processes of the desert environments is like crossing a street without looking both ways. You do so at your own risk.

Michael Heizer's Double Negative. Photo: Arcy Douglas

Michael Heizer’s Double Negative. Photo: Arcy Douglas

First Light

I wonder if De Maria did not find the Las Vegas Piece entirely satisfying. The site was, and still is, difficult to get to and can become dangerous in summer if visitors aren’t prepared. I assure you that visitors can count on at least one flat tire when making the journey. Drawing with a bulldozer in the desert was fine and daring in the ’60s, but environmental attitudes changed in the ’70s. De Maria must have known that the desert was quickly recovering the vacant channels of his lines, so any mark he made was at best provisional.

I know a lot of people think that The Lightning Field was based on De Maria’s bed of nails pieces, but I think that after the Las Vegas Piece he wanted to discover a way to get people to see and pay attention to the desert without cutting it up. For this follow up act, the landscape had to remain intact. If the desert plants are not disturbed in the first place, then they don’t grow back, so the lifetime of the piece stretches from a few decades to several centuries simply with basic maintenance of the site.

Like Double Negative, The Lightning Field was intended to be a permanent installation, which meant that the appropriate piece of land would have to be found and purchased. Again, like Double Negative, Count Guido Deiro helped De Maria track down a site outside of Quemado, New Mexico, that was purchased by the Dia Art Foundation for this purpose. The plot had to be large enough to support an array of 400 stainlesssteel poles arranged in a 20-by-20 grid measuring one mile by one kilometer. The top of each pole would touch an invisible flat plane, so depending on the topography of the land, each pole could be either longer or shorter to suit. The land would also have to be open enough so that any of the property around the field would not be distracting to the viewer. That means few, if any, houses and no roads or businesses could be visible from the site. The work would also have the requirement that any visitor to the installation would have to stay at least 24 hours. We know time changes the site conditions, and these works also take a long time to see. It takes a while to slow yourself down, so the longer you look at the work the more you experience.

Like all of these pieces, I find the best way to experience the work is by walking, but then I pace back and forth in front of Barnett Newman’s paintings too. Sometimes I walk around the edge of the piece, sometimes through the middle, alone with my thoughts and the sound of my footsteps. Over time, each of the poles looks a little different, and sometimes you come across one that is surprisingly tall or short. There is this beautiful ritual of walking the piece and then retreating to the porch of the Dia guest house, looking at the poles in the ever-changing desert light, and then eventually getting restless and going for a walk again. I have always thought it strange that if there is a thunderstorm with lightning everyone huddles on the porch to watch, both because of the mud and nobody wants to be hit by lightning. What is normally a very active experience becomes curiously static during a storm. This makes me wonder if The Lightning Field is better when it isn’t raining, or maybe that the experience of the piece does not have anything to do with lightning at all.

All art exists in time but when walking around a work like The Lightning Field, the sensation of time becomes acute. There is the time it takes to observe the work as you pan your head from one side of the field to the other. There is the time it takes to walk the grid of poles in the field. There is still another time that exists as you realize the metal of the poles is slowly and almost imperceptibly changing as it is exposed to the air. In the space of the piece, time is fluid and tangible, it is almost something that you can reach out and touch. Each pole is important, separate and unique, but it is the unfiltered experience of the field as a whole that is the work. The 400 poles are the bridge between the earth and the sky. Each pole is tapered to a point at the top so that it literally dissolves as it reaches upward. There is a geometric center to the work, but it is hard to shake the feeling that as you walk around, you are the moving center of the work. The oscillation between the individual parts and the undivided field creates the sense of time around the work. More than most works of art, these concepts exist in time and are experienced in time as well as space.

The irony is that so many land art projects find another mode of existence in photographs. These photographs create a kind of double life for the work. How many people have seen the iconic photos of The Lightning Field versus actually traveling there to spend 24 hours looking at it? Freezing these works in a single moment of time is dangerous and demonstrates that photographs are a double-edged sword. Recall the early photographs of Double Negative, in which the cuts are still geometrically perfect. Maybe the photographs make the work consumable to a larger audience, but there is a danger that the art community’s discussion of the work may become as frozen and static as the long-past moment in time captured in the photograph.

I think that Robert Smithson understood this better than most when he built two versions of Spiral Jetty. One is the earthwork that exists in the Great Salt Lake that is exposed to the wind, sun and varying water levels. The other is the film he made about his experiences making and traveling to the Spiral Jetty site, as well as his thoughts on the finished work. Both the land art and the film remain connected through a shared visual language, but they are inherently different in terms of presentation, portability and audience reach.

All of this is great for De Maria and the Dia, but where does that leave us today? The Lightning Field does not provide much traction for an artist today in terms of finding new ways of creating these experiences. The site is extremely large and seems to be growing all the time to maintain the integrity of the work. The work and the land were both expensive in the ’70s and are even more expensive now. The site will also require constant vigilance to prevent the slow deterioration of the viewer’s experience. Are there patterns that can be extrapolated from this experience that might be generative and applicable in a wider variety of environments? I believe there are.

If we look at The Lightning Field as an archetype, a set of patterns that might be applicable in a wider variety of contexts, it is useful to conduct a series of thought experiments to come to a deeper understanding of why the work has such a powerful effect. Here are a few patterns that come to mind: The field is made of a series of 400 poles that are similar, but not identical. The tops of the poles all meet in a single flat horizontal plane. Each pole is well designed, but not so much that it draws attention to itself because the emphasis is always on the field as a whole. There is a high degree of entropy to the work, meaning that the one set of poles from one side of the site could be moved to the other side and the basic experience would not change as long as the rules of the grid and the relationship to the top plane were maintained.

As stated before, the entire field is important, or more directly, the entire field requires all our attention at the same moment. Everything is designed so as to not distract the viewer in any way. For example, there isn’t a single gold pole at the center that becomes the focus of one’s attention. In the same way, with reasonable maintenance, there are no distractions with either an overemphasis or a neglect of craft in the design and construction of the poles. With the stainless steel we don’t get caught up in oxidation patterns or patina. When we are looking at the work, we are often moving our attention between the individual parts and the field as a whole. In this case, the field is organized as a grid, which allows the entire space of the desert to be rapidly perceived, assimilated into ourselves, so to speak. Unlike Double Negative and the Las Vegas Piece, the desert is allowed to retain its integrity, but like most land art pieces the space in which the work is installed is inseparable from the experience of the work itself. The work and the space are so tightly coupled that one could not exist without the other.

We could have a useful discussion about how these ideas are not necessarily unique to the work of De Maria and that similar patterns and approaches could be found in a wide variety of projects. This includes Tara Donovan’s Haze from 2003, in which a field of clear plastic drinking straws are stacked up against the wall, or Robert Irwin’s Excursus: Homage to the Square ^3 that was originally installed at the Dia Center in the early 2000s and is now recently reconstructed at Dia:Beacon.

These patterns appear again in Donald Judd’s 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum, permanently installed at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, even though the materials, geometry and installation space are completely different. From 1982 to 1986, Judd installed a series of large aluminum volumes in two artillery sheds on an old army base. Each volume is unique, but there is a definite language and variation, as each volume is subdivided differently according to a narrow set of strict rules. The works are installed in an enclosed space and are lit by a series of very large windows that run down the length of both sides of the building.

The volume of each box is identical, so that as you look across the room you are instantly aware of both the number of the boxes and the subtle differences in structure of each. Although there is a logical progression of the openings from one box to the next, it is worthwhile to notice that the boxes are installed out of order, as it were. This is an important difference between the work of Judd and Sol Lewitt. Lewitt would install the works in order so that we see more of the logical progression from one piece to the next, almost like the score for a piece of music. A good example of this is Lewitt’s Incomplete Open Cubes from 1974. In Incomplete Open Cubes, we are aware of the logical progression, but not necessarily the field. Like De Maria, Judd wants us to forget the progression and concentrate on the field.

Judd saw each of the boxes as being both an individual artwork and also a part of the larger field. Judd did not want any distractions in either the boxes or the installation of the grid. Each box is very well crafted, but the way the boxes are fastened together does not draw undue attention, just as the openings in each of the boxes are very well thought out and sometimes spectacularly beautiful, yet do not stand out among their peers. Judd was working with the entire space, the entire field all at once.

Pattern Recognition

Ad Reinhardt said that the opposite of every good statement in art is often equally true. Since this is supposed to be a generative discussion, let’s play both sides while we articulate some of the patterns we have observed so far.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that most of these works have a lot of individual parts that come together to form a whole. The Lightning Field has 400 poles, Judd’s Mill Aluminum piece has 100, and Tara Donovan’s Haze has, I am not sure, perhaps tens of thousands of component straws, if not more. It does seem like there is a critical mass of both form and material to set up these kinds of art experiences. That being said, if these are the rules, can they be broken in interesting ways?

All of these works are also tightly coupled to the environments in which they are placed. Sometimes the nature of the environment provides the coupling, as in the case of Double Negative. At other times it is our perceptions of the space that join the work and the environment, as in the Las Vegas Piece. We know that these works can exist on a very large scale. Can they also exist on a small scale and create the same effect? If these works are in remote corners of the Southwest, can they also exist also closer to home or even in urban environments? Or could artists strike out in the opposite direction and place work in even more remote locations? What would those sites be?

While most of these works exist outside, we have also demonstrated that they can exist inside as well. If most of these works are installed on flat sites, either indoors or outdoors, could they also exist on sloped or vertical sites? How would that change the experience of the work?

Most of these projects were meant to be permanent and were expensive to build and maintain. What would it mean if the projects are temporary, and transient nature of these works were embraced? Could projects be built with very little or no budget? Equally, we know these projects can be made with metal and earth, but what about other materials?

What does it mean that most people experience these projects through photographs? Rather than creating a separation between those who have experienced the work in person and those who have experienced the work in photographs, can the experiences be blended or hybridized? Does an original even have to exist? Is the authentic experience universal or individual?

Every artist works with what they have in terms of resources, time and history. Can we embrace those constraints to open up new solutions?

Every day people still journey out to these sites to see the works for themselves. We still need these experiences. We are moving so quickly through time together, we long to go back to these sites to observe the change in both the works and in ourselves. Some of these projects have become like talismans, benchmarks for what the art of our time might become. I wrote this piece to share some of the ways that the experiences of these works have changed my life.


Arcy Douglass is an artist and writer based in Portland, Oregon. His archives of land art research are housed at the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Art Museum. In 2012, he organized a conference on the work of Donald Judd with Peter Ballantine at the University of Oregon in Portland. He was also part of a research project with the National Gallery to determine locations of Mark Rothko watercolors in the Columbia River Gorge. Special thank you to Julie Yamamoto for editing this essay.

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2015, Perspectives

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