January 3, 2017
What Michael Heizer has done is about as visionary as anything that one can imagine. It’ll be there for a long time. It’s going to be there forever.
—Senator Harry Reid
When Senator Harry Reid heard about a reclusive artist building a massive land sculpture across desolate acres in the Nevada desert, he knew they should meet.
It’s not just that Reid enjoys eccentrics and fighters, which he does. Michael Heizer had found an unusual way to express the majesty—and artistry—of the same lonely Nevada landscape that formed Reid’s childhood, when he would escape the dismal, rugged conditions of tiny Searchlight to play in the desert’s hidden springs and abandoned fortresses.
Both men discovered in Nevada what many outsiders miss. Far from seeing a nuclear wasteland, a dumping site or even a playground for gamblers, they drew inspiration from Nevada’s quiet beauty.
Heizer created an American masterpiece—a mile-long complex of dirt, rock and cement rising from the desert floor like modern-day pyramids or the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza.
For Reid, his appreciation for Nevada’s unique landscape became a cornerstone of one of the most lasting yet less-familiar pieces of his political legacy.
Back home, Reid will be remembered for literally rewriting of the map of Nevada, fostering a public lands conservation movement that has helped redefine the Silver State.
Not surprisingly, the senator orchestrated the preservation of Heizer’s stunning land art, City, personally appealing to President Obama to use the 1906 Antiquities Act to proclaim the installation and 700,000 surrounding acres protected as a national monument.
“His mark permanently will be visible,” said Neil Kornze, a Nevada native and former Reid aide whom the senator helped elevate to director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. “We’ll always have his efforts with us.”
Nearly 85% of Nevada is owned by the federal government, and the land is constantly sought by competing interests. On one side were miners, ranchers and federal agencies who want resource rich acres for development. On the other are outdoor enthusiasts and environmentalists preferring to keep it pristine.
Navigating those constituencies made Reid a powerful force in Nevada. The old-school politician brokered deals that produced winners and losers, friends and enemies. There were landmark deals that auctioned off federal urban lands for development, using the proceeds for schools, conservation, and water projects.
Great Basin National Park became Nevada’s first entry in the National Park System, and the Black Rock Desert Conservation Area was created, home to the annual Burning Man arts festival.
At the same time, Reid ensured that Nevada’s lucrative mining industry has thrived, a reflection of his personal roots in an industry often at odds with environmentalists.
Heizer’s project, which began in 1972 and is not expected to open to the public until 2020, was an obvious draw for Reid. Not only was he attracted by the artist’s gritty tenacity, the work fit into Reid’s goal of supplementing the gambling industry’s boom-bust cycle with environmental tourism on Nevada’s public lands.
“It’s such a subtle environment, a lot of people don’t even see it, because it’s not overly dramatic,” said Heizer in an interview. “It’s subtly dramatic.”
Heizer, who became known more recently to art enthusiasts for his “Levitated Mass” giant boulder installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, also comes from a family of miners—generations of geologists and explorers who staked implausible dreams in the earth.
As the Garden Valley installation has grown, so has the state. Las Vegas transformed from a gambling outpost to a sprawling suburb of nearly 2 million people.
At times that expansion has threatened his project. Heizer joined efforts to fight off the Pentagon’s plans for MX missile sites nearby. He battled Las Vegas officials who were eyeing water reserves under his project.
A proposed rail line to transport nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain, the “glow train,” almost spelled doom.
The train, later abandoned, would have run east-west across the state, “right through the sculpture,” said Michael Govan, now the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and an early champion of City.
Govan, then director at the Dia Art Foundation in New York, started enlisting Washington for support, asking lawmakers to envision the project spanning the length of the National Mall, from the Capitol to the Washington Monument, across the desert in Nevada.
It was a tough sale. “I really got nowhere,” he said—that is, until “we got Senator Reid out.”
Reid’s security detail blew two tires during the hours-long drive from Las Vegas to the no-man’s land where Heizer has been building.
As soon as the senator stepped out of the truck “he knew immediately that this was a thing for all time,” Govan said. “It was big. It was beautiful. It was American—really American art. And it was in Nevada.”
Heizer walked him through the landscape; Reid compared it to Mt. Rushmore. As they meandered through the structures, Heizer relayed stories of 19th century environmentalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir camping at the site.
Their bond over shared appreciation for Nevada’s desert was instant.
Recalled Kornze: “It was like watching brothers come together later in life.”
To read the full article, click here, originally published at LATimes.com, December 20, 2016.