“Levitated Mass”: First Reactions

1. Ed Ruscha said that good art should provoke a response of “Huh? Wow!” rather than “Wow! Huh?” By that criterion, Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass is on the right track. It’s nothing like you’ve probably imagined. (Huh?)

2. There was an old Second City Television bit with John Candy, as plus-size drag queen “Divine,” cast in a production of Peter Pan and flying by means of industrial-strength cables. That’s roughly the take of many news story commenters on Levitated Mass. The haters believe they’d been promised a David Copperfield act—or Magritte’s Castle of the Pyrenees run through a Thing-o-Matic.

OK already, it’s 340-ton boulder, and it’s not exactly “levitating.” The rock is supported by two massive concrete walls and two steel shelves. It’s bolted to those shelves. When you stand underneath the rock and look up, you don’t get the sense that the Supreme Court has just thrown out the law of gravity.

The reactions to Levitated Mass (of Internet posters who haven’t seen it) might be worth a future doctoral thesis. Initially it was political. Conservatives were itching to condemn it as a waste of taxpayer money, only to be flummoxed by the awkward fact that the money was 100 percent private sector. Liberals faulted it for privileging the dominion of “man” over nature (though having seen it, I tend to read it the opposite way. Who’s on top, humans or rock?) In the past few days, the main thesis of commenters has been that it’s not “levitating,” ergo contemporary art is a con game (“What FREAKING waste of time and money. … Thats’ not Art, It’s STUPID! DUMB!”)

3. I had anticipated, a bit more realistically than a “levitation,” something like a Turrell Skyspace. Levitated Mass would perhaps focus attention on a strip of sky, with the rock serving as a kind of punctuation mark. Nope. The slot is too wide for that. Though it greatly restricts your view of the urban context, some reference points are visible—the tops of Irwin’s palm trees, for instance.

Another thought was that it would be a ginormous sundial, with a boulder as the gnomon. That would loosely connect it to the calendrical functions of ancient earthworks such as the Great Pyramid and Stonehenge. As the slot is aligned approximately east to west, the position of the shadow will travel throughout the day and the year. Such is the power of L.A. sunlight that the rock’s black shadow is almost as looming a presence as the rock itself. But bottom line… I don’t think that was the intention, either.

4. It’s all about the rock. This must seem an odd claim, since the media attention has focused on that monolith almost exclusively. For the past several months, I have tried to convince all who would listen that the rock is just one element of Levitated Mass, that it’s part of an installation of rock, slot, ground treatment, and site. Having seen the thing up close, I am now inclined to dial that back. On opening day, in summer solstice sunlight, the rock looked fascinating and different from every angle. From some perspectives, it’s a domino about to topple. From others, it’s as stable as the pyramid on the dollar bill (which actually would have toppled, had the Egyptians built one with those too-vertical proportions). It changed appearance as the sun moved, and will surely look different in other seasons and weathers. Levitated Mass is a Chinese viewing stone almost the size of a Monet cathedral.

5. It’s also like a Magritte—not the levitating Castle but the paintings of an apple or rose, of absurd dimensions, invading a human-scaled space.

6. On opening day, the main impression was of the slot’s floor as a road of human life. This is very atypical for land art and isn’t likely to be repeated.

7. No other big-city museum can represent land art on-site like this. It’s nonetheless a high-stakes gamble for LACMA. Tastes change, especially for living artists. Fifty or 100 years from now, will Heizer (and/or land art) be considered so important as they are now? Hard to say. The Hudson River School was once junked; so was Vermeer.

Don’t worry about the $10 million spent on moving the rock. The LACMA of the future can always raise more money. What it can’t do is mint more urban land. In the worst-case scenario, in which Heizer’s reputation dwindles, there will be overwhelming pressure to recover that land for museum expansion, 22nd-century virtual-sculpture installation, whatever. Levitated Mass can’t be consigned to a storeroom. This is a long-term commitment for the millennium of California love.

8. One oft-mentioned comparative is Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago (the “bean,” above right). Different as they are, both are big public sculptures one walks under. I’d say the Kapoor has more of an immediate “wow” and risks being more of a one-liner. By the wow-huh theory that’s bad, but Ruscha probably wasn’t thinking of public art. Levitated Mass is a neat counterpoint to Chris Burden’s Urban Light, contrasting the American wide open spaces with urban engagement. It’s hard to say whether it will match Urban Light‘s appeal once the novelty wears off.

9. Levitated Mass fits into the American tradition of transcendental-sublime. Its absurd scale reminds me of Thomas Cole’s The Titan’s Goblet (left); also of Carleton Watkins’ photos of Western geologic and botanic grandeur, as wistful surrogates for stone monuments of antiquity.

10. Like Heizer himself, Levitated Mass is a sphinx, refusing to speak on what it might mean. Should an artwork say something or remain silent? Elihu Vedder puzzled over that in Listening the Sphinx, 1863, and Mark Tansey echoed it in Secret of the Sphinx (Homage to Elihu Vedder), 1984.

11. Rock is a dual symbol of permanence and entropy. Shirley Jackson—whose best-known story “The Lottery” is about citizens throwing stones—wrote a curious tale, “The Rock,” about people living in a house carved out of a gigantic rock. “You mustn’t be entirely sure of the rock, you know,” one character warns enigmatically. “Well, it’s been here for a number of years, of course… and rock is a hard thing to get rid of…”