March 3 – April 16, 2022
In the past century, the meaning of sculpture has changed radically from the era of cast bronze, life-size figures to embrace various forms of assemblage, found objects, modular cubes, performances, or just about anything classifiable as three-dimensional art. Five to six centuries earlier, Renaissance sculptors made plausible the idea that sculpture was not transitory, but a permanent art form. To cast a figure in bronze, or receive commissions to carve portraits in marble, suggested a Classical approach whereby the sculpture would remain both a historical document and a mythologized likeness for centuries to come.
Some would argue that Michael Heizer’s recent “Rock/Steel” sculptures, now on display at Gagosian in West Chelsea, are far adrift from this way of thinking. Even so, one of the first thoughts that came to mind upon seeing these works was how closely they relate to the artist’s well-known Land art, thereby suggesting a very different kind of permanence from that of sculpture related to ancient bronze casting.
The five works selected from the “Rock/Steel” series (2017–) for the current exhibition at Gagosian hold a distinct quality of their own. While they are not intended to be “variations on a theme,” each of these relatively large-scale sculptures exists separately. Yet, at the same time, they are meant to be seen in relation to one another. In either case, they are both visually and structurally cohesive, whether seen independently or with one another.
Heizer has employed the same materials in each work, namely weathering steel (Cor-Ten steel) accompanied by a single massive rock in slightly different configurations. This dialogue of steel and stone creates a potentially paradoxical situation whereby geometry and organic form (“nature”) are held in a holistic relationship, but each with a different tension. Even so, to discuss Heizer’s “Rock/Steel” works in terms of difference risks overstating their diversity—this does not seem to be Heizer’s goal. While each work is uniquely positioned, when shown with one another, they appear nearly the same. Each retains the same focus on materiality, emphasizing minor differences, specifically in relation to the welded steel structure and the placement of the rock. This is where Heizer leaves the systemic origins of his earlier Land art and opens the possibility of a more definitively poised visual complexity.
In Heizer’s “Rock/Steel” sculptures, the space between this material duality constitutes an unusual dichotomy between balance and weight. Either way this relationship is impressive from a formal, technical, and conceptual point of view. Heizer’s focus on the material aspects of his work held me in disbelief throughout the show.
Upon observing a series of photographs of the younger Heizer walking through his extraordinary Double Negative (1969) in the Nevada desert, it becomes clear that he relates both physically and mentally to the enlarged crevices within this geometric complexity. There is a sense of permanence in the work, given its form-space elements cut directly from the earth, often with explosives. Given the conceptual aspect of Double Negative, it appears equally partitioned between form and space—or body and mind, as the photographs of Heizer suggest.
Is it possible that what comes to the foreground of Heizer’s journey over a substantial period of time is how he determines the meaning of sculpture today? Are the “Rock/Steel” sculptures proposing merely a formal relationship between weight and balance, or could they also attempt to provide a rationale as to why our global environment is floundering at the current moment? At minimum, their powerful materiality suggests that we must find an alternative to the virtual obsession that has overtaken our lives in this era of pandemic and warfare.
Heizer integrates structure as a means whereby form is endowed with density. The importance of this should not be underestimated, as it has largely become a missing dimension in much of the contemporary sculpture we have seen in recent years. Heizer’s “Rock/Steel” series has found a way to resurrect the material presence of sculpture and return it to its rightful place. In terms of receivership, one might consider sculpture—from Heizer’s perspective—a medium that requires contemplation in which formal density restores meaning, especially within the context of these indeterminately desperate times.