Exploring the West's land sculptures -- made by artists and industry

  • Spiral Jetty: Sometimes you see it, sometimes you don't.

    Steven R. Harris
  • The Roden Crater by James Turrell (under construction since 1979 in the Arizona desert).

    © Ted Soqui/Corbis
  • Workmen stand near the draped 340-ton granite rock that would become the centerpiece of Michael Heizer's newest installation, Levitated Mass. Heizer conceived of the work in the 1960s -- around the time of his Double Negative -- but wouldn't find the right rock until decades later

    © Ted Soqui/Corbis
  • Stills from the 1968 film Mono Lake, shot by Smithson, Heizer and Holt on a trip West.

  • Benches and dump trucks at the Bingham Canyon Mine near Salt Lake City, which fascinated Robert Smithson.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • ATK rocket garden on the route to Spiral Jetty.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Bob Phillips, the foreman of the crew that actually built the Spiral Jetty, tells his story to a group of art historians and architects from Switzerland.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Approaching Sun Tunnels, by Nancy Holt.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • A highway underpass on a back route to Michael Heizer's Double Negative mirrors the sculpture.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Double Negative as it appears today.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Spider encountered while the author was searching for Double Negative.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Industrial West salt flats gas station

    Jonathan Thompson
 

"Art erodes whatever seeks to contain it and inevitably seeps into the most contrary recesses, touches the most repressed nerve, finds and sustains the contradictory without effort." -- Robert Morris in a 1979 essay in which he suggested hiring land artists to reclaim spent industrial sites and open-pit mines.

When I first see them, fuzzy and burnished brown on the horizon, ambling among the creosote bushes, I freeze. Grizzlies? I think. In the southern Nevada desert? I've been walking for an hour, maybe two, my sense of time and distance distorted by solitude and a thick blanket of clouds that has kept the sun invisible and unmoving all day. They aren't grizzlies, you idiot, I tell myself. They're cows. I approach cautiously, anyway: They might be mad cows. Six million-year-old caliche, a sedimentary rock, crunches under my feet at every step.

But the brown fuzzy things aren't even cows; they turn out to be barrel cacti. I feel stupid and discouraged, not just because I can't tell a cow from a cactus, but also because I haven't found what I'm looking for: Double Negative, a land art icon made up of two huge trenches, separated by empty space. Michael Heizer blasted and bulldozed it into the edge of Mormon Mesa in 1970. Instead of following the directions, I decided to forge my own path -- always a temptation in the West, sometimes a mistake. I figured I could take Exit 100 off I-15, follow the road south until the rental car's oil pan got knocked around a bit, get out and just start walking south and east.

And that's what I've done. Still no artwork, though. I didn't think to print out the map, or calculate distances. The sculpture could be over the next subtle rise, or another 10 miles away. How would I know?

I continue, prodded by a fantasy in which I reach the sculpture and find it surrounded by a group of effete art-critic types straight out of The New Yorker -- drinking chardonnay and eating fancy little crackers. When they see me staggering toward them like some bedraggled desert hermit, they will not only pour me a glass, they'll succinctly explain Double Negative's meaning and significance.

Because, frankly, I don't get it.  Double Negative is well-known in the art world, and aficionados from everywhere pilgrimage out here to see it, along with some of the West's other famous land art -- Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, Walter De Maria's Lightning Field and Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels among them -- as though they were the Mona Lisa or Starry Night. Yet the photos I've seen of Double Negative look less like art than a pair of road cuts without a road. And the most succinct description I've found is this: "Double Negative presents the void, not by the failed strategy of abstraction but using ‘figure against figure to figure what cannot be figured.' " Good luck untangling that.

I think I've walked nine miles, maybe more, but the dark mountains on every horizon look the same as when I started. Then, just as I'm about to give up, a stark white post on Mormon Mesa's edge catches my eye, almost glowing in the eerie light. I race towards it.

But there is no giant trench, no negative space from which 240,000 tons of material have been removed. The concrete post marks the Old Spanish Trail, which crossed Mormon Mesa at this spot. In May 1844, John C. Fremont came through here and described the place thusly: "We left the Rio de los Angeles and continued our way through the same desolate and revolting country, where lizards were the only animal, and the tracks of the lizard-eaters the principal sign of human beings."

I have not encountered anyone out here, either, lizard-eater or not, but humanity haunts the landscape: a rusted iron grate with no discernible function, plants growing up through it. Wooden stakes poking up randomly from the earth, one with a small vial containing a document that claims this particular tract of land for Powerline Precious Metals of Reno. A cluster of deflated balloons that say "Babies R Us." The razor slice of a power line against the clouds, the stream of big rigs sliding down the distant interstate, and the ghost of that old trail where wagons once rolled.

I have yet to eat a lizard, but the sight of a huge, hairy, cross-eyed spider, puffing itself up to look even bigger, is strangely tempting. The thought is enough to break my spirit, and I trudge back to the car.

Despondency washes over me on the drive back. Not because I didn't find the sculpture, but because my sojourn on the mesa has ended. Being lost like that, wandering aimlessly through vast spaces, with every step one mystery solved and a brand-new one created, is as exhilarating as finding one's quarry, whatever it is. Is there a better way to see the terrible beauty of the Western landscape?

Cathy Murphy
Cathy Murphy Subscriber
Jul 20, 2012 09:49 AM
Thank you for a wonderful article. Art in the continuing process of becoming, what a grand idea! See also: Cadillac Ranch outside Amarillo, Texas, complete with cans of spray paint so you, too, can be part of the process.....