In early 1969, a young artist working in the Nevada desert had an idea for an epic sculpture. Michael Heizer had found a 120-ton boulder in the mountains and wanted to set it above a trench dug in a dry lake bed.

Visitors would be able to walk into the trench and look up at the giant rock, as though it were floating overhead. It would be a means of celebrating and also updating the tradition of ancient monoliths by giving a rare view of a stone from underneath.

He called the work "Levitated Mass."

PHOTOS: The rock's journey to LACMA

With a small crew, he dug the trench in the lake bed, but the boulder was a problem. "We went to lift the rock up, and it broke the boom on the crane," Heizer recalled.

He couldn't afford to rent a larger crane, so the project stalled.

He went on to create other artworks out of big rocks. But he never gave up the idea of making a monumental stone sculpture that appears to defy gravity and challenges our expectations of scale. Now, after more than four decades, $10 million in funding and much determination, Heizer is finally seeing his original vision realized.

He calls the new work "Levitated Mass," like the first, and this time, it's even larger: a 340-ton boulder suspended above a 456-foot-long concrete channel.

The rock, which became an unlikely celebrity during a high-profile, 11-day journey from a Riverside quarry, reached the L.A. County Museum of Art in March. The artist arrived at the museum soon after, spending about four weeks on site overseeing the channel construction and rock placement. The museum says the installation will open June 24.

But Heizer, 67, was not working to meet any particular deadline.

"Artwork is not like a commercial business; there is no such thing as a schedule for art. You can't hurry art," he said in April, while living in his Airstream trailer on the grounds of LACMA, with his wife Mary and their border collie Tomato Rose. Heizer suffers from polyneuropathy, or nerve damage, as well as poor circulation, which can make flying difficult, and the couple had driven the trailer from their Nevada ranch to the museum.

The famously reclusive artist spoke in detail about technical matters such as grinding sections of the rock to create more surface area to rest on the channel walls. There will also be pins and wedges to ensure the rock doesn't budge. He did not say much about the artwork's meaning.

It was hard to tell whether he was amused or indifferent to the spectacle created by the boulder's slow-motion, late-night odyssey, which inspired a diverse fan following, block parties and at least one marriage proposal.

At the time, Heizer was at home at his solar-powered ranch, where he lives off the grid in a remote stretch of southeast Nevada. But he caught a bit of the frenzy over the rock.

"I turned on CNN, and there it was. But they didn't even mention my name," Heizer said.

He said he was not entirely surprised by the boulder's devoted fans. "I think people need a religious object," he said. He also understands the fascination of watching a 206-wheel, 300-foot-long transporter try to maneuver an object as wide as many streets: "The drivers told me their wheels were scrubbing the curb."

For Heizer the real question is whether the public enthusiasm for the rock will translate into engagement with the finished artwork. "I think there is a draw from the rock itself, a magnetism we will see when the sculpture is completed," he said. "But will the artwork have the same interest value as moving the rock around did?"

He paused, shrugged his thin shoulders and then, perhaps answering his own question, added: "I make static art, not dynamic art. That's what I do."

"Static art" is Heizer's shorthand for the longevity or durability of projects like the boulder installation, designed "to last 3,500 years," he said. The boulder itself is about 150 million years old.

Heizer found it in December 2006.

Michael Govan, who was then planning a public art program for LACMA as its new director and knew of Heizer's abiding interest in making "Levitated Mass," vividly remembers the phone call.

"Mike was calling from the Ontario airport and said: 'I found this amazing rock,'" Govan said. "He referred to it as the Colossi of Memnon and compared it to the great pink granite Egyptian obelisks for the quality of the stone. He said it was one of the greatest rocks he'd ever seen."

Heizer made the discovery during blasting at a Riverside quarry, where he'd gone to pick out three 100-ton rocks for other projects.

"I was there when they did a black powder shot on that wall, and I saw a lot of dust," he said. "Then I saw this rock land 40 feet up from the quarry floor."

It looked "just like my original rock," he said, calling it "granitic" in composition and "pyramid-like" in shape. At first glance, he thought the boulder might weigh as much as 1,000 tons. Quarries in the business of selling small rocks would consider such a large stone a mistake. Heizer saw its power.

"What I liked about this rock was 98% size, 2% looks."

It would be the right kind of boulder to create art on the scale of architecture. "The size thing is not some gimmick or attention-getting trick but a genuine undercurrent of the work," Heizer said. "Frank Gehry for instance likes to imagine his buildings as sculptures. I like to imagine my sculptures as architectural."

Gehry, who has known Heizer for decades, visited the site of "Levitated Mass" at LACMA in April, walking into the channel and looking up at the boulder. "It was awesome," he said, even with cranes and workers around.

Heizer explained his fascination with size — he prefers the word "scale" — with reference to Abstract Expressionism. "The history of American art in a way begins with Jackson Pollock and his big paintings," he said. "This theme of bigness — all painters and sculptors have dealt with it ever since."

Heizer grew up around rocks, quarries and archaeological digs. One of his grandfathers was a mineralogist and chief geologist for the state of California; his other ran a tungsten mine; and his father Robert was an archaeologist who published papers on the ancient transport of large stones.

Born in 1944 in Berkeley, where his father taught, Heizer was "a straight-F student," he once said. He attended the San Francisco Art Institute from 1963 to '64 before moving to New York. After a few years there, where he made abstract paintings, he felt constrained by lack of space.

"My paintings are big too. I'm not very good at making small stuff," he said.

Though he kept a studio in New York for the next two decades, he was drawn like other earthwork artists to the desert. In 1969, after his first abortive attempt at "Levitated Mass" in Nevada, he made one of his best-known works there.

With a bulldozer, explosives and funding from pioneering L.A. gallery owner Virginia Dwan, he moved 240,000 tons of earth to carve a pair of gashes into the Mormon Mesa, not far from Las Vegas. The work, "Double Negative," stretches for 1,500 feet — "longer than the Empire State Building lying on its side," Heizer said.

He went on to make other sculptures by moving land ("displaced mass") and paying attention to the resulting hole ("negative space"). Boulders became a favorite material. "I like granite because it's hard," he said. "Sandstone, marble, the traditional sculpting materials don't work for me."

For a 1977 project, later installed outside the Marina del Rey home of Roy and Carol Doumani, he planted four granite boulders of different sizes into lid-less concrete boxes in the earth so that the tops of the rocks are roughly level with the ground.

"Displaced/Replaced Mass" is visible from the beach as well as from a walk street. "People come by and ask if it's a fire pit, or if there are bodies buried there," Carol Doumani said. "We appreciate the way it brings nature to the house."

For a 1982 work at the IBM Building in Manhattan, Heizer sheared off the top of a large rock and cut grooves into the surface before setting it on supports hidden within a stainless steel structure. Designed as a fountain, the boulder appears to float over running water. He called the work "Levitated Mass" as well, explaining: "I don't use Greek names as titles, or dedicate artworks to my friends. I simply describe what it is."

Then there's the project that is taking longer to build than his epic "Levitated Mass": a mile-and-a-half-long art installation on private land near his ranch in Nevada, begun in 1970 and still in progress. Made largely out of earth, "City" consists of geometric depressions, mounds and plazas linked by unpaved roads.

According to the few who have seen it, the project is a compendium of his sculptural ideas comparable in complexity to ancient ceremonial cities like Chichen Itza in the Yucatan.

Asked when the public might be able to see "City," Heizer said: "It will be done in the next few years. You can't show it until it's done."

Govan, who sits on the board of the foundation that owns the site and raises money for the project, said it is, like a city, "too complex to take in at a glance."

He first visited the site in 1994 as director of Dia: Beacon, the New York museum known for its support of earthworks. Since then, Govan has become Heizer's greatest ally in the art world, raising $10 million from private donors to realize "Levitated Mass" and serving as a spokesman for the artist.

While others have criticized Heizer for being prickly or difficult, Govan praises him as "uncompromising" and "self-reliant." Heizer "is not buddy buddy with a lot of people," he added.

This has affected the visibility of Heizer's work, rarely shown at any scale by galleries or museums. Heizer did not, for example, let the Museum of Contemporary Art include any of his work in its upcoming "land art" survey, even though it owns "Double Negative."

Gehry suspects that Heizer's personality "evolved as a way to protect the time that an artist needs to make his mark."

"I envy that," the architect said.

Documentary filmmaker Doug Pray, who is making a movie that tracks the boulder's journey from quarry to museum, said he came to admire the artist's single-minded focus.

"He's completely involved with the workers — very hands-on and very clear about what he wants, coming from a huge knowledge base of working with stone. He just doesn't want to sit there and pontificate about his own work," Pray said.

Or, as Heizer himself likes to say, his art can speak for itself.

PHOTOS: The rock's journey to LACMA


jori.finkel@latimes.com