It's no wonder that American artist Michael Heizer chose the quiet, empty, remote mountain-surrounded basins of Garden Valley in southern Nevada to site his largest sculpture, “City.” The monumental, mile-and-a-half-long collection of mounds and abstract forms — created from earth, rock and concrete — is still unfinished but its intention is clear: the evocation of ancient ruins, sacred spaces and modern urban forms bound to an endless open stretch of desert, sky and mountain; a glimpse of human civilization framed by the natural, sublimely beautiful and uniquely American landscape called basin and range.
In this isolated region, Heizer is making art of the land. Nearly the entire sculpture is formed from the material at hand. Built mounds are balanced by depressions to create an unusual and constantly shifting visual experience. Subtly colored ancient river rocks, moved to Nevada from far-off places during the ice age, have been mined to cover the compacted earth forms. That same rock has been made into concrete for linear curbs that catch light and shadow and will stabilize the sculpture for centuries if not millenniums.
Size and scale are important aspects of our aesthetic experience in art and in nature. Within its perimeter, Heizer's “City” seems massive as experienced from our human point of view; yet from the entrance to Garden Valley, his low earthen “City” is nearly invisible against the vast, horizontal desert.
Heizer has been constructing his masterwork for nearly 50 years in solitude. “City” occupies a privately owned parcel that, once the sculpture is finished, will be open to the public. But it is inseparable from what surrounds it — government property that is mostly controlled by the federal Bureau of Land Management. All of it, including Heizer's artwork, is fragile, endangered and worthy of protection.
This part of Nevada has narrowly escaped ruinous development in the past. It was once earmarked as a staging ground for the MX missile and later as a railroad route for transporting nuclear waste. Those projects have receded, but the region is still vulnerable to energy exploration, oil and gas drilling, mining claims, road building and other uses. It's time to protect “City” and its surroundings once and for all.
Conservationists have long sought to safeguard Garden Valley and its neighbor, Coal Valley, and the connections among eight nearby mountain ranges. They propose a Basin and Range National Monument. Its approximately 700,000 acres would contain a unique variety of Mojave, Sonoran and Great Basin vegetation communities. It would shelter at least two dozen threatened and sensitive species, including ancient bristlecone pines, some more than 2,000 years old. The area also provides crucial winter range for elk and animals that rely on sagebrush habitat to survive — mule deer, pygmy rabbits and the greater sage grouse.
Native Americans lived here for thousands of years. Remnants of their use of the land remain in the form of ancient trails, petroglyphs and rock shelters. Most of these nationally significant cultural sites have no protective status and remain vulnerable to vandalism.
Setting aside this land would help to rectify an imbalance in Nevada's and America's parklands. Past conservation efforts in this part of the country have focused on the range part of basin and range territory, but not on the basins, the valleys. They've been fragmented by roads and development, with few enjoying conservation status.
Michael Heizer's “City” is a simple yet deeply complex and elegant artwork that deserves to last through the ages. It relies on — it cannot be separated from — the basin and range landscape in which and from which it has been created. With the proposed national monument, we have a rare and historic opportunity to protect an important expanse of public lands, a beautiful and pristine environment, and a world-class artwork for future generations.
Michael Govan is director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Brian O'Donnell is executive director of the Conservation Lands Foundation.