Times Art Critic

The Museum of Contemporary Art has accepted a work of art for its permanent collection that is very likely unique in the annals of art. It is a hole in the ground as big as the Empire State Building.

The hole is located on 60 acres in the vastness of the Nevada desert about 80 miles from Las Vegas and is a prime example of Earthwork art by one of its leading practitioners, Michael Heizer. Titled “Double Negative,” it consists of two long, straight trenches Heizer excavated in 1969-70 moving some 240,000 tons of desert sandstone. It covers an area 1,500 feet long. Each trench is 30 feet wide and 50 feet deep. It is so monumental and rooted to its site it would be easier to put the museum in the sculpture than vice versa.

Made in connection with an exhibition at New York’s Dwan Gallery it was donated to MOCA by its owner, Virginia Dwan, a pioneering sponsor of land art projects and an early promoter of advanced art in Los Angeles when she operated a showplace in Westwood from 1959 to 1971.


“Double Negative,” like Walter de Maria’s “Lightning Field,” derives its importance partly from the fact that it is a rare survival of a radical artistic movement that has attracted few new practitioners since its inception. Robert Smithson, an important innovator, died in 1973. His largest earthwork was a concentric swirl of earth on the banks of Utah’s Great Salt Lake called “Spiral Jetty.” The lake has since risen and the work is under water. Among the few new earthworks still under way is James Turrel’s “Roden Crater Project” in Arizona. Turrel is making a work of Light Art out of an extinct volcano. It is documented in a current MOCA exhibition.

Museum director Richard Koshalek sees the “Double Negative” acquisition as comparable to a traditional museum undertaking stewardship of, say, a period house away from its own premises. There are, however significant differences. Among them is the fact that, according to the artist’s wishes, MOCA will undertake no conservation of the piece. According to Koshalek, Heizer wants nature to eventually reclaim the land through weather and erosion.

Earthworks are also of imponderable financial value. Heizer is said to have spent $25,000 creating the project and the donor will put a value on it for tax and insurance purposes. Such a strategy might have practical ramifications on the art market testing whether works like “Double Negative” remain essentially worthless or priceless or if they will become specifically quantified. Potential irony of the winceable kind lurks here. Part of the motive for the creation of such art was an anti-market impulse that animated artists in the ‘70s. Wishing to restore art to the realm of pure aesthetics, they strove to make work that was unsalable and uncollectable.

Like much modern art originally made as an anti-Establishment gesture, “Double Negative” has wound up with--if not quite in --a museum collection. Koshalek acknowledges that MOCA’s relationship to “Double Negative” is slightly ambiguous and symbolic.

He says the museum plans to organize curator-led pilgrimages to the site from the small nearby town of Overton and to prepare a publication, but that a large part of MOCA’s role will be keeping interest in such work alive and lending institutional cachet to its historical importance.

“I think it sets an important example,” Koshalek said.