It Was a Mystery in the Desert for 50 Years

It Was a Mystery in the Desert for 50 Years

Nearly everything about Michael Heizer’s land art megasculpture called “City” can seem hard to fathom. That it’s a mile and a half long and nearly half a mile wide, smack in the middle of a remote stretch of the high Nevada desert, where what passes for a neighbor is Area 51. That the nearest blacktop is an hour’s drive away, on a dusty, bumpy, former livestock trail, across a couple of mountain ranges. That it cost $40 million to build.

Even that it’s called “City.” It’s a city in name only. Exquisitely groomed dirt mounds, roads, buttes and depressions like dry lake beds spread out in no immediately obvious order and in different directions. At both ends of the site, monumental structures riff on ancient ruins.

Now, half a century after Heizer stuck his first shovel in the ground, “City” is finally opening to visitors, which may be the most unbelievable thing of all. It had become the art-world version of ancient Atlantis, a chimera.

Art-world Atlantis will shortly be accepting reservations. Even so, its creator, the toast of downtown New York during the 1970s who turned into art’s Fitzcarraldo, still doesn’t consider “City” finished.

“I’m a fool, alone, helplessly watching as they wait for me to die so they can turn my ranch into a gift shop and motel,” Heizer told me here this spring. At 77, in rapidly failing health, he is as pessimistic as ever. “This is a masterpiece, or close to it,” he said, “and I’m the only one who cares whether the thing is actually done.”

None of that is true.

Except the masterpiece part.

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