The rock’s got character, the brackets are bad. That would be my one-sentence review of Levitated Mass, the artwork centering on a 34-ton boulder that Michael Heizer created for the Los Angeles County Museum of Contemporary Art's back 40. After many delays and a mesmerizingly slow-motion, 100-mile parade that brought the rock from a quarry in Riverside, Calif., to the swamp next to the La Brea Tar Pits, the rock now sits on a steel-edged slot that, like a vertical version of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, cuts into the earth below, letting you pass underneath this importation of California geology.
I hate to say this, but Heizer should have worked with an (landscape) architect. The artist has been creating his own city, an installation of what look like abstract versions of mastabas, gateways, and sky ramps, somewhere in the high desert. Only a few cognoscenti have had the privilege of seeing that artwork, as he keeps its location secret (my favorite rumor is that it is next to a secret military test site, which is why it does not show up on Google Earth). Here, the art is public. First, Heizer chose the rock, and then he arranged to have it trucked, in one piece, all the way through Southern California sprawl. Its early morning arrival at LACMA was an event that brought thousands of people out of bed—achieving for a work of art the kind of notoriety that usually only rock stars, politicians, or popes can muster.
So now the mass sits in the museum’s sandy backyard, and popular opinion has gone from “wow” to “meh.” The problem is that it just does not seem that big sitting in all that space. Heizer exacerbated the problem by cutting the earth to either side into a creased declination that further diminished the rock’s scale. Then there is that moment when you finally get under the big boy and, rather than levitating as the title promises, it sits on unspeakably ugly and awkward, gray-painted brackets.
That said, the rock is beautiful. It looks especially good from the west, where you can see it against the banal blocks that make up LACMA’s compound, and which have a similar coloration, as well as against the palm trees of the Tar Pits and the blue California sky. There the mass does recall the mountains that surround the city and, on a clear day, give an edge to what at times seems like an endless of miasma. It catches the light, revealing forms and colors within its monolith crags, and thus bringing the desert’s and the mountain’s complexity into the middle of the city.
I think that what Levitated Mass really needs is a flat lawn, or perhaps a garden to set it off. Still, it is a welcome addition to what has become one of the best small collections of sculpture, both inside and out, in any major American museum; I am especially fond of Chris Burden’s collection of old L.A. lampposts that create a hypostyle hall-like entrance to the museum complex, and Serra’s Torqued Ellipses, installed in the Broad Wing.
For a limited time (through January 14, 2013), Burden has placed another sculpture in LACMA, right across the hall from the Serras. Metropolis II is toy train set gone mad. It consists of erector-set scaffolding within which the artists has placed a seemingly random collection of building blocks. Silver-skinned high-rise models mix with wood-block evocations of rows of suburban houses, while in other places blocks pile up as if Burden was trying to build his own madcap utopia. At set times, toy trains inch their way through the miniature city, snaking up and down at every level, while toy cars zip around as if in rebuke of the slowness of mass transit—until they all pile up next to each other in rows of 18, slowing inching their way up from the bottom to the top of the constellation, before gravity releases them and they continue their dance.
So here would be my suggestions: place Metropolis II under Levitated Mass, and then turn the area around it into a Beverly Hills backyard, complete with swimming pool, palm trees, bougainvillea, bamboo, and even some tea roses. Then art would have summed up L.A. in one place.