Michael Heizer’s Herculean Effort to Move a 340-Ton Boulder across L.A.

Wallace Ludel
Feb 20, 2019 9:49PM

Michael Heizer's Levitate Mass at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo by Frank Fujimoto, via Flickr.

In 1969, Michael Heizer had an idea for a sculpture. The young artist, part of the holy trinity of land art along with Walter De Maria and Robert Smithson (the latter of whom he speaks of as a quasi-nemesis), had left New York and was living in the Nevada desert. The idea came to Heizer when he discovered a 120-ton boulder in the mountains adjacent to his property. He planned to bore a long, sepulchral channel and place the boulder on top of it, allowing visitors to walk underneath—granting them the ability to view the giant rock from its underside and forcing them into a sublime encounter. The nascent work was to be titled Levitated Mass.

Heizer set out with a small crew to realize this vision. They successfully dug the trench in a dry lake bed and procured a crane to move the large rock, but when they attempted to lift it, the neck of the crane broke. Without funds for a larger crane, the project stalled and remained unfulfilled for over 40 years.

In that time, Heizer was prolific, creating a body of work that, like his vision for Levitated Mass, dealt with both scale and negative/positive relationships in myriad ways, most notably through his greatest-known work, Double Negative (1969–70). An outdoor intervention that can be seen via satellite, it consists of two trenches cut along a mesa in Nevada, about 70 miles northeast of Las Vegas. In order to make it, Heizer cut two 50-foot-deep lines into the earth, displacing some 240,000 tons of rock in the process. End to end, the sculpture is 1,500 feet long, a bit longer than the Empire State Building lain on its side. Though the work is a simple gesture of removal, it’s the symmetry of the two incisions that adds—through indelible, human intervention—a swift poetry to the landscape.

Transporting Michael Heizer's Levitated Mass, 2012. Photo by waltarrrrr, via Flickr.


But Heizer never abandoned his decades-old plan for Levitated Mass, and the sculptor was given another chance in 2007, when he received a call from a quarry outside of Riverside, California, telling him that they had a rock he “might be interested in.” Heizer flew out the next morning to see it—the rock weighed 340 tons and was around two stories tall. Leaving the quarry, he called Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), from the airport, and told him he’d just found the most beautiful rock he’d ever seen. Govan, familiar with the unfulfilled plans Heizer had laid out in the 1960s for Levitated Mass, was on board. With a major institution’s support, the sculpture could finally move forward, but one problem remained: How the hell were they going to get a 680,000-pound rock to Los Angeles?

First, Heizer and his team needed to map a route. An object that size was too cumbersome to navigate sharp turns, too tall for many overpasses (one overpass the boulder later passed under in Chino left a clearance of barely six inches), and too heavy for steep inclines and most highways. And so an itinerary was laid out: The boulder would have to travel 105 miles, through four counties and 22 cities. This meant a lot of permits. The permit applications included the route’s every turn, noting every streetlight, traffic signal, wire, underpass, and overpass. Many of the traffic light poles along the way would have to be removed and replaced, which could take up to two hours per pole. The weighty permitting process ultimately delayed the work’s installation by roughly six months.

The museum then hired Emmert International, a company that specializes in moving “extreme objects” like nuclear generators and missiles. The company built a 294-foot-long, 206-wheel trailer that, with the use of as many as six trucks pushing and pulling simultaneously, would carry the rock on its Homeric journey, maxing out at around eight miles per hour.

The centerpiece of Levitated Mass could be moved only at night, so as not to impede traffic. Otherworldly and ancient, the sheer strangeness of its presence on the road garnered a great deal of attention, and tens of thousands flocked to see the boulder travel by night and rest by day. One Long Beach neighborhood threw a rock-themed festival in its honor. A poignant moment found the monolith sitting for the day, by coincidence or divine magnetism, outside of a Carson church named Roca de Salvacion (“rock of salvation” in Spanish), at which point locals prayed and took photos. There was at least one marriage proposal made with the rock as its backdrop. Residents of all zip codes along the rock’s route were granted free admission to LACMA for a period of time after Levitated Mass’s installation was completed.

Transporting Michael Heizer's Levitated Mass, 2012. Photo by bunnicula, via Flickr.

After traveling 11 nights, the rock arrived at the museum in the pre-dawn hours. Heizer moved into an Airstream trailer on the museum’s premises with his then-wife and dog, where they lived for six weeks, while he oversaw every step of the boulder’s final installation.

In situ at LACMA, the stone perhaps recalls the Colossi of Memnon or the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá more than it does the work of the Minimalists or abstract painters who were Heizer’s contemporaries. Incredibly, and perhaps not coincidentally, Heizer’s father was an archaeologist who was working on a book about the the transport of massive objects in ancient times when he died in 1979; he’s credited with discovering that the stone used in the ancient Olmec heads was brought from elsewhere.

The rock sits in its permanent home now, with Levitated Mass designed “to last 3,500 years,” according to Heizer. (The rock itself is roughly 150 million years old.) It rests on a 456-foot-long channel that, just as the original blueprints dictated, viewers are encouraged to walk through so that they may view the stone’s imposing underbelly. The rock vibrates with history; when encountering the work, one can’t help but recall the odyssey that brought it to Los Angeles—but viewing it also brings us back to the 1960s, when Heizer’s installation was first conceived, and to prehistory, when the rock was formed. And finally, it brings us to some sublimated, preternatural present in which we can stand beneath a 680,000-pound stone unafraid of death.

Wallace Ludel
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019