Bill Fox knows his way around the outdoors–its physical terrain and often obscure histories. Past lives have included stints as an accomplished climber, owner of an outdoor retail store, and even as a stuntman in the 1981 James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only. But Fox is best known for his remarkable scholarship on art and landscape, which balances rigorous research and a lyrical, open writerly style that appeals to audiences far beyond traditional art establishments. His keen eye for the ways in which the vast and variegated concept of landscape frames our encounters with it helps us see anew.
Fox first trained as a poet as an undergraduate at Claremont McKenna College at a time (the turn of the 70s) and place (Southern California) where such interrogations of site and social context fueled the work of artists like Judy Chicago and Lita Albuquerque. Along the way, he’s written dozens of books on topics from aerial photography to the Great Basin desert, frequently published poetry collections and chapbooks with both small and university presses, and added hundreds of articles and essays on art and landscape in venues from Archives of Natural History to Edible Geography to Boom and beyond.
Since founding it in 2009, Fox has been the Director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, NV, an internationally recognized research archive that supports the practice, study, and awareness of creative interactions between people and their natural, built, and virtual environments. The Center has been the driving force behind recent commissions by artists Helen and Newton Harrison, Ugo Rondinone, and Trevor Paglen, each engaging with Nevada’s cultural and terrestrial geography.
Fox and I spoke by phone in September 2019 following the publication of his most recent book, Michael Heizer: The Once and Future Monuments and have continued our conversations on Heizer, Land Art, and the urgency and ethics of contemporary art at the present moment many times since. Occasionally profane, and always with good humor, we chat in the following interview about art and rural life, the biography of art objects set in the natural world, and about connections between poetry and art criticism.
THE BELIEVER: I understood your book as a genealogy of a single work of art, City, by an extremely recalcitrant artist who specifically asks that his work be discussed as separate from his life. But it’s also a genealogy of your own encounters with the artist’s work–a neat formal assertion that art and biography go hand in hand.
WILLIAM L. FOX: I think that art and biography are inseparable. If you choose to only write about the work itself and nothing else around it, it’s the lesser way to write a book.
BLVR: Art lives in a world where its reception causes meaning to grow and change. There’s a contradiction between understanding the work as intentional and as something people encounter and build their own meanings from.
WLF: Just to be clear upfront, Michael Heizer would not be happy about the way in which we are discussing either his work or this book.
BLVR: I’m okay with that, are you okay with that?
WLF: I’m fine. I believe most people approach Michael Heizer’s work in the context of other concerns and people, but it’s not what he wanted.
I didn’t want to write a straight chronology of his work, as you would if you were doing an artist monograph. I was primarily interested in the period when Heizer conceived City, from the early 1970s , and then how his sculptural vocabulary became a bold center for his career.
BLVR: The center point for your book is less Heizer himself or his art. It’s a thought diary, easy to follow without demeaning the subject. In a way, the artist set up this dynamic: by refusing to speak about his work or acknowledging popular response to it. He created a void at the center of his work. You can’t even publish images of City. Can you talk about the role description plays in writing about, as you characterize it, the negative void at the center of your inquiry?
WLF: There’s a reason why a fair number of art critics started out as poets: you learn to describe appealing things in compact terms. Most of my practice has been about describing things and the places they’re in, which is important for someone like Michael Heizer, where it’s unlikely someone will be able to see the work in person. Describing the feeling of being alone in a great expanse, as one does at City or Double Negative helps translate the world to the page.
BLVR: Part of training in poetry is learning to describe because it allows the reader to have the opportunity of experience.
WLF: That leaves the door open for the reader to participate with the author. If you open a door and you show people the outline of something, their mind will start to fill in the details. And if you set up that line correctly, they’ll fill in the details that are valid to the experience.
BLVR: Which relates to Heizer’s own wishes about the work: to allow a viewer to confront art with thought. It produces an intimate familiarity, or familial response, intensely personal. With City the familial takes on a different aspect: Heizer purchased the land to build it and set up his own home right next to it. You speak about it in terms of relationships with his most productive collaborators.
WLF: Anyone encountering his work should understand that it wasn’t made by a single guy in a bulldozer, doing this thing. For example, It’s his partner and then-wife Mary Shanahan running the ranch, pulling the calves out of the cows, helping run his office. Nevada locals have always participated in building City. Out-of-state people Heizer hired to work on the complex lived for months with him in Garden Valley. He developed, not a scene as such, but a situation that includes lots of people. We should be comfortable with that; hopefully it brings you closer to an appreciation for who he is and what he’s doing.
BLVR: One of the things that you just beautifully described is that the work is a product of rural Nevada. We think about Nevada as being this great symbol of isolation or emptiness, a void. But in reality rural places, although people may be few in number, are all about the sustaining relationships small communities make, and the meaning of the work is dignified by the community it generates.
WLF: Look, Heizer does not ever want to be identified as a Nevada artist. He’s very clear about, “I’m from New York and I’m functioning at that level, and people like Richard Serra are my peers and I don’t want to be identified as a ‘Nevada artist.’ It’s just a setting where I happen to make work because dirt is cheap.”
There are a couple of things that I argue with what Heizer has said, and that’s one of them. You watch footage of people working with him, and how they talk and how they come to relate to the works that makes you realize you are in a real place. And it is a rural place, with the values and honors that you’ve described. You’re the first person I’ve heard actually talking about that.
BLVR: I understand that he might see this as separate from the work, but nonetheless you and I are both describing the ways art generates a sense of community. It doesn’t need to be locative, but site and specificity are art’s reagents–they cause things to gather, and that seems quite important as a takeaway.
WLF: No response but simply, yes.
BLVR: We’ve been talking about how we, as outside observers, reconcile works of art as intentional things and as things that grow and live through chance encounters beyond authorship. How should we integrate intent and biography with reception?
WLF: By understanding how complex people’s lives are and how large a universe a single brain is. For example, Heizer’s conceiving of a void was not because he studied it systematically. He happened to be in a place where a lot of people were thinking about these issues: in New York, at Max’s Kansas City. Things resonate, and suddenly you’re dreaming up things you want to make, acts you want to perform. It’s a correlative posing, if you will, of a dualism.
How are two things in any kind of relationship implicated with one another? They’re complicit in the existence of the other. Heizer is very explicit and clear that he is competing with the Empire State building in Double Negative: make something of that scale and provocation, people come play with it. Play takes more energy than any other human activity, including sex. Play has rules. Heizer wants to play with rules, to stretch or break them, to push them as far as they can go without dissolving experience.
BLVR: I like the idea of his strategy of authorship as provocation. He is a provocative guy. But what I like about Heizer is that he thinks provocatively about what works of art can do. I’m thinking in particular of your discussion of how he strategized his works’ role in state politics and national politics around Yucca Mountain and nuclear waste storage. That seems like a provocative intersection for art.
WLF: Most of the older men in his family were provocateurs of one kind or another. Robert Heizer, his father, was the person who put what we call “rock art” into a scholarly setting of anthropology and archaeology. His entire career was fighting his professional peers because he was determined to have a positive effect on the field of anthropology and archaeology. And he did it by absolutely standing up for what he believes. His uncle, John Heizer, was someone who was against everything, including the fact that he was sitting at a table eating a steak–he would quarrel with anything,
Heizer is around strong, smart, male figures of authority, and he adopts those mannerisms and way of talking into the art world. It served him well even though it’s sometimes extremely uncomfortable to be around. I’ve never actually sat down and queried Michael Heizer about politics–I couldn’t tell you who he votes for or any of that stuff. He just got too heated when politics came up.
BLVR: I’m interested in what you’ve described as his intense conviction. He operates from principles that may have to do with his own estimation of self-worth, but also are derived from the idea of doing the right thing for posterity, respecting the subject or objects of his interest and preserving them and allowing them to be treated respectfully.
WLF: He definitely believed that about the Incas, and the ancient Egyptians. You know, they acted out of reverence through art to make big monuments and when you harness a lot of labor to make something monumental. … That’s an empowering act for a society.
BLVR: I see the needle you’re trying to thread. Harnessing a lot of labor or manpower towards some monumental effort can be seen as authoritarian, but can also be seen as a statement of collective social or societal beliefs in some way.
WLF: Yet we’re back to dualisms that are constructing each other.
BLVR: Right, and to break out of that binary, let’s go back and talk a little bit more about the paradox that is Michael Heizer. He is a person who operates politically. I don’t mean electoral politics, but his way of behaving is derived from deep senses of respect, dignity and to a certain extent tradition. His demographic profile is not one a museum consultant would consider part of art’s core constituent audience. He’s a deeply paradoxical figure in that sense. One of the things that I love about him, from afar, is that he has come up with a philosophy that respects and understands art and is not contradictory to his belief that art—of how society should run. He believes there is a central place for art in the contemporary world.
WLF: He gets upset with people trying to describe his work in terms of other things because he is genuinely a purist.
BLVR: As someone who goes to his work I appreciate the results that such purity creates. When I went to Double Negative for the first time, I found it incredibly disappointing. You drive up to it. It’s shorter; it’s stubbier, and as you describe, you kind of happen upon it. You can get lost, but it’s also hard to miss. But then, because of his formal rigor, and the depths with which he understands locality and so on and so forth, this incredible vista onto context is what he provides. And so, in a sense, for me, his conviction that art comes before life produces a situation where a viewer uses art as a lens to see the world.
WLF: I try to remember what it was like when he actually created those works like Double Negative. What it looked like in 1971 was different from what it looks like now. I don’t mean physically in terms of process taking place, I mean in terms of the social and cultural imaginations. He just went somewhere we haven’t been before, and you never would have been. You come upon his works, you know, at that time, in the 70s, and it was so thrilling because you just went, “Are you serious? You call that a work of art?” and not only that but it’s affecting in an unsettling way and a very powerful emotional way, “how can that be, how is that possible?”
BLVR: My favorite essay on Double Negative is Philip Leider’s “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”—
WLF: I know it. It’s the first road trip of the art.
BLVR: Leider articulates the ways in which his confrontations with art help him see the world differently and he would probably say much more clearly.
BLVR: And so, to your point about creating a novel situation at time, it seems that from the earliest moments, some critics have understood Heizer’s work as being repercussive, as allowing people to move forward with new ideas from that encounter with new things.
WLF: Robert Hughes’ idea of “the shock of the new” was the New York zeitgeist at that time. It became a dangerous trope in becoming a contemporary strategy, a career, and that’s not at all what those guys were about.
Look at Patricia Johansson. She has the first solo gallery show of minimalist art in New York—and she had also taken apart an abandoned railway line and put down colored planks for 1500 feet, and that wasn’t done to shock anyone. That was done as a kind of, investigating the world. “What happens if I do this?”
BLVR: Mhm. it seems to speak to at least two different things. One is what you’re describing as a mode of making art that’s investigative. The other, which we keep coming back to, is the formative role of community and discourse in shaping how those investigations go forward.
WLF: You’re pushing every boundary, and that means you are pushing yourself physically in terms of labor, and it means you’re pushing everything you’re ingesting intellectually, and everything that you’re physically putting in your body. You’re just running hard.
BLVR: You’ve been writing about art for a long time, and you approach it from the perspective of a writer as opposed to an academic scholar. What do works of art do in contemporary society?
WLF: I went to Switzerland five years ago to look at a commissioned piece of land art by Michael Heizer. It’s up in the mountains, accessible by a one-lane road that passes underneath a one of the largest dams in the world, and it’s in a cow pasture that’s been leveled off. The work consists of three circular 2’ deep walls of steel set into the ground, creating a trench with a gravel surface. If you walk up to this thing you can sit on the edge of these circles and put your legs in them. I talked to Heizer before I went about that work, and his response was typical, he says, “I don’t know why the fucking Swiss want to put a fucking work of art in the fucking Alps where its already so fucking beautiful, but it’s a fucking good work.”
WLF: And I said, “Right, okay then. I’ll think about that.” And he’s right on all accounts, he’s exactly on brand. Why would you do this? It’s a nice sculpture, but what’s it have to do with being at the dam and why is it there?
Why do they still want to bring more art into the Alps? It’s not Heizer things, it’s more about integrating all kinds of works of art and performances and installations, and social actions. The Alps are a progenitive landscape for a lot of people in the western world because they are the archetypal mountains of our imagination. And if you pair such art with that, especially contemporary art, it’s pretty interesting, and very intense. The astonishing works of art and juxtaposition with the landscape–that’s also unimaginable, the works of art are trying to compete with the landscape. And yet they are trying to become part of life in the landscape.
BLVR: Do you know when City will open? This is something everyone asks me.
WLF: City, to my understanding, is basically finished. There are things around the edges that need some maintenance, I’m sure there’s always going to be stuff to do, but basically you could, if allowed, go there now. The limiting factor is what Heizer once said to me, “While I’m here I don’t want anybody messing with this stuff. Once I’m gone, I don’t care,” so it’s not that we have to wait until Mike passes or anything to see it, but, you know, it’s not going to be open-invitation for, I think, a long time.
I assume it’ll be like Lightning Field—that’s the model of these projects that’s been discussed for years. You make a reservation, go in a small group, experience it over a certain period of time, and then go away. Probably other large land art pieces like Charles Ross’ Star Axis down in Mexico and James Turrell’s Roden Crater in Arizona will be, too.
BLVR: Kanye financed Roden Crater.
WLF: Apparently so, he’s given, like, seven figures. And that’s good.