Once in a while, in the deluge of “information” washing over us every day, we encounter something that is immediately unforgettable, something so staggering, perplexing, or simply stunning to behold that we can’t let go of it. It demands contemplation.
It happened to me when I was a young man riding a motorcycle in Western Colorado and I came upon the Valley Curtain at Rifle Gap, a monumental work of art that was my introduction to the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. That stunning construction was both beautiful and irrelevant of discernible purpose. What was it for?
In an interview many years later, I asked them why they create these works? “They are works of beauty,” Christo said. “and if others like them we are pleased. But we don’t do it for them. We do it for ourselves.”
“They cost many millions of dollars to build, but you only let them stand for fourteen days before you dismantle them,” I said. “Why?” Jeanne-Claude said, “We want to imbue them with the tenderness we humans feel for that which cannot last.”
I’ve thought about those aspects of art and the workings of artists ever since. I ran across another example of that character in learning of Michael Heizer’s colossal sculpture “City” in Garden Valley, Nevada, which is opening to the public by appointment only beginning next month after more than 50 years of construction and some $40 million expended. Read about it (HERE) and (HERE).
As interesting as the story are the 1100 comments received by the Times in the past few days, which range from laudatory to condemnation. Like the works of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Heizer’s sculpture is environmental art, which is quick to provoke controversy. Unlike theirs, his work is meant to last far more than a couple of weeks, though one suspects erosion eventually will have its way.
The question that always remains with me after reading about this sculpture and the 77 year-old artist who made it his life’s work is: why? What is this compulsion that drives some people to do things like this? We see airports, office buildings, other constructions of this size and rarely think twice about them because they have a clear purpose: transportation, commerce, things that are comprehensible. But this is art. And we ask: why?
Heizer was a happening artist in New York City in the 1970s. He virtually disappeared into the Nevada desert for the next 50 years. This is by any measure his magnum opus and like it or not it is stunning. But why did he do it? I doubt if even he could give us the answer, beyond saying perhaps that he simply had to. These things are a mystery.
I said once before in this space that when I was a young man I naively believed the role of the artist was to reveal the truth. But I learned over time that truth is elusive, the oft-cited riddle wrapped in an enigma, and that the workings of this fascinating life are mysterious. I’ve come to believe that the role of the artist is to deepen the mystery.