Why Double Negative Is Not Positively Counter-Hegemonic

By Clark Doman ’23

The Earthworks movement of the late 1960s and 1970s is perhaps the clearest counter-hegemonic impulse of American art during the 1945-1970 period. In a novel attempt to escape the obsessive commodification of art by the private art market, galleries, museums, and the general public, artists like Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, Nancy Holt, and Michael Heizer created art that is physically impossible to commercialize. By utilizing the minimalist aesthetic and building off Robert Morris’s movement of sculpture from the gallery or museum to the outdoors, Earthworks artists constructed “huge, site-specific sculptures made of, on, and literally in the land” throughout various remote sites in the American Southwest (1). Through its size, malleability, and unique “negative” sculptural style, Heizer’s Double Negative (1969) exemplifies the countercultural elements of the Earthworks movement, such as the abandonment of the gallery and the significant demands of the in-person viewer. Yet the work also reveals the movement’s many shortcomings, including commodification through sponsorship and photography, harmful environmental impacts, and disrespect of indigenous Southwestern history. Despite Heizer’s attempt to reject the widespread commercialization of 20th-century art, Double Negative is naive, destructive, and fails to escape the art market. 

Rejecting traditional sculpture that fits in a gallery, takes up material space, and stays constant over time, Heizer’s Double Negative displaces an enormous amount of dirt and sandstone. Located in the Nevada desert atop Mormon Mesa, Double Negative exemplifies Heizer’s goal of creating art on a massive scale. Double Negative features two meticulously constructed trenches that are thirty feet wide, fifty feet deep, and a total of 1,500 feet in length. Moreover, the trenches required 240,000 tons of desert sandstone to be “displaced” by explosives and bulldozers. Heizer wanted to create art that competes with “a 747, or the Empire State Building, or the Golden Gate Bridge,” implying that his monumental scale resembles and critiques the American military-industrial complex and capitalist urbanization (1). Despite the scale of the project, it does not consist of additive material substances. Instead, the two trenches face each other across a valley in the mesa’s plateaus, forming a seemingly thick, connected “negative” space. Heizer claimed his work was “in opposition to the kind of sculpture which involves rigidly forming, welding, sealing, perfecting the surface of a piece of material,” indicating that his grandiose scale and “negative” sculptural style intentionally rejected the traditional norms of the art world (2). Heizer’s irregular lack of material in his sculpture draws from John Cage’s infamous 1952 composition 4’33” that completely lacked music. Also, the fact that the trenches of Double Negative have eroded and been re-smoothed by Heizer further emphasizes the rejection of commodification since the piece does not stay the same over time, much like degradable Funk art by artists like Bruce Conner. By creating a massive sculpture of nothing that changes over time, Heizer effectively subverted the traditions of sculpture and disabled the art market’s hopes of directly buying and selling his art. 

In addition to its size and unique “negative” style, Double Negative’s remote location deep within the desert of Nevada’s Moapa Valley rejects brick-and-mortar art institutions while also serving as a pilgrimage site for viewers that want to experience the art in person. Some prominent art market institutions that the Earthworks artists intentionally discarded were physical places like galleries and museums where art is shown and sold. Double Negative’s physical remoteness intentionally eliminates those institutions from interacting with the piece. Furthermore, the general area around the work of art is devoid of anything that resembles a gallery or museum. There is no admission fee to see the piece, and there are no signs with a written description nearby, allowing visitors to freely view Double Negative without being exploited for revenue or forced to agree with a singular interpretation. 

The remoteness of Heizer’s piece also takes a toll on the viewer who wants to visit the art in person, unlike museums or galleries that are typically indoors, air-conditioned, and located in major cities. Eighty miles outside of Las Vegas, visitors often struggle to find the piece because there are no signs, and Mormon Mesa has multiple ravines that slightly resemble Heizer’s creation. Finally, viewers must come prepared with the proper equipment to stay safe in the sizzling Nevada desert because there are no benches, or shaded areas close to the site. Through refusing to create art for an exhibition but that instead requires a pilgrimage from in-person visitors, Heizer rejects the commodification by “the parasites in art” and forces his audience to think of his work as more than something that can be easily viewed at a museum or purchased at a gallery (1). 

Despite the many ways that Heizer’s art dismantles the consumerist tendencies of the mid-to-late 20th-century art market, sponsorship and photography still commodified Double Negative. Because Heizer’s piece was a project of immense scale that required heavy machinery and many hours of labor, it was costly, eventually needing funding from Virginia Dwan, the heiress to the 3M fortune who sponsored many Earthworks projects (1). Although Dwan supported how Heizer’s work was impossible to exhibit in a museum, she relied on the medium of photography to artificially capture images of Double Negative that she could show in her New York City and Los Angeles galleries. Heizer and other Earthworks artists considered photography, film, and video “primary artifacts” of their land art.  However, these media allow for the easy commodification of their work that they strived to avoid (1). Considering how photos are flat, lightweight, transportable, and easily replicable, images of Double Negative arguably make the project more commodifiable than traditional sculptures. 

Even though photography and video partially commercialize Heizer’s work, they also introduced his art to a much larger audience. Moreover, people who saw images of Double Negative in Dwan’s galleries were potentially more likely to want to visit the remote site in person than if they read a written description. Finally, contrary to Heizer’s motivation to eliminate art institutions from his work, Dwan gifted Double Negative into the Museum of Contemporary Art’s permanent collection in 1985 (3). Although Heizer’s sculpture and its remote location critique the commercialization of art, the medium of photography and Dwan’s sponsorship perpetuates the American consumerist attitude about art that Heizer tried to denounce. 

Through his naïve attempt to escape cultural commodification, Heizer created ecologically and socially irresponsible art. Given that the desert ecosystem is one of the world’s most fragile, Double Negative’s blasting and bulldozing of 240,000 tons of desert sandstone horrifically affected the surrounding environment. Despite Heizer’s counter-hegemonic motivations, the creation of Double Negative treats the desert ecosystem as a blank canvas without its unique cultural, historical, and environmental history. Sadly, his artwork resembles the American military’s irresponsible tests of nuclear weapons in the Southwestern desert, albeit on a smaller scale. Heizer has said that he liked to work in nature because it “satisfies my feeling for space” and it was the “only place where I can displace mass.” But this selfish, experimental impulse does not justify his demolition of the natural environment and his disrespect of the indigenous communities who have lived in the Southwestern desert for centuries (2). Although Double Negative is in many ways a countercultural piece of art, it blatantly disregards the fragile ecology and complex history of the American Southwest through its reckless destruction of nature.

While Heizer’s Double Negative strays from the traditional norms through its size, “negative” sculptural style, instability, and remote location, it fails to completely reject commodification because of its sponsorship and the medium of photography, and it carelessly discounts the ecological and historical importance of the American Southwest. Like many pieces in the Earthworks movement, Double Negative could not physically show in a gallery and required significant effort from viewers who wanted to visit in person. Still, photos of the massive trenches shown in Dwan galleries artificially commodified the counter-hegemonic work. Also, the art’s destruction of a fragile ecosystem and disregard of indigenous history proves Double Negative to be doubly harmful. 

Clark Doman is an American Studies and Economics double major. His article was originally written for Erica Doss’s American Studies course ‘Off the Wall: American Art & Culture 1954-1970.’

References

  1.  Erika Doss, American Art of the 20th-21st Centuries, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 198.
  2.  “Discussions with Heizer, Oppenheim, Smithson,” Avalanche (Fall 1970), reprinted in American Artists on Art, From 1940 to 1980 (1982), 184.
  3.  Museum of Contemporary Art, “Double Negative,” https://www.moca.org/visit/double-negative.

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