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Everything needs an origin story, even 340-ton sculptures

by Danielle Sommer | Off-Ramp®

Early image of artist Michael Heizer (4th from left) and quarry crew, with the 340-ton rock that will form part of Heizer's sculpture, "Levitated Mass," in the background. Image courtesy of Danny Johnston

If all went according to plan this Saturday morning, the L.A. County Museum of Art received its newest and largest acquisition: a 340-ton granite boulder, which will sit on top of a 456-foot-long concrete slot – walkable by museum visitors – in LACMA’s north lawn. Known as “Levitated Mass,” it's the result of over 40 years of work by artist Michael Heizer and a slow, eleven-day journey winding along dozens of Greater LA surface streets. But where did it come from? And why *that* rock?

“They claim we went to the moon, but they didn’t have to go through thirteen, fourteen cities in Southern California to get there. That’s the only reason they made it.”

So says Danny Johnston, a retired rock salesman and project coordinator for Paul Hubbs Construction, which operated Riverside’s Stone Valley Quarry at the time that artist Michael Heizer found the boulder. Heizer started as an artist in the 1960s as part of the land art movement, using earth and stone as his medium. Most of his work can’t be seen in a museum but in remote parts of the Nevada and California desert.

Heizer first visited the Stone Valley Quarry early last decade. According to Johnston, Heizer started “small,” selecting 8- to 10-ton rocks, and then moved on to 60-and 70-ton rocks, which he relocated to Nevada.

“And as time went on he told me about this one deal he’d always been looking for a big enough rock to do...” Heizer had originally sketched out “Levitated Mass” in 1968, but failed to find the backing. And his vision hadn’t gotten smaller – with memories of trips to ancient Egyptian and Mexican ruins with his father, an anthropological archeologist, Heizer “was wanting a 1000-ton rock.”

And then one day in 2005, after a mostly routine blast in the quarry, the rock appeared.

“Well, it kind of reminded me of a big chocolate kiss, you know, the little ones? The shape is similar to that, it sat right down on the bottom of the big part and went up pretty much to a point, you know. I thought it was a neat-looking rock because it had different faces, you know, it wasn’t square or round – it looked like a cut stone, almost.”

Johnston immediately called Heizer.

“And sure enough, as soon as he seen it, he knew which one I was talking about.” The next thing Johnston said? “I told ‘em, I said the thing is, Mike – it’s huge. You can’t move it, it’s too big. There’s no way that one’s going to go.”

They auditioned company after company for the job.

“We had a guy, and I won’t mention any names, but they had two D-11’s and a 992, that’s the largest Caterpillar loader and the two largest dozers; all three of them hooked to that, trying to pull it away from the face, so it wouldn’t be damaged, and they moved it six inches. All day long. Five hours on it. That’s how massive and heavy this rock is.”

Four years later, LACMA finally found a suitor for the rock in Emmert International. Emmert employee Rick Albrecht supervised the move. Albrecht said the company had to design a trailer specifically for the job—one of the largest of its kind.

“What we built is a carrier beam trailer. The main frame is 132 foot long, or 27 foot wide. The piece is suspended inside the carrier, and it’s holding the weight of the rock and stabilizing it, and this is what we’ll use to transport down the road. Our overall length will be 274 feet from bumper to bumper, from pull truck to push truck, and we basically will just roll down the road and we’ll get there in 10 days.”

Michael Govan is the director of LACMA and a longtime friend of Heizer’s. Part of his vision for LACMA is to anchor the museum with large-scale sculptures like “Levitated Mass.”

“There’s something very magical about a large stone – so many ancient cultures made large-scale architectonic sculptures because it has such emotional power. I think that’s what the sculpture is intended to inspire in the viewer.”

Govan added, “I know the press has given a lot of attention to this 340-ton megalith, but the sculpture is the marriage and the contrast of two forms: a found object in nature – the rock, which is incredibly beautiful California granite – and the supergeometric, crystalline, modern-looking slot. One is very long, one is concentrated in weight. One is sort of human – made of concrete – one is nature-made. One is sleek and geometric, one is rough. One is very empty (the slot) and one is very weighty (the rock).”

We asked, “Was the title always “Levitated Mass?”

“Yes, Levitated Mass, because – it’s what art is, is to levitate the weight of something of our culture, of history. You levitate something so it can be seen, so it can be light.”

The arrival of rock at LACMA is just the beginning for “Levitated Mass”—the museum has to place and secure the rock, as well as finish landscaping the area around the slot. LACMA says they’re shooting for early summer.

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