Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 8, 2017

Levitated Mass. Asking “Is It Art?” on a Big, Big Scale.

This weekend I saw an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

I enjoy art museums, but they’re difficult to report here for a number of reasons, one of them being the inadequacy of words to represent primarily visual experiences, combined with the fact that one is often prohibited from photographing the works of art. I’ve shot plenty of pictures in museums where photos are permitted, but you don’t need to see my rendition of any great work of art. You can find professional photos in books and online. Besides, I’d rather spend my time in the gallery looking, not thinking about working the camera.

When I left the exhibit, I finally took the opportunity to investigate an outdoor installation that’s been at LACMA since 2012, but I’d never seen. Not only can one photograph it, the installation is on a monumental scale and practically cries out to be photographed.

What is it?

It’s a rock.

A big rock.

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If it were simply a rock — even one 21-1/2 feet tall — it almost certainly wouldn’t be “art.”

One factor that puts it in the realm of art is that there are — intentionally — a number of ways to look at it. I’m afraid I have to use the well-worn phrase, “experience it.”

“Experiencing it” includes walking around it.

Or, in this case, under it.

Levitated Mass Brad Nixon 7010 (480x640)

The name of the installation is Levitated Mass.

The artist, Michael Heizer, had been working on the idea for a number of years until he found the right rock, and got LACMA and lot of contributors to come up with the significant funds to build the installation and move the rock from about 60 miles inland to the museum on Wilshire Boulevard, west of downtown Los Angeles.

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The boulder weighs 340 tons. The concrete trench is 456 feet long and reaches a depth of 15 feet beneath the rock.

Levitated Mass Brad Nixon 7013 (480x640)

There is certainly something thought-provoking about looking up at an object that weighs more than 2 houses … especially in a place prone to earthquakes.

Getting There: Half the Fun

In a city obsessed with “getting there,” traffic-challenged Los Angeles was the perfect venue for the spectacle of transporting the boulder to the site.

A specially-designed articulated transporter 296 feet long with 196 wheels carried the boulder, traveling only at night to minimize traffic snarls. LACMA reaped enormous publicity as the trip — requiring 106 circuitous miles around obstacles — needed 11 nights and attracted throngs of people along the route while television news stations deployed reporters and helicopters to cover each night’s progress.

The video below provides a look at the rock on its transporter:

Here is the Levitated Mass entry on LACMA’s website.

There’s not a rush to see it. Heizer said he designed the work to last 3,500 years.

Art That Challenges?

For well over a century — since at least Manet — a common question has been, “Is it art?”

One of the important museums of the world says Levitated Mass is art, because LACMA has dedicated 2-1/2 acres of prime civic space to an installation that’s going to be there for a long time: not insignificant. Perhaps asking the question is, itself, the very essence of art, at least in the 21st Century.

Levitated Mass Brad Nixon 7009 (640x474)

I can think of a lot of ways to try to get at what Levitated Mass signifies (if it signifies anything). One angle is to consider the builders of Stonehenge, Carnac, the Pyramids, the Aztec Temple of the Moon or Borobudur in Indonesia. What were those monumental builders up to, and what were they saying? Levitated Mass certainly challenges us to consider the notion of putting an object in a specific spot with the intention that it remain there for — essentially — all time, not to mention what it means to strive for such permanence in a city famed for its penchant for remaking itself every decade or so.

Levitated Mass Brad Nixon 7014 (480x640)

I’m interested in your reaction. Please leave a comment.

Visiting LACMA

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is at 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles CA 90036. You can visit and walk all around and under Levitated Mass without paying museum admission. The installation is on the north side of the museum complex along 6th Street, which parallels Wilshire Blvd. Museum parking is not free, and parking in the area is at a bit of a premium. This LACMA link provides more information about access, public transportation, parking, etc. LACMA is an exceptionally large museum complex, the La Brea Tar Pits are literally next door, and the Petersen Automotive Museum is a block away.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Levitated Mass is the work of Michael Heizer and is the property of Los Angeles County Museum of Art.





  1. I think that if one has to try so hard to find meaning in a rock that had been moved from its natural setting and stuck in the middle of a large metropolis, then its qualification as “art” is very doubtful. I don’t intend to offend, but it strikes me as more of a typical L.A. publicity stunt than as art.


  2. You asked my questions. Your response or any others will still leave us asking the question, is it art?


  3. Very Beautiful


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