Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 8, 2017

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

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 occasionally shoot pictures in museums when photos are permitted, primarily for my own later reference. You don’t need to see my rendition of any great work of art. You can find professional reproductions in books and online. Besides, I’d rather spend my time in the gallery looking, not thinking about working the camera.

On two recent visits to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), I finally took the opportunity to investigate an outdoor installation that’s been at LACMA since 2012. Not only can one photograph it, the monumental scale of the installation practically cries out to be photographed.

What is it?

It’s a rock.

A big rock.

Levitated Mass Brad Nixon 7934 (480x640)

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.

Levitated Mass Brad Nixon 7011 (640x468)

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 7940 (480x640)

There’s something thought-provoking about standing beneath 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 7937 (480x640)

I can think of several ways to consider 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 monument 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 — in human terms — 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 view, 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.

Some of the photographs in this post and select images from Under Western Skies are available on Click on the linked photos or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky image portfolio.

© 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.


    • I have reconsidered my earlier post on whether the boulder at LACMA is art. It’s a good question, especially for a very large installation at a major art museum. “Art” really defies precise definition. It depends on whether one’s standard is broad or narrow. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and so is art. For me, a strict constructionist, the boulder doesn’t work as art. That said, the boulder still gives meaning to what art is.

      I see the boulder as in the tradition of Dada, which some have denominated “anti-art,” and as such has a certain irony when something so large is the focus of an art museum. Marcel Duchamp, an early proponent of Dada during World War I in the early 20th C., would probably have loved this huge rock (which he would have called a “found object,” or a “ready made,” not made by the artist) being passed off as art. Duchamp once offered a urinal placed upside down and signed “R. Mutt” (ready made object) as his sculpture entry to an exhibition in New York, which was summarily rejected by the exhibition’s organizers (even tho’ the exhibition was “open” and they had promised to admit anything to the show.

      Many people enjoy Dada works because of their intellectual component, tho’ they are rarely an object of beauty or inspiration. So here, the boulder serves to recall a part of art history during a turbulent and uncertain time a century ago, and guide us to a realization of what art may or may not be, which ultimately will be a reflection of the times we live in.


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


  3. Very Beautiful


  4. This is what’s become of art… A rock stuck on two concrete walls. I really don’t know how the these “artists” dare to call themselves such. And to the art community, the ones who actually enjoy watching such garbage and pay 43 million for a painting that’s completely blue (by Barnett Newman), you all need to get your heads checked. If you were to call the ceiling of the sistene chappel holy, you could classify modern art as demonic.


  5. I’m reading this backwards and had no idea you mentioned “intentionality” when I wrote my previous comment.

    Once again, though, I will say yes -the reason being that I don’t think the statement is just about the rock. It’s about the experience or interaction with the whole exhibit–which includes the suspension and the trench. Putting an unexpected object in an out of context setting also says something. It creates many questions in the observer’s mind and thus is continually interactive.

    Liked by 1 person

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