Michael Heizer, at Gagosian Gallery, on May 8, 2015. (Photo by Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post.)

He has long been viewed as a mystical cowboy artist, unyielding, unforgiving and rarely interviewed. Michael Heizer has lived for decades about as far as a man could from the glass-clinking, New York gallery set. So there was considerable excitement last week when the artist, now 70, emerged from the Nevada desert for what would likely be one of the most significant gallery shows of his career.

Walking through Gagosian Gallery’s sprawling space on 24th street in New York City, Kara Vander Weg, one of the gallery’s directors, stood between an 18-ton slab of granite named “Potato Chip” and a crackling, 12-ton rock of iron ore called “Asteroid.” The pieces were suspended above the floor and would sell for roughly $1 to $2 million, she said.

“Considering the rarity of the work and his place in history, it’s very fair pricing,” she said. “It’s an exciting moment and I think for collectors, it’ll be an exciting moment.”

The Gagosian show was just a part of the excitement. This fall, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles will screen “Troublemakers,” a new documentary by art historian James Crump that includes a focus on Heizer. And last week, as workers made final adjustments to the series of enormous steel objects that gave the Gagosian show its title, “Altars,” word was breaking of an important development at “City.” Heizer’s life’s work is a monumental piece of land art he’s been building since 1972. It now stretches for more than a mile or the same distance between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.


“City” by Michael Heizer.

“City” by Michael Heizer.

Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada) told the Post last week that he’s confident the White House will protect the piece and potentially proclaim it a national monument. He’s been pushing that idea as part of an effort to protect more than 700,000 acres in the desert. Reid has already pitched President Obama directly and a draft of a proposed directive to be signed by Obama has started circulating.

Reid is one of those lucky enough to have seen “City,” which is on private land owned by Heizer, meaning you can’t just drop by on your gyrocopter for a peek.

“The visuals are dramatic,” Reid said. “Seeing nothing for mile and miles and then, out of the middle of nowhere is this massive thing. This really unusual man has spent a lot of his life doing it and doing it himself. He doesn’t assign work to other people. He’s actually out there with heavy equipment and shovels to show you what a perfectionist he is.”

On Friday, at Gagosian, about 10 journalists walked through the sprawling gallery for a preview. Michael Govan, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art director and a longtime supporter of Heizer’s work, ran a finger over one of the black, stenciled patterns Heizer inked onto the surface of the white, steel “altars.”

He referenced the way so many large-scale pieces today are conceived by an artist but produced somewhere else. That’s not Heizer.

“After you see everything machine made, I’m touched by this idea of the handmade object,” he said. “This was done outside, in the desert.”

More than anything, Govan was pleased to know Heizer’s work would be on view.

“So many young people have not seen this language,” he said.

The gallery was full of activity, installers doing a few, final tweaks, floors being washed and the small group of journalists being hustled in for a walk through and then out to a lunch at a nearby restaurant. They would be gone by the time Heizer arrived mid-afternoon. (Back at the gallery, a noticeably frazzled Virginia Coleman, Gagosian’s longtime communications director, shoo’d me away, fearing I might get in the way of a deal she’d made with the New York Times to provide exclusive access to Heizer.)

Heizer, himself, seemed relaxed as he walked through the space. Singer and writer Rosanne Cash, an admirer, had stopped by for a private tour. She brought him a copy of the colorful, thick catalog for the “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats” show now at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. He smiled, telling her about blasting her CD as loud as he could while on his ranch. Govan tossed a rubber chew toy across the gallery floor for Tomato, Heizer’s border collie.

Govan is the one who asked Larry Gagosian to go see Heizer a few years ago, which started talks about the idea of an exhibition, Heizer’s first in New York in years. Gagosian had something few others could offer: The 9,100 square-foot space that’s capable of showing the largest pieces.

“We had talked about this as the “City” project was finishing,” said Govan. “Mike is an artist. He wants to make sculpture. In order to do that, you need a dealer. You don’t just make giant sculptures by yourself out in the desert. Who are you going to sell them to, who is going to fund the construction? It’s fortunate that it all worked out and he got this great show.”