After 50 Years, Michael Heizer’s ‘City’ Opens in Nevada Desert

The American artist has spent most of his life building a megasculpture that earns comparisons to ancient ruins and abandoned highways

Complex One
A section of the megasculpture called Complex One © Michael Heizer / Courtesy of the Triple Aught Foundation / Photo by Mary Converse

In the middle of the desert, a few hours north of Las Vegas, lies City. The site in question—with its smooth dirt mounds and massive concrete structures—is not a real city; it is the name of American artist Michael Heizer’s megasculpture. Next month, after 50 years and $40 million, City will finally open to the public.

Heizer, 77, began constructing City in a remote Nevada desert in 1970. At the time, the young artist was “the toast of downtown New York,” per the New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman. Though Heizer initially funded the project himself, notable art institutions and collectors have chipped in over the last half-century. In 1998, supporters of City formed the Triple Aught Foundation, a nonprofit that oversees the project and has built a nearly $30 million endowment for it.

Stretching a mile and a half long and half a mile wide, City is reminiscent of ancient ruins and ceremonial structures in its scope and intricacy. In appearance, though, its sharp concrete angles and perfectly groomed paths lend it a modern sensibility.

City sprawls out in the Nevada desert
The site stretches a mile and a half long. © Michael Heizer / Courtesy of the Triple Aught Foundation / Photo by Joe Rome

“Aesthetically,” writes Kimmelman, who started visiting Heizer and his work in the 1990s, in the Times, “City can strike a visitor at first blush as a mash-up of Chichén Itzá and an unfinished highway interchange or an empty motocross track.”

Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Triple Aught Foundation board member, has abandoned such comparisons.

“I only compare it to itself,” says Govan in a statement. “It’s an artwork aware of our primal impulses to build and organize space, but it incorporates our modernity, our awareness of and reflection upon the subjectivity of our human experience of time and space as well as the many histories of civilizations we have built.”

A monument at the site titled 45°, 90°, 180°
A monument at the site called 45°, 90°, 180° © Michael Heizer / Courtesy of the Triple Aught Foundation / Photo by Joe Rome

Nearly every element of City consists of basic, natural materials like rock, clay and dirt. The bulk of those materials come from the sculpture’s Great Basin landscape, and they are collected in “minimally invasive” ways in order to preserve the area’s native plants and wildlife, per the Triple Aught Foundation. In 2015, museum officials and the late senator Harry Reid petitioned Congress to protect City and its surrounding area. Their efforts were fruitful, and former President Barack Obama signed a proclamation that designated some 700,000 acres of Nevada’s desert, which encompassed the unfinished project, as a national monument.

Starting September 2, Heizer’s life’s work will finally be accessible to a curious public. Reservation will be available through the Triple Aught Foundation’s website.

“Visiting City is an off-road proposition in more ways than one,” writes Artnet’s Taylor Dafoe. “Heizer’s masterpiece, which has been called the largest artwork in the world, contains no walkways, lookouts, or directional signs; there is no beginning, no end. It is designed to be explored on foot and by instinct.”

Complex One and Complex Two
 Complex One and Complex Two © Michael Heizer / Courtesy of the Triple Aught Foundation / Photo by Joe Rome

For now, Heizer plans to offer only six tickets a day, per the Times. After flying to Alamo, Nevada, visitors will be driven to City, where they can wander for just a few hours. Visits will always end before dark; the site doesn’t have cell phone service—or even streetlights on nearby roads.

But those looking to understand City will have to take the trip. “I am not here to tell people what it all means,” Heizer tells the Times. “You can figure it out for yourself.”

City will be open to visitors with reservations from September 2 to November 1.