Rock Of Ages


Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass, now on display at the Los Angeles County Art Museum.
Michael Heizer

LA’s most famous rock is at home above a 456-foot-long cement trench behind the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Land artist Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass has assumed a prominent location on the LACMA grounds—visible from Sixth Street and within skipping distance of Renzo Piano’s splashy new additions, including the Resnick Pavilion, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, and Ray’s restaurant. “The Rock” is already a local celebrity—its journey from a quarry in Riverside County attracted national attention and a unique occasion for public celebration at its stops along the way. But despite the hoopla surrounding its trip to LA, Levitated Mass is not just about hype.

On the day of Levitated Mass’s unveiling to the public, LACMA Director Michael Govan distinguished the artwork from Chris Burden’s Urban Light installation at the museum’s entrance, which beckons the public to come in and play on the busier Wilshire Boulevard side of the grounds. Govan called Levitated Mass a “temple” that creates a “big, empty space for quiet—a more contemplative environment.”

Approaching Levitated Mass, a Cor-ten ring creates a weathered threshold around the installation—stepping across brings the visitor into the orbit of the levitating rock. Entering the 456-foot concrete trench below the rock allows visitors to access the negative space below. Descending into the 15-foot-deep trench and standing below the rock provides the crux of the installation’s transporting escapism. “As you descend into the trench, it’s just the sky and the rock,” said Govan.


Two stainless steel plates at the center of the trench bear “almost all” of the rock’s weight, according to Bill Hanson of Matt Construction, which acted as general contractor for the project. The embed plates are cast into either side of the trench, and the central segments of the trench are reinforced with rebar. According to Meg Thomas, of project manager Aurora Development, the rock was chipped to create a contact system for the embed plates and then lowered onto the plates using a gantry system. Once lowered onto the plates, the rock was set in high strength grout and drilled to the plates at nine points using one-inch threaded rods held in place with epoxy.

Many of the design details of Levitated Mass prioritized technical requirements above aesthetics. The cement trench rises above the decomposed granite of the surrounding grounds to waist height—otherwise the building code would have required a glass railing. ADA-mandated handrails make an unavoidable contribution to the interior of the trench. And two of the concrete trench’s more noticeable characteristics have more to do with nuisance abatement than artistic panache: the skimcoat cover on the concrete will make graffiti easy to wash away and recoat, and triangle notches on both ends of the trench are meant to keep skateboarders off the concrete.

The $10 million installation has already drawn thousands, but the question remains whether it was all worth it. Mixed reviews in the art world indicate that not everyone is sold on the expense and environmental impact, but the public interest sparked by the rock is indisputable, and visitors drawn to LACMA by the rock will find a solid and permanent presence. Said Govan: “The whole point is to see this static, huge object amid skyscrapers, billboards, and cars. What you get is a contrast with the energy of the city.”

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