A Land Art Pioneer’s Adventures in Time and Space

Despite its audacious ambition to map time, “Star Axis” is far smaller in scale than either Turrell’s or Heizer’s projects. But that, paradoxically, is part of its emotional power. Every granite step to the oculus seems imbued with Ross’s Zen-like determination; you can’t help but imagine the hundreds of sunsets he has experienced there in silence. “His project,” says Govan, “is not only for us to meditate on time and light. It’s also Charles’s mediation, and you feel that when you’re experiencing it. The calculations, the moving of stone, the mixing of concrete, the collaboration with those same workers all those years. There’s a humanness to it.”

HUMANNESS, HOWEVER, DOESN’T pay the bills, which is yet another reason to marvel at Ross’s particular achievement. Through the decades, “City” and “Roden Crater” have been bolstered by massive financial and emotional support from institutions including the Dia and Guggenheim Foundations. Friends of “Roden Crater” and the nonprofit Skystone Foundation maintain a vibrant fund-raising effort — the pop star Grimes staged a surprise performance at the last benefit, where the billionaire founder of the online gaming company Zynga pledged $3 million. Such support has allowed Turrell to focus over the years on his vast studio practice, which has included profitable private commissions as well as a 50-year retrospective at LACMA that opened in 2013. Heizer, who by 2012 hadn’t had a gallery for decades, was broke and living alone on his ranch, also was resurrected: That year, Govan commissioned the permanent installation at LACMA of a Heizer piece called “Levitated Mass,” a 340-ton white boulder that was moved laboriously over 11 nights from California’s Jurupa Valley. The ensuing feature film made of the journey jolted interest in “City,” and in 2015, the gallerist Larry Gagosian gave the artist his first show in years, with paintings from the 1960s and ’70s and a giant hunk of iron ore that sold for more than $1 million. Not long after that show, the gallerist moved the artist to New York so he could make a series of new paintings — his first in decades — that sold out instantly.

Ross, on the other hand, mostly has gone it alone, which is partly why “Star Axis” has taken this long. The SoHo loft was originally 10,000 square feet, but in 2008, to raise funds for the next stages of the project, he sold off 6,500 square feet of it to a private family. There is no staff of enthusiastic supporters to make cold calls to raise money and throw parties. Though museums and galleries still seek him out for commissions and exhibitions, he typically lies low, and is represented not by an enormous gallery with multiple global outposts but the small New York dealer Franklin Parrasch.

His longtime patron — granted, an important one — has been Virginia Dwan, an heiress to the 3M fortune, who was among the most influential gallerists of the midcentury, with spaces in Los Angeles and New York. She was the first to show Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes and Robert Rauschenberg’s 1962 “Combines” (for the record, only one painting sold), and works by the light artist Dan Flavin, the conceptualist Joseph Kosuth and Niki de Saint Phalle, the French-American sculptor and filmmaker. After Dwan closed her doors in the early 1970s — the increasing commercialization of the art world turned her off — she began to put all her energy into land art, becoming one of the few noninstitutional backers. De Maria turned to her to finance a smaller precursor to “The Lightning Field,” and she underwrote “Spiral Jetty.” She purchased a square mile for the work that made Heizer’s reputation: “Double Negative” (1969), a pair of trenches, 30 feet wide by 50 feet deep and 1,500 long, dug on either side of a canyon near Overton, Nev.

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